On Labor Day, a thought: Does your overwork cause unemployment? And would a 21-hour week fix things?

Click to learn more about The Restless Project
Click to learn more about The Restless Project
Click to learn about the 21-hour work week.
Click to learn about the 21-hour work week.

Happy Labor Day!  Now, can you answer my email?  I’d like to use this weekend to ask a simple question.  Do you think you work too hard? And does the answer lie in a 21-hour work week?

Naturally, many people reflexively answer “yes” to such a question. Who doesn’t think they’re overworked?  Every freshman in high school already thinks so, I can assure you.

But it’s not an academic question.  How may hours you work — how many hours “we” work — has a profound impact on how we organize ourselves as a society.  It’s pretty simple. When people work less, there’s more work to go around.  More jobs. When Henry Ford made his famous leap to 8-hour work days in 1914, he needed more workers.  (And because he started paying double the going rate, he got them — 10,000 people showed up at his plant the day after the announcement).  My mother will talk wistfully about job sharing during the depression, when 2 of even 3 workers — including my grandfather — would split a job because there weren’t enough to go around.

That would be hard to do today. When jobs involved clocking in an out, and the work involved industrial era tasks like printing newspapers or answering telephones, it was relatively easy to split time.  Today’s knowledge work makes it often impractical to job share.

Meanwhile, smartphones and other always-connected technology have turned the idea of clocking in and out on its head.  People do personal tasks at the office, and people answer work emails at home.  There is no clocking in and out. We can all debate the benefits and problems that creates, but here’s an unmistakable fact: the temptation to work at any time is omnipresent.  Plenty of folks are struggling with defining new boundaries in the digital-age world.   And while realities like martyr complex cause part of the problem, we rarely consider the impact our overwork is having on others.

Overwork might also be called labor hogging.  The work one person does, the less any given company will be inclined to hire someone else.

Of course, it’s not that simple. There are many problems with this analysis.  For starters, many workers are afraid if they don’t put in the weekend email time, they’ll get fired– rather than inspire their firm to hire more workers.   Knowledge work, being so different from piece work, means there is no direction relationship between adding labor and adding productivity.  In other words, there’s a compelling reason to encourage overtime work rather than hire more people. Still, the deeper truth is there, as everyone who’s suffered layoffs during the Great Recession can attest — when companies get away with doing more with less people, they get addicted to it.  I recently did a story about the future of labor in the age of robots, which raised the fear that many workers risk being replaced by machine in the coming decade, a phenomenon that will only make this problem far worse.

Google CEO Larry Page made headlines this summer when he suggested a simple solution: People should just work less.

“The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true,” he said. 

Consciously or not, he was echoing arguments you will hear from groups like the UK’s NEF, which has been articulating the case for a 21-hour work week for several years.  Doing so would solve a myriad of problems, the group argues: “overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably.”

(With a hat tip to reader Rick Sullivan, no relation, who sent me down that path.  While change to a 21-hour weeks sound fanciful, it’s not unprecedented, he said. “Economies experiencing high levels of automation usually have two options: cut the workforce or cut the work week. Before the 40hr work week, Americans worked an average of 70-80 hrs per week. Had we not cut that, as a result of the industrial revolution we’d be at about 50%-60% unemployment today. Well past the tipping point for a society to continue functioning.”)

Of course, the implication is that workers would be paid a decent living wage for what sounds like 3 days of work each week. With machines doing much of the heavy lifting, it’s not hard to imagine the possibility.  But in a country where real wages are shrinking, the work week is growing, and technology has made nearly everyone into a 24/7/365 on-call worker, this sounds like quite the pipe dream. An 81-hour work week seems more realistic than a 21-hour week.


In a story I wrote for BoingBoing earlier this year, I reflected on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where most Americans were introduced to the computer and Disney’s Tomorrowland ride. It promised that machines would make the world much easier and enable us all to live a life of leisure. Instead, I worry, machines have hijacked this movement for their own dark purposes, and now we check work email before we even rub the sand from our eyes in the morning.

It’s something to think about as we celebrate the women and men who argued, protested, and fought for a 40-hour work week and generally better conditions for American workers.   We should honor them by thinking about the way we labor. And by putting down the smartphone and spending time with family and friends.

So, do you work too hard?

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About Bob Sullivan 1332 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.