Sunday, May 30, 2010

How Time was Stolen from American Workers and How We Can Get It Back

At one time, I worked with a lot of survivors of domestic violence. One of the things I learned in training for this work is how gradually abuse can creep up on the victim without her – or him – being aware of it as the abuser gradually conditions the victim to accept it. Consequently, people end up accepting treatment that amounts to attempted murder without questioning it. I believe something comparable has happened in the American workplace over the last few decades, with effects that are hardly less severe than those of chronic abuse.

According to economist and author Juliet Schor, the total number of hours Americans spend working has risen steadily by approximately half a percent per year since the 1980s. In terms of hours, the average American worker added 199 hours to his or her schedule between 1973 and 2000. This translates into 24 more 8-hour days or over 3 more 40-hour weeks per year. This is outrageous, yet hardly anyone seems to question it. In the 1970s, people were predicting that new technologies being developed would shorten the work week, which it very well could have. Between 1969 and 2000, the index of labor productivity per hour went up by 80%. In other words, workers could make 80% more stuff in the same amount of time as they had before. If, as a society, we had been content to maintain the same lifestyles we’d had in the 1960s, we could all have wound up working 20-hour weeks, leaving us more time for our families, communities, volunteer work, hobbies and interests while reducing the rate at which our planet was heating up.