Long hours of work leave no time for living

from the New Unionist, January 1995, pages 1-2

Running Out of Time

Long hours of work leave no time for living


Millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed. Yet at the same time, those who have full-time jobs are working far more hours and enjoying less leisure time than workers of 25 years ago.

The average U.S. worker today spends about 2,000 hours per year at his or her job(s). In 1969, the average was 1,786 hours. The difference is equivalent to a whole month of added work per year.

Naturally, more time working means less leisure time. A survey done three years ago revealed an average of only 16 to 17 hours per week of leisure time after job and household responsibilities. Today, it is no doubt even less.

The leisure time people do have often can't be fully taken advantage of because they're too tired for the acti vities they' d otherwise choose to do. Many of us don't have the energy for much more than flopping down in front of the TV.

Forfamilies, the total time spent working has increased at an even faster rate because more family members have had to go to work. With real hourly wages on the decline since 1973, the only way to maintain the same household income is to increase the number of hours worked. This means taking overtime when it's offered, working a second job, or having a second or third or fourth family member working outside the home.

We all know the harmful effects of overwork. People get tired and irritable. Without enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done-much less the things we want to do-life is stressful and unpleasant.

Exhaustion and stress can and do lead to illness and lowered resistance to disease. People feel cheated and abused, and they get angry. All too often, the anger is expressed in an aggressive, violent or self-destructive way.

All this takes its inevitable toll on personal relationships. Families break up at an increasing rate, friendships are strained, and the pain is compounded by the guilt and anxiety felt over failed relationships.

Of course, long working hours is not the only reason for these problems. But as long as people don't even have the time to be with and communicate with each other, problems of living together will go unsolved and get worse.

So why don't we all slow down, work less and live more?

Probably everyone except workaholics, for whom work is an obsession or a way to escape other problems of life -- would choose to work less. But most would say they can't afford to, or that their jobs don't allow them to slow down.

In other words, our way of living and working isn't something we can, as individuals, choose for ourselves. We have to live and work pretty much the way the system forces us to.

In the system as it exists today, working less does mean sacrificing things that are part of the standard of living we expect- and it doesn't only apply to luxuries or frills. People are working long hours just to hold onto their homes, keep their cars running and send their kids-or themselves- to college. Most workers desperately want more leisure time, but giving up the income means giving up the means with which to enjoy the extra time.

In addition, being willing to do without things doesn't necessarily mean ending up with more time. For example, because the economic system favors private transportation over efficient mass transit, not having a car means spending a lot more time getting around to do everyday chores.

People feel trapped on a treadmill from which there is no escape. Yet, at the same time workers are working longer and harder for less, the amount they are able to produce in an hour's labor is greater than ever before, and this productivity of labor continues to climb.

Since 1948, the productivity of the U.S. worker -- the amount he/she produces in an hour's work-has more than doubled. Increased productivity comes mainly from advanced "labor-saving" technology. Yet, as all this labor has been "saved" in industry and continues to be trimmed every year, the individual's hours of work have increased and continue to go up.

What these facts indicate is that it is possible to have a secure and comfortable standard of living working far fewer hours than we do now. That is, it would be possible if the workers derived the benefit of thei>- increased productivity, if for every decrease in the time needed to produce the goods and services we consume the workday was reduced by the proportionate amount.

But under the profit system, the workers do not get the benefit of their effort; the owners of business do.

Corporations introduce technology to reduce the labor needed to produce the product or service. But rather than spread the saving to all their employees by having everyone work less for the same pay, they lay off a number of workers in order to pay less in total wages and thereby increase profits.

By lessening the amount of labor needed to make a commodity, the owners can sell it for less and hold onto market share against their competitors, who are also driving down costs by displacing labor. To survive in the competitive market each company must keep cutting its costs of production, which means the workers must be sacrificed to keep the company afloat.

But in addition to layoffs, labor costs can be cut by having the remaining workers work harder and longer. This is done through speedup, or through overtime, which at time-and-a-half is still cheaper than hiring additional workers. Or costs can be slashed through outright wage cuts, the cuts that force people to get second and third jobs to pay the bills.

This is the "secret" behind the irrational situation of having millions of people who are not allowed to work at all or only a few hours a week, at the same time millions of others have to work many more hours than they want.

Both groups lose. But it's better to have a shrinking income than none at all, which is why so many workers accept ever-more unreasonable work loads to hold onto their jobs.

Currently, it takes only about 18% of the work force to produce all the domestically manufactured goods the entire nation consumes and exports, an indication of the great productivity of industry. Other workers produce useful and needed services, such as education, transportation, health care, etc.

But there is still a large percentage of the work force that is "surplus" relative to the number of productive jobs in the economy. These workers are absorbed in nonproductive activity, jobs which are necessary for the functioning of the profit system, but which don't add to the real wealth of society. They work in the financial and insurance industries, in sales and marketing, in government bureaucracies.

Besides this great waste of labor -- and all the skills and creativity these workers have -- much of the productive labor expended in industry is being wasted.

Planned obsolescence to insure a renewing market and profit flow means more labor and resources are used than would be necessary if goods were built to last. To keep the auto and oil companies in business, more cars have to be built and sold each year, which means more efficient systems of transportation have to be kept out.

So, besides the unused and underused labor of the unemployed and partially employed, there is the misused labor of tens of millions of full-time workers.

If all the wasted labor were devoted to productive and socially-beneficial tasks, we could produce enough to provide everyone with a decent standard of living working only a fraction of the time we do today. By dividing the labor time needed in all industries equally among all who can, should and want to work, the workday for everyone could be drastically reduced.

This is not a utopian dream. It is a simple recognition of the facts of industrial production, of the level of productivity technological development has achieved.

But it is a hopeless dream to imagine that an equal distribution of work can be achieved within the capitalist economic system. As long as the technology is owned and controlled by a few, and as long as their profit remains the motive of production, labor will remain a mere "cost of production"-a cost to be lowered by throwing some workers out of jobs while pushing the remaining ones to exhaustion.

If workers want a secure and comfortable livelihood, if they want productive and rewarding jobs, if they want enough leisure time to develop their individual talents and satisfying relationships -- if this is what workers want, they need to organize a new union movement to take democratic control of the industry and technology that makes it all possible.

What can one person do right now to help get the ball rolling? Plenty! She and he can help spread the word about the new economic

democracy by joining the organization that works to spread the message every day -- the New Union Party.