Americans Work Too Damn Much
Workers in the United States have lost control of perhaps the most important aspect of their lives: their time. Getting that time back is crucial — for workers’ well-being, for democracy, and for weakening the tyrannical power of the boss.
- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, according to John Maynard Keynes. In 1930, the economist predicted that his grandchildren would be working fifteen-hour workweeks. Technology would have advanced to the point two generations after his own that workers’ average time on the job would be a fraction of what it once was. We would all be struggling to figure out what to do with so much free time.
The opposite has turned out to be true. Instead of being freed from the tyranny of the clock, American workers are more shackled to it than ever, working longer hours, being subjected to erratic schedules, figuring out how to work more just to make ends meet, and watching an increasing amount of control over their lives slip into the bosses’ hands.
In his new book Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream (Basic Books, September 2020), Jamie McCallum, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College, examines why and how US workers are more tied to the clock than ever, the damage this has meant for workers’ well-being, and what an agenda to reclaim that time could look like. We spoke by phone in September. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Explain the overall situation for the American worker and time on the job.
There are three dimensions of it. One, the rise of overall hours worked since the 1970s. Two, an increase in volatility and the unpredictable nature of workers’ schedules. Three, workers not having enough hours to make ends meet.
That’s a contradictory situation, no? People are working too many hours, but also not enough hours. There’s a lack of control of people’s overall time both at work and when they’re not at work. Either way, people are subjected to a tyranny of the clock.
That’s right. People often ask me about this one statistic that work time has increased significantly since the seventies for all wage and salary workers, which it has. But if you dig into that, you get a different picture. Most people are familiar with the idea that tech workers and lawyers and corporate lobbyists put in seventy-hour weeks. They still work the longest out of everyone. But it’s low-wage workers who have increased their work time the most.
So the number of hours that the highest-paid workers work is converging with the hours worked by the lowest-paid employees. Is that because the lowest-paid employees, who have been subject to decades’ worth of wage stagnation, are trying to make up for that stagnation through working more hours?
Yes. The working rich today tend to pull away from the rest of the people below them wage-wise through bonuses, higher salaries, etc. People at the bottom do it through working longer hours.
You talk in the book about this history of discussions of work time. It’s similar to what the late anthropologist David Graeber talked about with technology — he argued that years ago, we all thought we were going to be living in this techno-utopia, something like The Jetsons, in which technology would provide for many of our needs and make life better and easier. Instead, we now live in a pretty dystopian world. That’s also true of work time.
Thinkers like John Maynard Keynes used to say that we would soon have more free time than we knew what to do with. Instead, we find ourselves working longer hours than ever, and our work is always expanding into every nook and cranny of our lives. Instead of arriving at a utopia, we’re in a place where work never ends.
Exactly. Keynes thought that we would have a fifteen-hour workweek by something like 2030. And there were good reasons to think that. For about a hundred years, the number of hours worked declined. The workday declined, the workweek declined. But this began to shift in the seventies, when workers began returning to working longer hours. But Keynes was onto something. I think that he thought increased production and compound interest and all the other rising indicators of our economy would lead us to a leisurely society. He was right about the compound interest part — he was right about the profitability. But he was wrong about the time.
Somebody was collecting all the wealth during that time and benefiting off of the advances of the economy and society, but it wasn’t workers.
Leisure actually is expensive. Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt wrote a great history of this and argues that in the 1940s, people began desiring more leisure. Leisure costs more money, so they stopped desiring shorter hours to work longer, to make more money to pay for leisure.
When you say they lose their time, you mean they lose control of their life. They do not have control over the most basic thing upon which everything else depends — their time.
Whoever controls labor controls time. They control when we have weekends, when we raise our kids, when we eat, when we sleep, when we get up in the morning, when we go to bed at night. There’s a rhythm to it that is very attached to work. When our work time is out of our control, so is our other time.
To me, that is criminal. So there was a moral or ethical polemic that was running through me when I was writing this book. A “time squeeze” is really about people being pushed around. That is a really dismal way to live.
Not to mention that you can’t have things like democracy without having the time to participate in civic institutions, in political activism, in anything outside of your work.
Practicing our freedoms and having a basic democratic existence requires having free time. If people are working fifty, sixty hours a week, or they’re desperately trying to scrape together a hodgepodge life, it’s hard to organize. All those things are disrupted when we have the kind of working rhythm that we do.
In addition to being unable to participate in democratic life, the workplace itself is the furthest thing from a democracy. It’s a dictatorship, in which your boss is king. And then when you’re home, in your time that you were supposed to have to do whatever you want, you’re instead worrying about work — the undemocratic regime of the workplace extends into your home.
Statistics capture leisure as time, but what we call leisure is typically spent recovering from work in order to return back to work. And even aside from democratic norms, we need time for holidays or enjoying breaks or the great outdoors. You need space and real distance to actually ponder and consider your life. And if all you’re doing is thinking about the job you just came from and preparing to go back to it the next day, you don’t have time to do it.
Talk about the details of this time regime of twenty-first-century work. How is the time regime enforced? What are the mechanisms?
I became interested in this project because of the “fair workweek” movement, which I think is one of the most visible examples today of workers organizing for the control of time. The movement highlights a lot of low-wage retail, food service, health care, and transportation workers whose work lives are disrupted by periods of unpredictable and volatile breaks. They’re unpredictable by design. Their schedules are purposely removed from their control and often given to either an algorithm or a supervisor, both of which will make the schedule that is obviously best for that particular company, not the worker.
I worked in retail when I was younger, and I’d be scheduled three weeks in advance. That’s just not the case anymore. I remember doing interviews on 34th Street in New York City, a main shopping area, and in Burlington, Vermont. When you talk to sales clerks, they’ll say, “I got my schedule three days ago. But I’m being sent home early today at 3:15 PM.” They’re sent home at the exact moment they’re no longer needed. Those schedules are based upon a predictive algorithm that calculates the optimum amount of salespeople and sales hours on the floor based upon the weather, the time of year, etc.
So your schedule is more likely to be cut. Or alternatively, you’re more likely to be held over. Workers become completely exhausted, not just by being overworked, but by being overrun by the unpredictability.
Talk about the Dunkin’ Donuts worker you profiled.
Maria Fernandes worked at three different Dunkin’ Donuts locations in Northern New Jersey. At the time, she was supporting a partner who also had children. One morning, she got off of one shift around 6 AM but was not scheduled to start her next shift until hours later. She slept in her car overnight to “nap” before work. She never woke up, from gas fumes. She died in her car in her Dunkin’ Donuts outfit.
For a while, she became a symbol of the low-wage, overworked American worker. And for a while, there were calls from union leaders and activists to make legislative changes in response — there was even a law proposed in her name.
It is an incredibly sad story. And there are plenty of people who are still working those jobs and who are still subjected to those same schedules who may have suffered similar tragedies, but we don’t know their names.
You also write a lot about the new technologies that are used — not just algorithmically defined scheduling, but all kinds of wild technologies used to hyper-Taylorize work in places like Amazon. You talk about a sociometric badge that some MIT scientists created that was put around employees’ necks that records all interpersonal interactions through an embedded microphone and measures how often you talk to members of another gender. Does your voice convey confidence or anxiety, are you waiting your turn to speak or constantly interrupting others? The company is called Humanyze.
It sounds like Black Mirror. Humanyze actually has stopped using the badges. I interviewed the guy who invented those badges. He actually seems thoughtful about what they’re doing compared to a lot of companies who are just like, “look, managers need greater control.” Other software can access your webcam and take random screenshots of your workspace from wherever you are at random times throughout the day.
Workers have always hated this kind of surveillance. Ever since Frederick Winslow Taylor walked into a factory with a stopwatch and a slide rule in the 1890s, workers have hated managers looking over their shoulders. Today, we see the evolution of that idea. It’s less through a foreman and more through computers.
The important part to remember about this stuff is not that it’s Orwellian or whatever, but that it is the result of a disorganized working class. As unions began to decline, managers gained more control over their workers. As subcontracting became a popular way to save costs, and workplaces couldn’t bargain over the use of subcontracted labor, managers began increasingly using electronic surveillance technology to monitor them from afar. This paved the way until today, where it is a common practice among in-house workers, too. Though workers routinely report they don’t like it, they’ve been virtually unable to resist it. It’s actually increased during the pandemic.
You wrote the book largely before the pandemic, but I can only imagine that just as companies like Zoom are having a field day because we badly need their technology under quarantine, the tools that you’ve described, like the one where your boss can take over your webcam and watch you while you work at home, are also being used more against workers.
Right. We’ve known a lot about this in the consumer realm for a long time. It’s really about data collection. This is also the main point of Shoshana Zuboff’s writing about “surveillance capitalism” — it’s a new regime of collecting data. For a long time, companies like Google and Facebook did not know what to do with that data. Now they do, and they can use it against you. They can use it in performance evaluations, they can do it when it comes to wages, raises, or bonuses. They can discipline you or fire you based upon your productivity. But they would not be able to do it as well or easily if workers had more power to resist those things.
That issue of worker power is why we don’t have the flying cars and fifteen-hour workweeks, right? Those ideas were advanced at a time when union density was at its highest. When workers don’t have that control, technological development continues apace, but is wielded against workers rather than for them.
There is a clear need for us to figure out ways to have technological innovation in a way that decreases our overall work and eliminates the most arduous jobs. That innovation can’t come at the expense of people’s livelihoods; it should make people’s lives better. In the fifties and sixties, as workplace automation arrived at industrial factories, there’s some evidence that workers and their unions, which were much denser and stronger, were able to translate that automation into free time or higher wages. Today, we don’t have that same ability.
Let’s talk about robots and gig work and the general erosion of work in the United States and throughout the wealthy world. Your discussion of this in the book is one of the most nuanced that I’ve read, because on the one hand, breathless discourse along the lines of “the robots are going to take all our jobs” is common. On the other hand, you have some people who say this rhetoric is overblown — that there’s actually little evidence that robotization and gig work are much more prevalent than they always have been. This is just what capitalism looks like: instability, people not having control of their jobs and of their lives. You take from both of those arguments.
It’s difficult to assess it clearly. I agree with you that there are sort of breathless and Pollyannaish takes on both sides. The most recent and celebrated one was presidential candidate Andrew Yang: his campaign was all about the fear of automation.
There’s certainly evidence that robots are getting much cheaper and much easier to put into workplaces. I profiled a company that basically rents robots; if you have a problem, the company develops a robot for it, and you can rent it for however long you want it for. When you’re done with it, they take it back. That greatly lowers the barriers to entry to bringing automation on to a particular kind of assembly line or a particular kind of production process.
But I was interested in the way we talk about robots. I uncovered stuff from previous generations where people were very fearful of the potential monotony of a life where we are just adjuncts of machines at work, or where machines do all of our work for us. Isaac Asimov once said we’re all going to become machine tenders. Today, fear of robots isn’t about boredom or malaise; it’s about losing a livelihood. I think that has something to say about the different kinds of regimes that people were working under those different times.
There’s a clear history of people embracing technologies that limit arduous work. I think people would welcome that kind of technology today. The problem is that we don’t have the control to do it. Instead, we get a lot of fear and scapegoating. When we don’t have control over technology, we either blame technology or blame other people, rather than the people who are actually in control of this technology.
Workers and unions need to think carefully about having these kinds of issues in their bargaining contracts. There’s actually a recent increase of people talking about app use in contract negotiations. Ways that workers can exercise some degree of control or leverage over how technology is used are crucial.
What about gig work? You profile gig workers and talk about what their work lives and nonwork lives are like. But there’s a similar way that gig work is talked about: that we’re all going to be gig workers soon. How much truth is there to that assertion?
I’m that person who strikes up an oafish conversation with the Lyft driver. You get really different reflections: some people really do see their job as a side hustle and enjoy some of the freedoms that come with it. And some people see those freedoms very differently.
I profile people who drive for Uber Eats. They can work whenever they want, right? Wrong. They can’t work when people don’t want food. And they have to work when people want food that costs the most amount of money and they’ll get the largest amount of tips. So they’re actually seriously constrained. I interviewed a woman who spent time driving around each night from 9 PM to 1 AM, often with her six-year-old daughter in the back seat, delivering meals. She didn’t feel she was free to work whenever.
App workers are workers and should be recognized as such. They should have rights and liberties and benefits that come with being a worker. The independent contractor status has been such a lie and a way to exert so much more control over that workforce.
Which is something under discussion right now, particularly in California.
I have a strange sense of optimism that they will win. There’s a lot of organizing going on in the gig economy by drivers and delivery workers. Even since the pandemic started, there were maybe half a dozen work stoppages at a number of important gig employers. That activity will lead somewhere.
Let’s talk about the ideological aspects of this time crisis. That was one of the most interesting parts of your book: you talk about the ideological justifications for the time regime — the “do what you love” ethos, the idea that you need to not just work a job to pay the bills but find a job that you find fulfilling on a deep personal and existential level. This is just an ideological justification for shitty work at longer hours.
It’s one thing to understand how and why low-wage workers end up having to put in more time. But relatively well-off people’s work time growing is something different. Culture is clearly part of this, but there’s also a material basis. This is one of the things that people don’t appreciate enough about the “meaningful work” discourse. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the cynical recuperation by managers and gurus about doing what you love, blah. But we actually all want meaningful jobs. We deserve them. If we have to work to survive, at the very least, we should be able to like what we’re doing for eight-plus-hours a day.
I’ve always found it strange that some people are willing to write off the idea of meaningful work altogether as if it’s a capitalist plot. The problem is not that people are encouraged to find meaningful work. You write in the book that that is a right that we all should have. The problem is when that concept is used to paper over working conditions and pay that are getting worse and worse.
It’s no surprise that the “do what you love ethos” exploded at the very same time that conditions for workers began to stagnate. It’s not some elite conspiracy — there was a genuine desire to leave monotonous, tiresome, grueling factory labor behind. And there was just as much a real desire to burn down your cubicle like they did in Office Space. But those desires were easily recuperated and reenlisted in a campaign to say, “if work is meaningful and work is fulfilling and work is good for my soul, then more work must be better.”
The National Labor Relations Board had to rule against a proposal by T‑Mobile that workers had to maintain a positive work environment. The NLRB ruled that no, you can’t do that. You can’t force people to like their job. When I talked to dancers at the old Lusty Lady strip club in San Francisco, they explained that management included a “fun clause” in their contract that insisted their work was fun. The dancers said, “maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but that’s not your decision. That’s up to us.”
Speaking of San Francisco, you also were in the Bay Area to talk to tech workers. You have a funny scene where you get on a Google bus and are kicked off for asking tech workers about their jobs. Separately, you go to this swanky Silicon Valley bar where . . . I don’t know, deals get made, I guess. And a guy who works at Google tells you, “Everywhere you look, you hear people talking about ‘meaning.’ They aren’t philosophers . . . They sell banner ads. What do they know about meaning?”
There have been numerous books written on the marriage of the counterculture and the computer age. It’s such an interesting historical switch. People were interested in a “let’s destroy the office, let’s have fulfilling workdays, let’s have freedom to experiment with new kinds of employment relationships.” And now they’re leaders of a movement to keep people at work longer and longer through a couple of perks.
You argue at the end of the book for a time agenda that workers could unite around, around this shared experience of not having control of their work lives. What should the twenty-first-century time agenda look like? What should it include? What should be on the banners of the movements in the street demanding their time back?
The old banners used to say basically “fewer hours for more money.” For a long time, the labor movement was successful at winning exactly that. During a crisis, especially like the one right now, it often seems tone-deaf to talk about fewer hours when people are unemployed, when people aren’t getting CARES Act funding, and unemployment insurance is running out. But there’s a historical precedent here. During the Great Depression, the government used work-sharing benefits. They spread the work around to avoid laying people off, reducing hours, and using government programs to subsidize you at your previous wage. We should be doing more of that.
Protests around health care, or to expand the purview of care in general in an economy, are significant, too. We could cut and paste programs from some peer nations in Western Europe. We work about 400 hundred hours per year more than the Germans, 250 hours more than French workers. They’re not starving — they’re doing fine. State provisions are important not only because they’re good for people’s health care, but because it allows people to step back from work. But half of Americans get their health insurance through a job, and minimum-hour requirements and eligibility statutes require that people continue working, often longer than they want, just to maintain their health care. It’s tragic and it’s criminal.
When I interviewed workers from Ohio from a laid-off auto plant outside Dayton, Ohio, they said, “Health care should be taken off the union bargaining agenda. It’s a driver of lockouts, it’s a driver of disruptions, and most importantly, we spend so much time arguing about health care that we can’t talk about higher wages and hours.” So universal health care, Medicare for All, is an important goal of anyone thinking about shorter hours.
You also talk about the upsurge in the labor movement around teachers.
We think of teachers having the summers off, right? I am the son of a teacher myself, and remember our kitchen table piled high with books for the entire summer, because that’s when you plan lessons and do a lot of other important work ahead of the school year. Recently, we’ve seen teachers getting not only summer jobs to supplement their income, but night jobs after school.
But teachers have taken so much leadership in reorienting their workplaces through strikes, and strikes that do more than just talk about teachers’ work issues. They talk about race and racism, immigration, housing, access to food. There’s no reason why workers can’t also talk about reduction of working hours.
When it comes to contract negotiations, this is what people call “bargaining for the common good.” Free time should be a public good. And we should use our moments of negotiations with employers to think about winning society-wide agreements to decrease work time.
Let’s imagine this pandemic is over. What’s number one on the “Jamie McCallum Agenda for Free Time?”
Oh, wow. [Long pause] I’m stalling just thinking about it . . .
Our work-time regime has made you unable to even consider this question because it feels so far outside of the realm of possibility.
It really does. I’ll say two things. My thesis adviser in graduate school was Stanley Aronowitz, one of the great labor scholars of the last half-century. I wrote him in June and said, “I’d like to meet with you.” He wrote back, “there are three reasons to become a professor: June, July, and August. Come to me in September.” I was like, man, I want that guy’s job and the freedom that comes with it. One of the most rewarding things about having the freedom to write this book was the freedom I had to go around the country and meet people, talk to workers, and hear what they’re dealing with. I want to be able to do more of that.
The other thing is, anyone right now in America with a small child is just going absolutely insane during this pandemic. So I want more schools, daycare camps, playgrounds, whatever, to be open 24-7. I would like that to change not only for my son’s benefit, but just for the general mental and emotional sanity of the society.