Americans Want More Time to Spend With Their Loved Ones. Capitalism Doesn’t Let Them.

Americans are so overworked that Thanksgiving is one of the rare occasions we have to gather with our friends and family. We need an economic system that actually provides us the free time to spend precious days and hours with our loved ones.

We need our people, and we don’t just need them on holidays. (Ariel Skelley / Getty Images)

With the annual barrage of media coverage about the “stress” of the holidays, and the accompanying listicles about how to navigate our fraught family relationships, you might think we were a nation of Scrooges. But new data reveals a surprising and wholesome truth: most of us love being with our family and friends.

Spending time with family far outweighs other priorities, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, with about nine in ten Americans calling it either “very important” or “one of the most important things.” No other response came close. Religion and exercise were neck and neck for second place but far behind. Career success trailed those two.

And although the political right has made much of “family values,” this deep desire for family time is uncorrelated with party affiliation — it’s equally true of Democrats and Republicans.

Americans’ definitions of family are inclusive, and not only in the ways that are usually discussed; of the 62 percent who are pet owners, nearly all say their pets are part of the family (I laughed when I read this but of course, in my household, we feel the same way about our cats).

As important as family is to us, Americans also place a premium on friendship. About six in ten US adults report that having close friends is “very or extremely” important to a fulfilling life, a much higher proportion than say the same about possessing lots of money or even being married or having kids.

Unfortunately, our economic system systematically undervalues these priorities. Americans clearly want the company of their loved ones, and not just on holidays. Yet we’re overstressed and overworked even compared to other peer countries. According to a report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on “work-life balance” — illustrated by a photo of an attractive man spending time with an even more adorable cat — Americans are on the clock for hundreds of hours more per year than our counterparts in Germany, and more than any of the other five rich countries in the survey (Australia, the UK, Sweden, Belgium, and France).

We have the fewest paid family leave days and the second fewest vacation days in the world (the only people worse off in this regard are Micronesians). An appalling one in four US workers have no paid vacation days at all. We’re the only rich country with no law requiring employers to offer paid time off. And we feel more guilty about vacation despite getting much less of it.

At the same time, we seem to recognize that long hours smother the relationships that make life meaningful. A full 73 percent of kids wish they had more days and hours with their parents, and most parents say the same thing. Most people — about the same number — crave more time with their friends.

Yet over the last decade, socializing has dwindled: on average, we were around friends about six-and-a-half hours a week in 2013, which dipped to four in 2019. The pandemic made matters worse, pushing that number down to two hours and just forty-five minutes in 2021. While vaccines have helped, our friendships still haven’t recovered.

Along with long hours, the smartphone is widely and rightly blamed for atrophying relationships. Our time spent with friends began to plummet in 2014, just as the market penetration by smartphones reached 50 percent. Teenagers, historically known for being a sociable group, are spending record numbers of hours alone, with devastating effects on their mental health.

Similarly, family dinner time is becoming a rare event, especially for poor and working-class Americans. Only 38 percent of Generation Z reports having regular family mealtimes. Among Americans without a college education, the percentage who grew up having dinner with their families is the same (in contrast, more than six in ten Americans with a postgraduate education had family dinner together). Most parents — more than two thirds — also wish they could share supper with their kids more often, making food-centered holidays like Thanksgiving particularly special (and for many, freighted with pressure to make the most of it).

Thanksgiving is good, but it’s not enough.

We need our people, and we don’t just need them on holidays. It’s time to overhaul this relentless and exploitive system, and live the happier, more loving, and connected lives we all want so badly.