What Money Can’t Buy: The Massive Shift of Hours from Families to Work

At the beginning of the month, I posted on issues raised by Michael Sandel in his new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, and said that I’d post a follow-up. A death in my family held that post up. Here it is now:

According to Michael Sandel, “The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.” As I said in my earlier post, the most thought-provoking parts of Sandel’s discussion come when he broaches the issue of what happens to a society as citizens increasingly come to see the world through the lens of economics. As Sandel puts it: “A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.” In it, citizens no longer see their dealings with others in terms of morality or justice, but in terms of satisfying preferences and getting the best deal they can.

In this post, I want to consider the spread of market logic when it comes to an important change in the United States that hasn’t received nearly enough attention: the massive increase during the past few decades in the number of hours that adults in families spend in paid work. It’s not that individual workers are working longer hours; rather the movement of women into the workplace since the 1970s without a corresponding reduction in men’s work hours has resulted in a large-scale transfer of hours to the paid workplace when you take families as units. The result is that the adults in American families now spend far more total hours working for pay than they used to spend.

This transfer of hours means that families have fewer hours then they used to to engage in pursuits besides paid work, like housework, caring for sick children, socializing with friends, volunteering at children’s schools, keeping their spouse company – you name it. American visitors to Europe are often struck by how, after 5 pm, workplaces clear out and bars and cafes fill up with people socializing; in the U.S., far more energy is channeled into work.

Although we accept it without much scrutiny, it should be puzzling that U.S. citizens are willing to spend so much of their lives in the paid workplace. Certainly there are workers in impoverished countries who work more hours than Americans out of necessity to survive. The American situation, though, is exceptional for the fact that citizens work so many hours despite the high level of GDP per capita.

In comparison to other wealthy countries, the average American worker works roughly ten more weeks a year of work than Swedish workers. And we work far more even than other wealthy countries whose citizens are comparatively high on the hours-at-work scale: for example, in both Canada and the United Kingdom, employees work roughly the equivalent of six fewer weeks a year than their American counterparts.

It used to be largely men in the United States who worked these long hours. Beginning in the 1970s, though, women began to join them. In 1965, married mothers with children worked an average of six paid hours per week; by 2000, they worked 23.8 hours a week. As a consequence, the total paid workload of families has increased significantly. In two-parent families it has risen from 53.8 hours to 66.3 hours. In other words, more than 12 hours every week has been transferred from the lives of families to employers’ work time.

What role might the permeation of neoclassical economic concepts and the marketization of Americans’ lives play in the phenomenon of more and more time devoted to work? To start, as more goods become sold for cash in our society, which Sandel shows us has been the pattern in U.S. society for decades, money comes to matter more. It used to be that you needed time to wait in line for the Empire State Building; now you can pay to cut the line. This gives citizens more incentives to work than to engage in leisure or other non-work activities.

Neoclassical economic views have also helped to produce the minimal labor and employment protections we have for employees in the United States, at the same time they have made it more acceptable for employers to engage in “sharp bargaining” with employees over wages, benefits, and job security. The result of weakened legal protections for workers and a culture that makes it more acceptable to bargain hard against employees with respect to pay is to decrease wages (particularly at the low end of the wage spectrum where workers have fewer skills to bargain with), decrease the number of “good jobs” that give sustainable wages along with benefits, and increase the insecurity of workers as employers have shifted to employment models in which workers are hired as temporary employees. In turn, the decrease or stagnation of the real wages of most employees since the 1970s has led many mothers into the paid workforce so that their families can retain their living standards.

As labor economist Richard Freeman argues, the growing gap between good jobs and bad jobs in the United States, combined with increasing economic inequality and insecurity, create both a carrot and stick that pushes Americans to work long and hard: The carrot is that Americans who work hard have a chance of being promoted, moving up in the wide distribution of earnings, and experiencing substantial earnings increases. The stick is that Americans who lose their jobs suffer greatly because the United States has a minimal safety net for the unemployed. This creates a culture in the United States where work is paramount.

The culture of work this engenders creates problematic results for both families’ caretaking needs and for their general wellbeing. It causes Americans to take less time off for sickness, maternity, and other personal issues even when this leave is available to them. American workers have significantly less vacation time than in other advanced countries: on average two weeks, compared to 4 to 6 weeks in other advanced countries. Yet a 2010 survey showed that only 57% of American workers took all of their available leave. As Richard Freeman notes, “the more job insecurity the respondent reported, the fewer days of vacation that person took.”

Finally, this culture of wealth and work is facilitated by the messages to buy that barrage citizens in our marketized society. In contrast to the public squares of Europe, the privatization of America means that its citizens have fewer public spaces in which to congregate; Americans therefore spend more leisure time in commercial places like shopping malls, which surround them with consumerist messages, and which fuel citizens’ focus on material goods. Even when citizens visit public spaces like ball fields and auditoriums, they are bombarded by ads that push citizens to buy, and buy more. The subtle and not-so-subtle encouragement to see the good life as connected with a consumerist vision of Pottery Barn duvets fuels more emphasis on earning money to support this vision of the good life. This means that citizens are not only working more, they are spending their nonworking time shopping rather than in other pursuits. And the next generation is being prepared for more of the same, as even young children are inundate by marketing messages from early in the morning to late in the evening.

This is my last post for this stint as guest blogger.  I thank Solangel Maldonado and Dan Solove for the opportunity. 


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12 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    If you read French, you might be interested in the work of feminist sociologist Dominique Méda, who has written several scholarly and popular books on the topic of work. One of her key points is that the usual discourse about work presents a dichotomy between work and leisure, whereas actually for most people the real choice is between work and family. She also has a lot to say about “the permeation of neoclassical economic concepts and the marketization” of peoples’ lives, and of their work in particular. A good place to start is her very clear and concise volume in the « Que sais-je? » series from Presses Universitaires de France (the inspiration for OUP’s Very Short Introductions), « Le travail », (4th ed. 2010).

  2. Shag from Brookline says:

    This post reminds me that I should reread Kurt Vonnegut’s 1950s first novel “Player Piano” for the future it forecast with so few, only the managers (MBAs?) and engineers, required to produce the goods and services Americans require, leaving many with leisure time. (Vonnegut did not address wars in this novel, which upset the apple cart from time to time.)

  3. Maxine Eichner says:

    Thanks, A.J. I hadn’t heard of Meda before, and will do that.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    Sorry to hear of your loss, Maxine.

  5. The cornucopia of conspicuous consumption promised by capitalism and the material and psychological insecurities intrinsic to the labor market, particularly in a nation with a fragile history of organized labor and a prevailing neoliberal ideology unabashedly hostile to organized labor as such, does indeed hold out both the carrot and stick to account for an obsession with work. And in a political and cultural climate in which those on the Right are motivated to dismantle the weakest type of existing welfare regimes in the northern hemisphere (i.e., its ‘liberal’ variant, which is outperformed on any number of criteria by its corporatist and social democratic counterparts) and the corresponding economic philosophy that justifies its existence, namely, Keynesian (let alone neo-Keynesian) welfare economics, nothing should surprise us about the dominant ideologies of work and leisure (in which these two activities are conceived in pathologically polar terms such that work has precious little of the connotations of leisure as part of eudaimonia or human flourishing on the one hand, and leisure is afflicted with passivity, mind-numbing entertainment, escape from reality, or feverish hedonism on the other). It is Keynesian economics that heretofore has softened the periodic blows endemic to capitalist economic cycles: its manias, crashes, and panics, and calls to mind Ian Shapiro’s lament that

    “[t]he ambiguous moral status of Keynesianism and welfare economics has always inhered in the fact that they appeal to the short-term interests of the disadvantaged (such as unemployed workers and firms on the verge of bankruptcy during recessions) by ensuring subsistence, creating employment, and expanding credit, yet these policies are geared in the medium term to sustaining the system which generates those very disadvantages—hence the ironic force of Joan Robinson’s quip that the one thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited at all.”

    The majority of those politically well-positioned to lead us out of our current economic malaise into an economic world significantly different from the capitalist one remain infatuated with the “aristocracy of capital” and unperturbed by the utter commercialization or commodification of all social relations. Economic power remains hostage to the prioritization of the welfare of the wealthiest as both a necessary and sufficient condition to satisfying the general welfare and the generalizable interests of the many. Material uncertainty and psychological insecurity are part and parcel, the bone and marrow, of labor markets determined by the terms and conditions of private investment and the deleterious effects of finance capitalism. The distorted and artificial needs and the individually and socially harmful desires generated by hyper-industrialized casino capitalism finds the masses in a state in which they feel an overwhelming need to be psychologically indemnified by the possession and consumption of as many goods and services as possible, in a socio-economic world in which conspicuous consumption exists side-by-side by recalcitrant pockets and regions afflicted with inexcusable relative and absolute poverty.

    Even before the latest precipitous economic downturn, there was a growing consensus among political scientists about the need to account, in Robert Lane’s words, for the “combination of growing unhappiness and depression, interpersonal and institutional distrust, and weakened companionship in advanced market democracies, in which people are, with important exceptions, reasonably well-off.” Or, as the philosopher Daniel M. Haybron notes,

    “The United States is by a wide margin, among the most affluent nations in human history, and many Americans enjoy unprecedented freedom to shape their lives—for those individuals, a great success in moral and economic terms. Yet no one ever accused us of ‘knowing how to live.’ This is perhaps because, arguably, we don’t. Surveys find an overwhelming majority of Americans reporting that Americans have badly placed priorities. And there is no evidence that Americans grew any happier over the recent decades that witnessed astonishing growth in material standards of living. Self-reported happiness has remained essentially flat, while rates of suicide, depression, and other pathologies have soared.”

    We need to ask the most fundamental questions if we are to begin addressing possible ways to free us from this oppressive economics and culture of “wealth and work.” Again, Haybron:

    “The modern era’s overriding preoccupation, arguably, has been the betterment of the human condition, inarguably, a noble aim. Yet the real focus has been on our material conditions, with far less attention paid to the question of how we are living and what our way of life does for us, or to us. Once it has well enough satisfied the basic constraints of morality, the chief question facing any civilization is: do its members enjoy a reasonable level of well-being? We probably won’t get much of an answer to this question if we simply ask what they have got. For human well-being mostly depends not on what people have but, among other things, on what they do with what they’ve got. A better question, arguably, is this: do they live in a sensible manner? A decent response to this question will require us to understand whether their way of life suits their natures. And central to that project, surely, will be seeing whether their way of life conduces to their flourishing psychologically. If a civilization cannot muster a reasonably affirmative answer to this question, then we might reconsider whether it is properly called ‘civilized.’ For if people do not flourish psychologically, they do not flourish. Period. It is with the psychology, I would suggest, that the really interesting story about the flourishing of these creatures lies.”

    And calling to mind the extensive literature on the well-known problems associated with equating and reducing well-being to preference satisfaction, Haybron writes:

    “It is commonly thought that someone’s being satisfied with her life creates a presumption that her life is, in fact, going well for her. But most people, in most places, are satisfied with their lives. In some places satisfaction may be near universal. This may lead most people to conclude that they are in fact doing pretty well, yielding perhaps a remarkably contented race. Maybe the conclusion is true; but what if it is not? As Wittgenstein shows us, life has to be pretty grim for a person not to have good reasons for being satisfied with it. (It sure beats the alternative.) Many people may reasonably be satisfied with lives that are not, by anyone’s standards, going well at all. If so, it would be a grave mistake to take their assessments—or our own—as final in matters of personal welfare. [….]

    “The pursuit of happiness is not easy. Given that the basic conditions of our lives, and the way we live, are so heavily dependent on our social environment, we may want to look more closely at the societal dimensions of the question. [….] Even if we are suspicious of using policy instruments to promote happiness, we might at least consider the limits of individual effort, and the importance of context, in shaping how happy we are. Take, for example, recent initiatives to develop and teach methods by which people can make themselves happier. Such efforts can produce very real benefits, and in fact many of the ancients were in a version of same business. While there are legitimate worries about such techniques sometimes reducing to cheap spiritual analgesics, I see no reason why this cannot be avoided. A more interesting question, it seems to me, is how far individual efforts like this are likely to improve human well-being on a broad scale. If the problem lies chiefly in the way you live, and this in turn depends heavily on the kind of society you inhabit, then positive thinking techniques and the like are only going to get you so far. [….]

    While moderns have been right to place psychological states like happiness at the center of well-being, the character and value of these states is surprisingly elusive. We should not assume that matters of personal welfare are at all transparent to the individual. The potential for error is great. Indeed, it should by now be easy at least to imagine people settling, en masse, for unfulfilling lives. The question now is whether, given the facts of human nature, such a result is anything more than a bare possibility.”

    And should the economy dramatically improve according to standard and well-worn indices, we need to ponder carefully the results of recent research in empirical psychology that endorse conclusions long ago arrived at by Stoics and Buddhists, among others:

    “Human beings are systematically prone to make a wide range of serious errors in matters of personal welfare. These errors are weighty enough to substantially compromise the expected lifetime well-being for individuals possessing a high degree of freedom to shape their lives as they wish, even under reasonably favorable conditions (education, etc.).”

  6. Maxine,

    I may have missed it in one of your posts, but has there been a reference to Juliet B. Schor’s classic study, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992), which includes a chapter on the “insidious cycle of work-and-spend”?

  7. Erratum in 5. above: “And reminding one of the extensive literature on the well-known problems that follow equating well-being with or reducing well-being to preference satisfaction, Haybron writes…..”

  8. Maxine Eichner says:

    Patrick, thanks for this very thoughtful response. I haven’t read Haybron, so just ordered The Pursuit of Unhappiness. And I haven’t gone back Schor’s Overworked American in several years, but will do that now. I’m just beginning a book on the role of government in buffering (or not buffering) families from market forces, and how this role has changed over time, recently in response to neoliberal ideology. Is there a chance you’d be willing to read some sections of it as I get further along?

  9. Of course, I’d be happy to (no pun intented). And you might be interested in some of the other references I made at Faculty Lounge where I turned this comment into a blog post!

  10. Maxine Eichner says:

    Thank you, Patrick. I just read your Faculty Lounge post and very much appreciate the references list. I’ve been carrying Debra Satz’s book around with me without having read it yet; I’ll read it now.

  11. Eric Hodgdon says:

    Good post. Good background on why more hours worked results in less time for society’s support system – the family.

    Decades ago, the 32-Hour work week should have been implemented, instead a different, and foreign sort of thinking came into the federal government and reduced the standards of civility whereby economic anarchy, of a sort, was sold as a blessing of Liberty and Prosperity. By getting rid of bothersome regulations, the Federal government embarked on a Marxist Re-Distribution of wealth upwards.

    Along with lowered standards of civility regarding work, an increase in Adventurism ensued with collateral reductions in constitutional enforcement. So, by now our current state of government is no longer valid, for we do not have a republican form, instead we have a Dictatorship Democracy, with voters doing but little.

    However, this is what the People desire. This is the American system in its full bloom, a beacon to the World.

    So, we, collectively, have this un-Constitutional system by choice, simply because not enough people object.

    When ~40% dead-weight, utterly useless, and back-stabbing Americans abandon reason, sensibility, and morality by dismissing participation, combined with the ~58%+ who do get off the couch, and usher in one of two political parties into our government’s elected slots, the result is so fantastic as to be unbelievable – our Grand and Glorious system of systems.

    But, it works for the People, because they have chosen to accept, and continue on so.

    And, while this is accepted, these same Americans enjoy greatly working much more than before for the same or less amount of compensation, because it reduces their time wasted in their homes doing the much too difficult job of raising their children.

    See, Americans are a giving people – a much admired trait – and they are such good sports, they do not mind giving the excess labor to the extremely, but suffering, wealthy.

    All in all, a rather good show.

  12. Al Riz says:

    Reading this article and In Praise of Idleness, really makes my day. The idea that 7 billion human beings failed to abolish poverty and to abolish overwork, so sad. We should all have more time to engage in non-work environment, while at the same time have the security of enough money. It just won’t happen. Seven billion brains. Seven billion minds. Wasted.