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.