Clocking Out

Can we imagine an economy built for free time?

Livia Gershon | Longreads | July 2018 | 9 minutes (2,261 words)

On May 1, 1886, 80,000 workers marched through the streets of Chicago. As soldiers and private police aimed their rifles into the crowd, “no smoke curled up from the tall chimneys of the factories and mills,” the Tribune reported. “Things had assumed a Sabbath-like appearance.” Chicago, an industrial boomtown, was the center of what became that day a mass labor action; more than 300,000 workers staged a strike across the country. The participants were skilled and unskilled, immigrant and native-born, revolutionary and reformist. What drew them together was a common demand, expressed in a popular labor song that many of the marchers sang: “We want to feel the sunshine / And we want to smell the flow’rs / We are sure that God has willed it / And we mean to have eight hours.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, time had been crucial in struggles between employees and bosses. Newly enlisted millworkers were accustomed to strenuous labor at their woodshops or family farms, but performing repetitive tasks under the control of a supervisor for 12 or 16 hours straight was entirely different. By 1883, P.J. McGuire, head of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, spoke for many in the labor movement when he called the reduction of working hours their “primary object.” When the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions issued a call in 1884 for mass eight-hour demonstrations within the next two years, it unleashed a stampede of workers into union ranks. The Knights of Labor, which organized people across industrial and ethnic lines, grew from 104,066 members in July 1885 to 702,924 a year later.

For many labor leaders and middle-class reformers, reducing workers’ hours was a means to an end: Union heads and their supporters argued that shorter shifts would drive wages up and improve the character of the nation by providing more time for education, religious practice, and political action. But when Daniel T. Rodgers, a historian at Princeton University, looked at surveys done by state bureaus of labor statistics, he found that workers seemed to simply value free time for its own sake. A New Jersey miner, for example, responded to a survey in 1881: “I do not believe that God ever created man in order to spend his life in work and sleep, without any time to enjoy the pleasure of the world.” Massachusetts asked textile mill operatives what they’d do with more leisure, and “most proposed to rest, read the newspaper, visit, look around ‘to see what is going on,’ and spend time with their families.”

Today, full time workers in the United States spend about 42 hours on the job per week, on average, and many are expected to be available by email around the clock. Americans in the service sector often work irregular hours that make it hard to carve out time for anything else; a 2016 survey by Civis Analytics, a data-analysis firm, found that 38 percent of hourly workers had their number of hours change each week, and 27 percent reported day-of changes to their schedules. What do we miss when we can’t set aside time for activities of our own choosing? On a typical weekday, only about 20 percent of Americans have a free hour for sports, exercise, or recreation, according to the American Time Use Survey. One in a thousand takes part in any kind of civic duty, and only 6 percent do volunteer work. In contrast, three quarters of Americans watch TV in their free time—something easy enough to squeeze in at the end of a 12-hour shift or while waiting to see if you’ll get called in.

One might argue, as Nineteenth Century reformers did, that more hours away from work would enable Americans to better the nation and care for each other. Perhaps even more important, however, is the argument made by striking workers who called for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will;” in a rich nation where technological advances allow companies to create more wealth in less time, it seems just that employees should have ample hours to spend according to their own will—whatever that is.


In Chicago, two days after the start of the 1886 strike, police killed several workers who had been participating in the demonstration. On May 4, a rally was held in Haymarket Square to protest the violence. Someone in the crowd threw a bomb; police opened fire; seven officers and at least one civilian ended up dead. In the aftermath of the Haymarket Riot, as it became known, police rounded up labor radicals in Chicago and other cities.

But the movement for a shorter workday persisted, with success. Labor militancy forced employers to reduce their workdays and give them Saturdays off. In the early Nineteenth Century, the average worker spent close to 70 hours a week on the job; by 1920 that dropped to around 50 hours. In 1940, Congress set the standard workweek at 40 hours and mandated that hourly employees receive overtime pay if they clocked out later. During the same period, child labor laws and pension benefits, pushed for by unions and liberal reformers, created new classes of non-workers in teenagers and retirees. With the growth of free time came a flowering of cultural institutions: public libraries, bowling leagues, Boy and Girl Scouts, playgrounds, and baseball leagues, in addition to more high schools and colleges.

Despite continued progress, American work hours have stopped falling.

Well into the Twentieth Century, labor leaders continued to insist that increased productivity should translate into shorter working hours. In 1944, Walter Reuther, who later became president of the United Auto Workers, made that argument in a debate with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We can in America, on the basis of a 30-hour week create all of the wealth that we could create before the war on the basis of a 40-hour week,” he said. “We have made that much technical progress during the war.”

And yet, despite continued progress, American work hours stopped falling. It didn’t need to go this way; while less wealthy countries have tended to work more, people in Australia, Japan, Canada, and New Zealand work fewer hours than Americans do, and Europe, which followed much the same pattern as the U.S. in trading labor for free time, continues in that direction. Full and part-time workers in America average 34 hours of work per week as those in the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and France work under 30 hours. Germans average just 26. The European Union requires that employees receive 20 paid vacation days a year; many countries essentially shut down for all of July or August so that everyone can take off; last year, France instituted a law to reduce employers’ ability to bother workers with email during non-work hours. Speaking with a Quartz reporter, the Swedish owner of a New York coffee chain observed that Americans are an international outlier, seeming to value the appearance of hard-work above all else. “In the U.S.,” she said, “it’s rewarded if you eat your lunch by your desk.”


What stops Americans from gaining free time? Unions in the U.S. have gotten weaker faster than those in Europe—it’s no coincidence that a 150-plus-year decline in working hours ended around 1970, just as unions were losing much of their power. But there is also tremendous cultural resistance to the notion that automation might relieve us of some labor. Since 2012, when a tech CEO introduced the idea of a burger-flipping robot, saying that it would “totally obviate” the need for its human counterparts, critics have been repeating the quote to suggest a desolate future of unemployment and misery. When Oregon started allowing drivers to pump their own gas last year, many commentators, like Noah Smith, a Bloomberg writer and economist, defended the make-work aspect of the old law. “Jobs provide an important source of dignity and self-respect for many workers, especially for young men who might otherwise lead dissolute lives,” he argued, adding that this psychological benefit would hold only if the workers and the rest of their communities could be persuaded that gas attendants provide a useful service—an uncertain proposition.

In the 1880s, many among the owning class—and even some labor leaders—believed that the last thing workers needed was more leisure time. A month before the 1886 strikes, P.M. Arthur, the leader of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, scoffed that reducing work days from 12 hours to 8 would simply mean “two hours more loafing about the corners and two hours more for drink.” Ira Steward, a leading advocate for the eight-hour day, responded to such concerns by arguing that people with more control over their time would learn to use it wisely. “The most of men will make a clumsy use of any thing which they have not become familiar with,” he wrote. “But the remedy is not in depriving him of his chance to experiment.”

In this era, plenty of people echo Arthur’s assertion, that free hours become a waste of time. Charles Murray, of the American Enterprise Institute, warned in his 2012 book “Coming Apart” that the U.S. is in danger of falling victim to “European Syndrome”—a corrosive belief that the purpose of life is “to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible.” In 2016, Erik Hurst, a University of Chicago economist, argued that video games, in particular, are simply so much fun that they distract many young men from pursuing jobs. This suspicion—that people are too eager to relax and enjoy themselves—seems to resonate. A 2015 Pew Research poll found that half of us think the word “lazy” describes the typical American either “very well” or “fairly well.” The specter of laziness invites us to consider what the best use of time truly is—would we feel OK about reducing our shifts at work if we used free hours to volunteer at a local animal shelter or run for the school board? Which is more valuable, spending our days making telemarketing calls or joining a World of Warcraft guild? These aren’t questions to be resolved by policy, but we’ll only get to answer them for ourselves if we collectively change the economy to give everyone more freedom.

Hard-driving, high-earning executives are compelled by a belief, apparently fundamental to American culture, that working for pay is the most valuable purpose to which people can devote their time.

Disputes about working hours are different now than they were in the 1880s in an important respect: Back then, elites who most vociferously touted the value of hard work were themselves laboring far less than those who toiled in their mills. Since the 1970s, however, hours on the job have grown fastest among America’s highest paid workers. In 1979, the people most likely to work more than 50 hours a week were men with the lowest hourly wages, according to research by Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano, economists at the University of California, Santa Barbara. By 2006, 27 percent of the highest-earning men worked that much, compared with 13 percent of the lowest earners. Allison Schrager, an economist and writer at Quartz, found a similar pattern among all U.S. workers in 2014: those with the most education and the highest salaries worked the greatest number of hours. Wealthier workers, as it happens, tend to get more out of their careers psychologically; among those with an annual family income of $75,000 or greater, 60 percent say they form a sense of identity from their job, compared with 37 percent of those with incomes of less than $30,000.

Even the cream of today’s owning class—billionaires who could live on investment income—have often convinced themselves of the importance of spending 60 to 100 hours a week at work. Of course, their circumstances make this relatively easy: their jobs don’t tend to be physically taxing, and studies have found that low-level jobs where people have little control tend to be much more stressful than management positions that come with a great deal of power. Still, these hard-driving, high-earning executives are compelled by a belief, apparently fundamental to American culture, that working for pay is the most valuable purpose to which people can devote their time.


The political landscape for labor is bleak, but there are positions that local and state representatives could support to give workers more control over their time: most obviously, protections for the standard 40-hour week and pushing that number down to 35 or 30 hours; a universal health care system; and a higher minimum wage, which would allow part-time and freelance gigs to become more viable. A pro-free-time campaign would require some old-fashioned labor organizing, but we’d need substantial cultural changes, too. Shifting a collective set of expectations might have to start with those who enjoy the privileges of economic security, by openly prioritizing their lives outside the office and encouraging the same of colleagues and (especially) subordinates. In an effort to reduce the social pressure to be on call all the time, some companies, including HubSpot, a marketing software company, and Simpliflying, an airline marketing firm, have experimented with requiring workers to take vacation.

Twenty-first Century Americans aren’t used to the idea of free time as a political matter. In the face of stagnant wages and rampant racial and gender discrimination, worrying about how much time we spend not working might seem frivolous. Yet the pressures of career advancement so often become a default, at the expense of happiness. There is nothing more foundational to our lives as human beings than the way we spend our hours and days. We ought to recapture them.


Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for the Guardian, the Boston GlobeHuffPostAeon and other places.

Editor: Betsy Morais

Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel