Working To Live Often Means Giving Up Your Life

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

The gig economy and operations like Amazon and Uber demand flexible schedules and constant availability, including weekends, which destroys much opportunity for a set schedule outside of work. In the traditional work force, high salary positions often require long hours and porous boundaries, dissolving the barrier between work and life and eating up the off-time that once contained a social life. Workers pay the price: without schedules that overlap with friends and family, people don’t socialize as much, see their kids, or spouses, or ever relax, and this all takes a heavy toll on society. For The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz examines the many social costs of America’s work-life problem, and what she calls the cult of busyness.

When so many people have long or unreliable work hours, or worse, long and unreliable work hours, the effects ripple far and wide. Families pay the steepest price. Erratic hours can push parents—usually mothers—out of the labor force. A body of research suggests that children whose parents work odd or long hours are more likely to evince behavioral or cognitive problems, or be obese. Even parents who can afford nannies or extended day care are hard-pressed to provide thoughtful attention to their kids when work keeps them at their desks well past the dinner hour.

It’s an enlightening but depressing piece, but essential if we are to survive what we have either opted into, or had imposed on us by the job market. Shulevitz compares this American paradigm to the failed Soviet experiment called nepreryvka, meaning the “continuous workweek.”

What makes the changing cadences of labor most nepreryvka-like, however, is that they divide us not just at the micro level, within families and friend groups, but at the macro level, as a polity. Staggered and marathon work hours arguably make the nation materially richer—economists debate the point—but they certainly deprive us of what the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described as a “cultural asset of importance”: an “atmosphere of entire community repose.”

I know this dates me, but I’m nostalgic for that atmosphere of repose—the extended family dinners, the spontaneous outings, the neighborly visits. We haven’t completely lost these shared hours, of course. Time-use studies show that weekends continue to allow more socializing, civic activity, and religious worship than weekdays do. But Sundays are no longer a day of forced noncommerce—everything’s open—or nonproductivity. Even if you aren’t asked to pull a weekend shift, work intrudes upon those once-sacred hours. The previous week’s unfinished business beckons when you open your laptop; urgent emails from a colleague await you in your inbox. A low-level sense of guilt attaches to those stretches of time not spent working.

As for the children, they’re not off building forts; they’re padding their college applications with extracurricular activities or playing organized sports. A soccer game ought to impose an ethos of not working on a parent, and offer a chance to chat with neighbors and friends. Lately, however, I’ve been seeing more adults checking their email on the sidelines.

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