If you could afford to work less, what would you do with that time?
Our audience had a wide range of responses: learning to cook, making music, spending time taking care of themselves, exploring campus. A common response was to spend more time with loved ones.
“I would spend more time with my friends and family, which I often feel like I don’t have time for because of my hours,” said Sarah Lawrence, a recent LSU graduate. “I feel like most of the time when I get home from work, the only thing I want to do is sleep.”
Although many people can easily imagine how they would prefer to spend their time, most cannot afford to cut their hours to live more. Having to spend money on necessities and saving up, “working less doesn’t seem like an option to me,” Lawrence said.
According to OECD data, Americans rank among the highest in the world in hours worked per year. Whether it’s to climb ever higher on an endless ladder of success or, more often than not, simply to make ends meet, many Americans work to exhaustion.
In many ways, our culture values overwork, portraying it as the pinnacle of discipline and virtue. It starts at school: students compare who has slept the least or spent the most time studying, often wearing unhealthy habits as a badge of honor.
While a strong work ethic is certainly a good quality, its value comes with a big asterisk in a work environment. There’s a lot more to life than work, especially if you don’t find your job particularly satisfying.
US productivity has skyrocketed over the past 70 years, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the Institute for Economic Policy. From 1948 to 1979, productivity increased by 118.4% and wages generally kept pace with a 107.5% increase in compensation. But as the United States entered the 1980s, the gap between productivity gains and wage increases began to widen. Despite the fact that American productivity has increased by 61.8% over the past 40 years, compensation has only increased by 17.5%. In other words, the gains from increased economic output are not felt by the workers themselves.
The Economic Policy Institute attributes this to a number of factors: anti-union efforts, tax breaks for high earners, rare minimum wage increases and deregulation. Rising economic productivity and technological advancements should have improved the lives of the average American, but instead, that wealth has migrated to the wealthiest among us.
A good economic system is one that works for the people, not for the powerful. That’s not what we have in the United States. Top 10% performers holds 70% of the wealth. Compensation for CEOs has increased by more than 900% over the past 40 years, compared to just 11.9% for workers. The United States has the highest income inequality from any G-7 country. The rich are getting richer and richer the middle class is emptying.
If our economy is not working for the well-being of our people, then what are we doing? Looking at the scale of our politics as a whole, we should focus on policies that minimize unnecessary suffering: issues like reducing poverty, ending mass incarceration, tackling climate change and the fight against homelessness. Our focus should be on enabling people to live their lives to the fullest.
For too long American leaders have worked to benefit their donors at the expense of their constituents. It is high time to change this fact.
Claire Sullivan is a 19-year-old junior in coastal environmental science and political communication.