I got into business writing from sociology, in which I got my bachelor’s degree and spent an ill-fated graduate year. Since then, as I showed in my books and elsewhere, I have tracked the effect of the work environment on the beings inhabiting it.
Two efforts there have appeared over the past ten days. One, though officially in the November Atlantic, was released already: Judith Shulevitz’s “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore.” Using the Soviets’ rather unsuccessful effort to shrink and reapportion the week to get more work out of its inhabitants – she could have instead used Central Florida’s unsuccessful 1990s attempt at year-round schools – the author compared today’s situation where, for people comprising “a good third of the American labor force,” there are no traditional weekends, between “unpredictable workweeks” assigned on only several days’ notice and requirements to be on the job for any of the 7 days. Not even a factory-like setting where people can choose to work extra hours for time-and-a-half and thereby help their prosperity, this overtime is more than ever likely to be mandatory, and hours vary wildly depending on unforeseen and immediate needs of the business. Then we have the shocking and depressing trend of vast hours as routine for good jobs, shown by a citation that in a survey 92% of “managers and professionals” were going 50-plus weekly with one-third exceeding 65. That isn’t all, as “that doesn’t include the twenty to twenty-five hours per week most of them reported monitoring their work while not actually working.” (Haven’t they heard of Parkinson’s Law?) If this is true, the section of my book Choosing a Lasting Career which assessed positions on their compatibility with outside projects and activities would need serious revision, with many more deserving downgrades. The title of Shulevitz’s piece came from social activities being precluded by such long and ever-changing schedules preventing time coordination, enough advance notice, and just plain enough free hours. That’s not a good thing for social animals.
The other was on an old question, Alex Williams’s October 17th New York Times “Why Don’t Rich People Just Stop Working?”. During most of the past 100 years this has not been worth asking, as only a far-left author would fail to understand both the differences within those called “rich” and the gigantic inventory and variety of goods and services costing differing if very large amounts of money. The Williams, keeping with the ideological tradition such as by quoting Senator Bernie Sanders inanely saying “billionaires should not exist,” shows us that competition with others at the top is still alive and well. People at the very summit, such as $23-billion-owning Tesla-CEO Elon Musk, have long approached his once 120-hour workweek, and Williams’s rendition of maritime competition between the likes of computer magnates Larry Ellison and Paul Allen reminded me of old stories about the Astors and Vanderbilts. Wealth’s effect on contentment is as much a diminishing factor as before, with a “recent Harvard survey” showing that those worth $8 million were only slightly happier with those with one-eighth that. And neither are worries about economic collapses anything new. Yes, once we update the trappings from private railroad cars to sports arenas, it’s all the same.
What can we say about this material? The problem of scheduling is not easy, as we want products to be available more conveniently than we once settled for. Yet there is a gap between matching German workers walking out of their retail stores for the weekend by 5:00pm Friday and requiring ordinary, low-paid people to be there at any hour of the day or night. As it is clearly not a subject for regulation, businesses must make the choices. More can follow Costco’s lead by, while hardly sticking to 40-hour retail weeks, limiting business hours enough for workers to have planned days and time off. Scheduling can often be done further in advance. As many did during last year’s Black Friday, companies can publicize that they are limiting their hours to benefit their employees, possibly getting more sales as a result, and make incentives for overtime great enough that it can be optional. On the issue of “rich” people putting in huge amounts of time, there is no problem – let them. Entrepreneurs will entrepren, and ever more wealth for them does not hurt the rest of us. In the meantime, let us focus on more work opportunities – we can always use them.