The real reason for the forty-hour workweek
THE ULTIMATE tool for corporations to sustain a culture of this sort is to develop the 40-hour workweek as the normal lifestyle. Under these working conditions people have to build a life in the evenings and on weekends. This arrangement makes us naturally more inclined to spend heavily on entertainment and conveniences because our free time is so scarce.
Iíve only been back at work for a few days, but already Iím noticing that the more wholesome activities are quickly dropping out of my life: walking, exercising, reading, meditating, and extra writing.
The one conspicuous similarity between these activities is that they cost little or no money, but they take time.
Suddenly I have a lot more money and a lot less time, which means I have a lot more in common with the typical working North American than I did a few months ago. While I was abroad I wouldnít have thought twice about spending the day wandering through a national park or reading my book on the beach for a few hours. Now that kind of stuff feels like itís out of the question. Doing either one would take most of one of my precious weekend days!
The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is exercise. Itís also the last thing I want to do after dinner or before bed or as soon as I wake, and thatís really all the time I have on a weekday.
This seems like a problem with a simple answer: work less so Iíd have more free time. Iíve already proven to myself that I can live a fulfilling lifestyle with less than I make right now. Unfortunately, this is close to impossible in my industry, and most others. You work 40-plus hours or you work zero. My clients and contractors are all firmly entrenched in the standard-workday culture, so it isnít practical to ask them not to ask anything of me after 1pm, even if I could convince my employer not to.
The eight-hour workday developed during the industrial revolution in Britain in the 19th century, as a respite for factory workers who were being exploited with 14- or 16-hour workdays.
As technologies and methods advanced, workers in all industries became able to produce much more value in a shorter amount of time. Youíd think this would lead to shorter workdays.
But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.
Weíve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we donít have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.
Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.
Can you imagine what would happen if all of America stopped buying so much unnecessary fluff that doesnít add a lot of lasting value to our lives?
The economy would collapse and never recover.
All of Americaís well-publicized problems, including obesity, depression, pollution and corruption are what it costs to create and sustain a trillion-dollar economy. For the economy to be ďhealthyĒ, America has to remain unhealthy. Healthy, happy people donít feel like they need much they donít already have, and that means they donít buy a lot of junk, donít need to be entertained as much, and they donít end up watching a lot of commercials.
The culture of the eight-hour workday is big businessí most powerful tool for keeping people in this same dissatisfied state where the answer to every problem is to buy something.
You may have heard of Parkinsonís Law. It is often used in reference to time usage: the more time youíve been given to do something, the more time it will take you to do it. Itís amazing how much you can get done in twenty minutes if twenty minutes is all you have. But if you have all afternoon, it would probably take way longer.
Most of us treat our money this way. The more we make, the more we spend. Itís not that we suddenly need to buy more just because we make more, only that we can, so we do. In fact, itís quite difficult for us to avoid increasing our standard of living (or at least our rate of spending) every time we get a raise.
I donít think itís necessary to shun the whole ugly system and go live in the woods, pretending to be a deaf-mute, as Holden Caulfield often fantasized. But we could certainly do well to understand what big commerce really wants us to be. Theyíve been working for decades to create millions of ideal consumers, and they have succeeded. Unless youíre a real anomaly, your lifestyle has already been designed...