No Rest for the Weary

The New York Times has a good article about the American workweek. In a poll 75% of the people asked on the New York Times indicated they wanted a shorter workweek.

The citizens of France are once again taking a pasting on the op-ed pages. Their failing this time is not that they are cheese-eating surrender monkeys, as they were thought to be during the invasion of Iraq, but rather that they voted to reject the new European Union constitution. According to the pundits, this was the timid, shortsighted choice of a backward-looking people afraid to face the globalized future. But another way of looking at it is that the French were simply trying to hold on to their perks — their cradle-to-grave welfare state and, above all, their cherished 35-hour workweek.

What’s so bad about that? There was a time when the 35-hour workweek was the envy of the world, and especially of Americans, who used to travel to France just so they could watch the French relax. Some people even moved to France, bought farmhouses, adjusted their own internal clocks and wrote admiring, best-selling books about the leisurely and sensual French lifestyle.

But no more. The future, we are told, belongs to the modern-day Stakhanovites, who, like the famous Stalinist-era coal miner, are eager to exceed their quotas: to the people in India, say, who according to Thomas L. Friedman are eager to work a 35-hour day, not a 35-hour week. Even the Japanese, once thought to be workaholics, are mere sluggards compared with people in Hong Kong, where 70 percent of the work force now puts in more than 50 hours a week. In Japan the percentage is just 63 percent, though the Japanese have started what may become the next big global trend by putting the elderly to work. According to figures recently published in The Wall Street Journal, 71 percent of Japanese men between the ages of 60 and 64 still work, compared with 57 percent of American men the same age. In France, needless to say, the number is much lower. By the time they reach 60, only 17 percent of Frenchmen, fewer than one in five, are still punching the clock. The rest are presumably sitting in the cafe, fretting over the Turks, Bulgarians and Romanians, who, if they were admitted to the European Union, would come flooding over the French border and work day and night for next to nothing.

How could the futurologists be so wrong? George Jetson, we should recall — the person many of us cartoon-watchers assumed we would someday become — worked a three-hour day, standard in the interplanetary era. Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler predicted that by 2000 we would have so much free time that we wouldn’t know how to spend it.

Economic globalization obviously has a great deal to do with the change. It has leveled the playing field all over the world, so that the have-nots can now compete more equally with the haves, especially if they are willing to work harder, longer and for lower wages, which so many of them are. And the haves, in turn, find that they have to pick up the pace just to stay even.

But there may be a more insidious force manifesting itself — something along the lines of an evolutionary law that says, paradoxically, the more you try to simplify or eliminate work, the more of it there is to do. Scholars estimate that medieval peasants, for example, worked between 120 and 150 days a year. They didn’t have holidays as we understand them, but they had about eight weeks’ worth of holy days, which amounted to the same thing. The notion of a regular workweek was a late-18th-century invention, a product of the vastly speeded-up pace of the Industrial Revolution, which instead of liberating workers, virtually enslaved them, dooming entire families to numbing stretches in what Blake called the ”dark, Satanic mills.” The Mills and Factories Act, passed in England in 1833 to curb the worst labor abuses of the time, limited children 9 and older to 48 hours of work a week and teenagers to 69 hours. Adults worked even longer, and they did so in part simply because they could.

The Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Robert William Fogel has studied what he calls the ”efficiency of the human engine” and found that the mechanical advances of the Industrial Revolution were paralleled by an equal increase in the human body’s size, strength and endurance. In his view the great growth industry of the 19th and 20th centuries was the capacity for work itself.

The more work we do, apparently, the more we’re able to do, and though Fogel himself takes a sort of Toffler-like view of the 21st century, predicting that leisure will become the next great growth industry, there’s little evidence of that right now. Working hours in America — the nation in the world with by far the most efficient human engines — have risen steadily over the last three decades. And far from complaining, we have adopted a superior, moralizing attitude that sees work not as a necessary evil, a means to an end, but as an end in itself. It is now obligatory to boast — to lie, if necessary — about how much you work and how little you sleep. The Stakhanov for our time is that lawyer who a few years ago billed 62 hours over a 24-hour period.

Most everyone now faces the dismaying prospect of falling by the evolutionary wayside, a casualty in the global rat race. Unless we can be chemically or behaviorally enhanced, that is, and for those whose work ethic is faltering, there is some encouraging news. Provigil, a drug for narcoleptics, has been tested on Army helicopter pilots, who found that it enabled them to stay awake and alert for two days straight. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on programs to modify the metabolism of soldiers so that they can will themselves not to bleed and can function efficiently without food or sleep for up to a week. They might even be able to survive without oxygen for a brief while. This is something the French would never think of.