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Working Less Is a Labor Issue, Too

Research shows that people in the United States are overworked and suffering for it. Instead of valorizing "hustle," why not fight for leisure?

Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes he says, “If you work 40 hours a week, you should not be living in poverty,” and sometimes it’s, “People who work 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty,” but Bernie Sanders’s basic point is always the same: A full-time job should be enough to afford a person a decent standard of living in the wealthiest country on earth. The line, which he’s repeated through much of his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, came to mind on Monday while reading the New York Times Editorial Board’s lengthy and largely ridiculous interview with Sanders.

A few questions in, he was asked to name “some of the other things that you’ll focus on as president to improve the nation’s health,” aside from Medicare for All. It’s a good question. Among the items on Sanders’s list were “disease prevention,” the need to “improve dietary habits,” and increased exercise. Later in the interview, he also addressed the environment as a health issue, like the unsafe drinking water that plagues communities across the country.

There are all kinds of structural things that can and must be done to address health beyond just universal health care, like ending food deserts, guaranteeing access to safe and affordable housing, and developing neighborhood infrastructure that allows people to spend more time outside. But also: Why not just work less, too? Even if a future of higher wages and more robust social programs gives more people more access to preventative measures, the problem of time remains. If people don’t have the hours in the day to get to that doctor’s appointment or spend an evening cooking at home with their kids—or blissfully doing nothing at all—then we’re not really addressing the problem. And so a decades-old question gets revived: Why are we still working 40 hours a week at all?

Sanders, as the presidential candidate expressly trying to build a working-class movement, may be uniquely suited to take up the question. (It also doesn’t hurt that he’s entertained the issue in the past.)

Each statistic is as galling as the next: The average American reported working 47 hours per week, per a 2014 Gallup poll. Twelve-hour shifts for factory workers are no longer unheard of but often expected from management. In 2018, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found the average American put in 1,786 hours at their job by the end of the year—78 hours more than Canadian workers and 248 more hours than workers in the United Kingdom. And none of those figures include desk lunches or commutes, which average 26 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, or close to an extra four hours a week.

And this style of living is generally celebrated by politicians of both parties, who romanticize holding down two jobs or working long hours as some uniquely American virtue. (For instance, back when Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown was weighing a presidential campaign of his own, he took a “dignity of work” listening tour, complete with the titular domain name and media hits that included lines like, “We are a society that undervalues work.”) The public, in turn, has developed a dichotomy when it comes to its hustle culture: You are either working until you pass out from exhaustion and are thus a Hardworking American™ who deserves some degree of health care and social services, or you are lazy. In the political sphere, there is rarely an in-between. As a result, the policies put forward by both parties often look for solutions in the wrong place. (Kamala Harris’s proposal around lengthening the school day to match parents’ work hours was an example of this.)

Even as the average worker’s situation seems unsustainable, the long-discussed proposal of shortening the American workweek is often weighed in magazines like this one as a cutesy hypothetical, in the tone of a bored teenager trying to convince their friends to commit some act of light vandalism. What if, like, we only made workers clock a 35-hour week but still gave them health care and paid them a livable wage?

But there’s real reason to take this seriously: Studies on nonstop work show what any worker can tell you anecdotally, which is that when people are forced to put in overly long hours, their chances of developing depression and anxiety rise. And accompanying the rise in poor sleeping habits and stress that results from overworking comes the increased risk for strokes, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Work culture is, then, absolutely a health issue.

Sanders often tries to speak to this problem in different ways. He could be heard campaigning in 2015 on the discrepancies between the length of the American workweek and those of other, comparably wealthy nations. At an event in Wisconsin, Sanders did well to make the point that while a 40-hour workweek was a victory in the early 1900s, the American labor force has since been methodically weakened and forced to concede this century-old staple. “Eighty-five percent of working men and 66 percent of working women work more than 40 hours a week. A hundred years have come and gone, and we have lost ground,” he told the crowd. “Now, at the very least, what the United States must do, what I will do as president, is to make sure every family gets at least two weeks off of paid vacation.”

The promise was met with a raucous round of applause, a telling response. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2018 that just 41 percent of workers making the lowest wages in the nation had access to paid vacation; only 31 percent were allotted paid sick leave.

So while two weeks of paid vacation would be an undeniable improvement for many workers, it is also some incredibly weak shit. Why not ask for more and expand the horizon of political possibility beyond the “We Love Weekends” marketing of a TGI Fridays?

As The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky observed in December, while nearly all the remaining Democratic candidates have bullet points on their websites to address issues like minimum wage, the federal rules regarding overtime pay, and wage theft, all of them have been fairly quiet about these issues in the televised debates. Working less is a labor issue, too.

With all the conversations being had about childcare, health care, and other issues that shape how we live and work, there’s real space for a politician to give voters something to rally behind in addition to the labor law updates nearly every Democratic candidate is now promising. Fighting for more money, stronger legal protections, and a shorter workweek is something we can do, because it’s something we’ve already done. In 1933, the Black-Connery Bill—which, among other things, would have cemented a five-day, 30-hour workweek—passed the Senate but was voted down in the House. Five years later, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting our current standard. And so for the past eight decades, unions and labor-friendly politicians have repeatedly pushed to amend the FLSA to shorten the workweek.

The 32-hour week is already supported by the AFL-CIO. The public seems to like the idea, too. A candidate like Sanders, whose real strength is taking the work of grassroots movements to a national audience, could easily incorporate this into how he talks about work in general: He’s right that no one who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty, but shouldn’t the bar be higher than that?