Recently, the New York Times ran a front-page story about the conditionsfor white-collar workers at Amazon. It revealed a workplace where abrupt firings are common, grown men and women cry at their desks, and people are scolded for not responding to e-mails after midnight. The story made clear how much things have changed in the American workforce. Once upon a time, it was taken for granted that the wealthier classes enjoyed a life of leisure on the backs of the proletariat. Today it is people in skilled trades who can most find reasonable hours coupled with good pay; the American professional is among those subject to humiliation and driven like a beast of burden.
No one thought things would be this way. Keynes famously forecast a three-hour workday, and in 1964 Life magazine devoted a two-part series to what it considered a “real threat” facing American society: the coming epidemic of too much leisure time. In “The Emptiness of Too Much Leisure,” it asserted that “some of the middle-of-the-road prophets of what automation is doing to our economy think that we are on the verge of a 30-hour week.” The follow-up was entitled “The Task Ahead: How to Take Life Easy.”
Fifty years later, it’s fair to say that the looming leisure crisis has been licked. The work week at places like law firms, banks, and high-tech companies has steadily increased, to levels considered intolerable by many people. Indeed, in 2006, the top twenty per cent of earners were twice as likely to work more than fifty hours a week than the bottom twenty per cent, a reversal of historic conditions.
Just why this has happened is both a mystery and a paradox. The past fifty years have seen massive gains in productivity, the invention of countless labor-saving devices, and the mass entry of women into the formal workforce. If we assume that there is, to a certain degree, a fixed amount of work necessary for society to function, how can we at once be more productive, have more workers, and yet still be working more hours? Something else must be going on.
The question has proved a source of fascination for economists and writers, such as Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter, who wrote a personal investigation of the question. (She ended up, in large part, blaming her husband, who wasn’t sharing equally in the burden of running their home.) As Elizabeth Kolbert has written, everyone agrees that there is no one simple answer to the question. Some people think that Americans just prefer work to leisure; a strong work ethic, according to this theory, has become a badge of honor for anyone with a college degree. If you’re busy, you seem important. There is also the pride that people can have in their work; they also find love and free food at workplaces, and go to conferences as a form of vacation. Others think the rise in work must somehow be related to inequality: as people at the top of the income ladder earn more money, each hour they work becomes more valuable. And there’s the theory that our needs and desires grow as we consume more, producing an even greater need to work.
What all of these explanations have in common is the idea that the answer comes from examining workers’ decisions and incentives. There’s something missing: the question of whether the American system, by its nature, resists the possibility of too much leisure, even if that’s what people actually want, and even if they have the means to achieve it. In other words, the long hours may be neither the product of what we really want nor the oppression of workers by the ruling class, the old Marxist theory. They may be the byproduct of systems and institutions that have taken on lives of their own and serve no one’s interests. That can happen if some industries have simply become giant make-work projects that trap everyone within them.
What counts as work, in the skilled trades, has some intrinsic limits; once a house or bridge is built, that’s the end of it. But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs. Consider the litigation system, in which the hours worked by lawyers at large law firms are a common complaint. If dispute resolution is the social function of the law, what we have is far from the most efficient way to reach fair or reasonable resolutions. Instead, modern litigation can be understood as a massive, socially unnecessary arms race, wherein lawyers subject each other to torturous amounts of labor just because they can. In older times, the limits of technology and a kind of professionalism created a natural limit to such arms races, but today neither side can stand down, lest it put itself at a competitive disadvantage.
A typical analysis blames greedy partners for crazy hours, but the irony is that the people at the top are often as unhappy and overworked as those at the bottom: it is a system that serves almost no one. Moreover, our many improvements in the technologies of productivity make the arms-race problem worse. The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.
Litigation may be an extreme example, but I do not doubt that many other industries have their own arms races that create work that is of dubious necessity. The antidote is simple to prescribe but hard to achieve: it is a return to the goal of efficiency in work—fulfilling whatever needs we have, as a society, with the minimal effort required, while leaving the option of more work as a hobby for those who happen to love it. In this respect, it seems like no little irony that Amazon should be a brutal workplace when its ostensible guiding principle is making people’s lives better. There must be a better way.
Tim Wu writes regularly for newyorker.com. He is a professor at Columbia Law School and the director of the Poliak Center for the First Amendment at the Columbia Journalism School.