John Buell

Laboring through Labor Day

Another Labor Day has passed. If you were lucky, this was a day of leisure. For many workers, however, the day and the summer revolved around work. Why do so many work so hard and with what consequences?

Hard work is supposed to be as American as apple pie, but American capitalism was once celebrated for its capacity to deliver us from work. In the mid ’50s, futuristic books celebrated a world where machines—including robots—would help us work less.

Machines kept their part of the bargain, but many business and political leaders viewed the prospect with alarm. Fred Kaplan, writing for Orion, points out that as long ago as 1927 14% of the American shoe factories could produce a year’s supply of footwear. One writer speculated: “the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days’ work a week.”

Kaplan comments that surprisingly business leaders were “less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a society no longer centered on the production of goods.” A society no longer premised on the centrality of work was not merely a concern in terms of profits but a threat to their political beliefs and even core personal identity. John E. Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers during the Roaring ’20s, declared: “I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance. The emphasis should be put on work—more work and better work.” “Nothing,” he claimed, “breeds radicalism more than … leisure.”

American business leaders found a way out of this dilemma. As Kaplan argues, “people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough.” President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes celebrated the results: “By advertising and other promotional devices ... a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.” General Motors originated such quintessentially American strategies as consumer credit, segmented product markets, annual model changes, and planned obsolescence.

Today, many Americans are convinced that it is “human nature” to want, even to crave new toys. They work long hours to fulfill their personal desires. Yet the story is much more complicated. Most advertizing hardly educates consumers. It sows anxieties, often by subtle cinematic and psychological techniques concealed from the consumer.

Political—not market—forces have given advertizing a place it enjoys in no other capitalist country. Advertising is tax deductible. Commercial broadcasters are awarded precious space on the airwaves. These practices assure that the virtues of consumption constitute a steady drumbeat from childhood on.

Schools’ homework policies and workplace employment rules are structured to minimize the knowledge and allure of alternatives. For many workers, refusing overtime can lead to firing. Many others who “choose” overtime do so because they fear future job loss. Those fears are well grounded in an economy where federal policy promotes enough unemployment to keep workers in their place.

The desire to consume can drive decisions to work longer hours for some, but as Julie Schor argues in The Overspent American, worklife itself can drive consumption. Contemporary workplaces have themselves become ever more unequal, with status and identity depending in part on conspicuous consumption. Many Americans now spend the great bulk of their lives in these workplaces. They are thus less likely to appreciate the role that leisure can play in fostering creativity and expanding our goals and interests.

Surprisingly even amidst these pressures, leisure has become a more central issue. Part of the recent rhetoric of American capitalism has been an emphasis on family. Families, however defined, are hard to sustain when this generation’s two- parent family works 500 hours a year more than two decades ago. The pressure of work and spend in terms of resource depletion also takes an increasingly apparent toll. Finally, as the economy grinds into a recession, the notion that some are working more than they want while others are laid off may become morally abhorrent, as it did in the ’30s. Whether these trends can converge in ways that produce positive change remains to be seen. The outcome may depend in part on how creatively we respond to the days of leisure we are still afforded.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2008

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