June 23, 2012 in Opinion

Froma Harrop: Workers’ leisure time swallowed up by Wall Street

Froma Harrop
 

With summer’s arrival comes a journalistic convention that seems more and more dated. It is the “summer reading list” of books, often beside a graphic showing a bathing suit and sunglasses.

Sure, I’d like to check out Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite and Hilary Mantel’s sequel to “Wolf Hall.” Heck, I’d love to read Joan Rivers’ funny and shorter book, “I Hate Everyone … Starting With Me.”

Problem is, few of us worker bees will be packing a steamer trunk of volumes to while away the lazy afternoons. Average working Joes now put in a month more of labor a year than they did 25 years ago, and much of that time comes out of summer vacation’s hide.

Of course, police, waiters and carousel operators have always been on call in the summer. But nowadays, office drones find themselves spending August at the same desk they spent January. Even those with decent vacation time may fear taking it, lest they miss an opportunity to make their case in a midsummer downsizing.

How did we get here? Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa (yes, there is such a thing), explains.

The early part of the 20th century saw huge leaps in productivity, whereby workers could churn out the same amount of goods and services in less time. Utopian big thinkers predicted a four-hour workday in the not-distant future. More modestly, organized labor began agitating for a 40-hour week.

Industrialists at the time said: “Hey wait a minute. We’re shoving truckloads of new products out the factory door. Toasters, refrigerators, automobiles. Who is going to buy our stuff if the workers – rather than putting in the hours to make more money – go fishing instead?” Some accused unions of trying to limit production.

Thus was born the “New Economic Gospel of Consumption.” Advertising fueled the demand.

An example of a modern practitioner would be the neighbor working two jobs to pay off credit cards and an extravagant mortgage. Note that the conveyor belt of new consumer products has not slowed. Many are relatively recent inventions that we can’t even see – data plans for iPads and cellphones, cellphone service or the Cadillac package of digital cable channels.

All-work, all-the-time was not a cemented virtue in our early culture, according to Hunnicutt. Moral authorities before the 1920s believed that a reduction in labor would lead to “human betterment.” There would be more time for family, community service and spiritual growth. As a further blessing, workers could use the freed hours to engage in the craftsmanship that the machine age took away.

In a Labor Day weekend talk given last year at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, Hunnicutt quoted firebrand theologian Jonathan Edwards. A leader in the religious “Great Awakening” of the mid-18th century, Edwards praised labor-saving devices as a means to free up time for worship. “There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business,” Edwards said, “that they (the saints) will have more time for more noble exercise …”

Since 1973, worker productivity has risen 80 percent, while median hourly compensation (wages and benefits, adjusted for inflation) has gone up less than 11 percent. That means most workers these days are producing more in the same time, but without appropriate rewards either in money or shortened hours. Senior executives and Wall Street grabbed most of the return from higher productivity.

For so many of us, the ocean of leisure time that the summer book lists suggest is more a few days here and there, freedom from toil delivered with an eyedropper. For us, even Joan Rivers will be hard to fit in.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.


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