Salvation through work

February 27, 2013

“It has been computed by some political arithmetician that if every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labour would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life … and the rest of the 24 hours might be leisure and happiness.”

When Benjamin Franklin wrote that in 1790, the American thinker was a few centuries ahead of his time. But the modern economy is so productive that everyone would have far more “comforts” than were available in Franklin’s day, even if the standard working week were shrunk from 40 to 20 hours. The four-hour day, though, isn’t on the horizon. Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, a professor of Leisure Studies at the University of Iowa, explains why not in a fascinating new book, “Free Time, The Forgotten American Dream”.

For more than a century, labour activists continually demanded – and were granted – shorter working hours. By the 1930s, futurologists were sure that the trend would continue. Workers wanted more leisure time, and, thanks to ever more efficient machines, they could have it, while still enjoying steady improvements in the material standard of living.

The experts were wrong. In 1935, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt moved from favouring to opposing the six-hour working day. That was the beginning of the end. For the past few decades, the standard working week in rich countries has remained constant, or even lengthened. Far more women are in the paid workforce than ever before. A recent attempt to introduce a 35-hour week in France was soon abandoned. It seems that people have had a change of heart regarding the relative value of consumption and leisure.

What changed? Certainly not productivity growth. Technological developments have continually saved more labour, much of it tedious or dangerous. The old historic pattern – more leisure time along with more goods and services – could have continued unabated.

Indeed, since Franklin’s “necessaries and comforts of life” were and are available in unprecedented abundance in rich countries, the decision not to work less – so as to enjoy more of the luxury of free time – is especially striking. An additional peculiarity is that most people are do not seem very happy about the move away from shorter hours. Workplace stress and complaints of “work-life” imbalance, especially from parents, are ubiquitous.

The complaints are certainly heartfelt, but very few people actually volunteer to take part-time jobs when full-time – 40 hours a week – is available. What is going on? Many people would say they need the money, but I think the best explanation is not economic, but cultural. People must feel that paid work gives them something which leisure time does not. More hours in the job gives them more of that something.

That something is considered so valuable that it takes precedence over family and fun. The elite in any society always take the largest share of whatever that society considers good. Today’s social elite – in business, finance and politics – compete to work especially long hours, a complete reversal of the traditional association of aristocracy with ample leisure time.

And what is the “something” that jobs provide? It’s partly a sense of purpose: people want to feel useful. And it’s partly social status, which paid work provides in modern societies. In short, the hours in the job make life more meaningful to many workers. Fewer hours are felt to bring less meaning, less fulfilment. At the extreme, unemployment, zero hours of paid work, is generally felt to be demeaning, even if the welfare state ensures that joblessness has little effect on consumption.

The current arrangement of working hours may be a cultural choice, but in many ways it is a bad one. Hunnicutt blames the belief in “Salvation by Work”, the snide description of educator Robert Hutchins, for the decline of nobler aspirations. Hunnicutt hankers for the “higher progress” of each individual, identified by the poet Walt Whitman as the ultimate goal of American society. More prosaically, the new preference has led many mothers away from unpaid but valuable parental labour and into tedious paid work, often actually of little social value. And unemployment rates would be lower if the available hours of work were shared out more evenly.

The bad choice can be reversed, but there is no sign that a change is imminent. I believe what is missing is something basically spiritual: a more modest appraisal of what work can contribute to life. Work is truly good, but other goods should often take precedence. The Benedictine slogan “ora et labora”, work and pray, is a good place to start. Franklin, an atheist, would be appalled. However, while the industrial economy could easily provide his hours of “leisure”, no amount of work can create “happiness”. For that, something more like prayer is needed.


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It sounds like you’ve lived a life of comfort too long, and are out of touch. A part-time job would just leave you in the position of needing to find a second part-time job, just in order to make ends meet. That’s the reason why people would choose a full time job. If you’re not part of the concentrated wealth class in America, your options are to either live a leisurely, but poor life, on the government dole, or work to eke out a living and provide for you and yours.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive

A number of years ago, I had the pleasure of working for several months in a German national scientific laboratory. One of the most striking aspects compared to my American home laboratory was the large number of holidays and long vacations that my German colleagues enjoyed. But even more striking was the absolute absence of workers after hours or on the weekends. In my work, in the US, late hours and weekends are fairly common. Perhaps we thought it was a way to keep abreast of our competitors.

But, despite the relatively short hours of the German laboratory people, they appeared at least as productive, per year, as my American colleagues. I often wished I could be as disciplined as the Germans. The difference certainly appeared to be cultural. They worked harder, were much more focussed, and played harder and/or were much more involved with their families. Evidently, economically, it is paying off well for them.

On the other hand, we had a contingent of Japanese researchers at out American laboratory, and they seemed to spend much more time working, and just generally hanging out together. But, there effect was similar to the Americans.

Conclusion: the German way of work appeared to give much more satisfying lives. At least, in those earlier years they did not seem to be fragmented by rampant, everybody for themselves or their small group, capitalism, but rather supported each other. We Americans seem a long way from those coherent national ideals.

Still, I can see some possible advantages of the more flexible American approach, in the face of change in the world. I hope that it may help us face the over-riding problem of wealth and power accumulation in our society, which is destroying our democracy.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

The unintended consequence of two wage earners in a family has had the effect of driving up the prices of real estate. At least that was the case until a few years ago. And they don’t seem to get as much for the money. I’m disappointed every time I look at celebrity tours of their multi-million dollar homes. I always expect to see the 21st century equivalent of Marble House or the Breakers and usually find what used to be merely larger middle class suburban homes. So much of the costs of those houses is the lot they are built on.

Marble house cost about 3 million to build and furnish, and the Breakers about 5 million, just a few years before the turn of the 2oth century. It would be hard to come up with equivalent prices at today’s cost because the construction techniques were very different and the materials were used in more substantial portions. Modern architecture cannot rely on labor-intensive craft techniques and the materials are generally thinner and far more expensive.

The “elite” may be working longer hours at their jobs but they also seem to have to put far more toward the purchase of their homes and the cost of keeping those jobs.

I have found too that, because I stayed home and worked from my house (until the crash) I was able to use my time to do the things I would have had to hire someone to do if I had remote job that required 8 hours or more. Not spending a lot of money and doing it yourself is, in some ways, as good as making the income to pay someone else. Because I know how to work with my own hands – I can even do it better. But I didn’t get the benefits and perks or being hired help.

I have a house without a mortgage and can live at a higher standard (not large or particularly lavish but I try to make it look like it is) than would be possible if I had to spend 8 hours or more at an office job.

Not spending money can be as productive as spending it actually. A mortgage could add enormously to the cost of having a home. Commuting, wardrobe and meal costs add up too.

If Franklin was antagonistic to “prayer” to a divine being, he might have considered the more general idea of “contemplation”. People say Buddhists (I’m not one) have a religion without a God by they spend allot of time praying. Franklin obviously had some time on his hands beyond the printing business or he would not have been involved with politics and writing. The deity might be behind one’s own nose and eyes? I tend to think it is difficult to tell where the divide is between oneself and everything else anyway. It’s hard enough to define “God” let alone define “no God”.

The elite may want to be the managers and shapers of society but society seems to ensure that they are also the most managed and shaped within it.

BTW – “tedious and dangerous” work seems to be a matter of taste. People will spend hours at a gym each week but won’t consider some kind of manual labor that involves lifting or digging etc. I found my heavy labor employed working on my house and yard to be as fortifying as working out at a gym and I was accomplishing something useful. I was less stressed because it wasn’t a matter of adhering to a busy schedule. I may not have sculpted my body but I was developing useful muscles.

I did find out something about wear and tear on one’s body. I’m right handed and have worn my left side more than my right. At 62, my left side is more prone to arthritis and is the stronger side.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

What has happened is that mechanisms both public and private have been established and expanded to transfer the wealth produced by working to other people who can utilize that wealth “better”. This has made the fabulous wealth of the upper class possible while maintaining misery for the bulk of humans, despite technological progress.

In other words, society has dealt with the evil of expanded productivity. Now we can afford more wars, more prisons, more police and more spying! How delightful “progress” is!!

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Franklin , I doubt he was an atheist.
If people are workalcoholic, pity them , not praise them

Posted by GeorgeJoachim | Report as abusive

One other thing to add. The Ancient Romans – as you probably know – tended to do all their business and work before the Italian sun became too hot at mid day. They would then eat something and rest for the afternoon. The evening was free time for the theater and entertainment. That way of life survived, in the hotter European countries until recent times, as the practice of taking a “siesta”.

The last time I had siesta as a group activity was in Kindergarten. Kindergarten was invented by the Germans about the time of Bismark to accustom children to living according to the schedule of a modern industrial economy. The Public school system is patterned after the schedule of 19th century factory life.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Most workers I see are playing on the internet, their Ipads, or texting their friends all day. Americans have no work ethics.
Why stay at home, when you can get paid to play and goof off?
Besides, working is a great excuse to dump the kiddies at day care so they don’t mess with your playtime.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

Sorry Mr. Hadas — I think you’ve missed the mark on this one. There are many reasons why more people don’t work part-time. I’m sure that the sense of self-worth is among them, but not among my cohort. I am a so-called knowledge worker (engineering), and firms don’t want to hire us part-time. No matter how much experience we have elsewhere, there is a certain amount of training, coming up-to-speed, involved in any job in my field. From the employer’s perspective, that just takes too long with part-timers. Further, our work is highly collaborative and it’s difficult to keep part-timers abreast of what’s been happening while they were out, and this catching-up leaves less time for actual productivity. Only when you’ve put in a number of years with a company (usually 5-10) and have proven your worth compared with someone who might be brought in off the street, will part-time work be considered. And if you do get part-time status, you are now at the top of the list for layoffs and have to basically forgo promotions. And asking for part-time status is risky in and of itself as you have now indicated some level of dissatisfaction with the status quo. You also generally need to forgo certain benefits (esp. health insurance).

I think that more of my co-workers than not would jump at the chance to work part-time if the only negative were lower pay and the so-called loss of status that Mr. Hadas talks about.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Good article.

And, I especially enjoyed reading the posts. It makes me realize what good group of intelligent people come to this forum at Reuters. Many different angles, but each one holding insights that do indeed make sense.

Perhaps the tone of the article itself set the right atmosphere.

The posts were excellent.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Anyone who studies the transitions of the banking industry through the 19th century and up to the Federal Reserve Act can see right through this article. The more centralized a currency is, the more centralized the wealth and power is. Want to stop globalization? Want a more local, vibrant and leisurely life? Decentralize the currency. Then you’ll see self sustaining, local economies with plenty of leisure time. But god forbid every town have its own factories and closed economies, there’s just too much centralized money to be made!

Not to mention tax rates would fall to near nothing as a decentralized currency cannot operate beyond its means, or borrow from China.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

Feeling pain and inflicting pain is what americans like. One or the other. Shorter work days wouldn’t accomplish either. We have entertainment that consists of faked confrontational yelling matches, and leaders so inept as to be comical. Of course we like pain. Well, yes, and our bosses like inflicting pain, just as much as our leaders do. It pretty obvious. The alternative is that humans are dumb as stumps, or some combination of dumbness and sado-masochism. There are no other plausible explanations given the self evident information available. We do know that we can produce more than we can consume. So it must be the pain we want.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I think shorter work weeks would be a good answer to our long tern unemployment problems. With automation and population growth, we will not have 40 hours a week worth of work for everyone that needs it. Remember the “deep end pool cleaner vs. the shallow end” opinion a few days ago? We are going to rapidly run out of both busy work and manual labor jobs. It would be far better to have the majority work less, then have a half the people supporting the other half.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I’d like Edward Hadas’ job. I’d like to be paid an ungodly sum of money to wax poetic about how the “little people” enjoy working 12 hour days for no pay as it gives their pathetic life meaning.

It must be terribly brutal for Edward Hadas to sit in his air conditioned office, in a generally stress-free environment talking about how reasonable wages for a reasonable 35 hour work week is passe and what people need is less money and longer hours of brutal toil.

I NEVER understood why Osama Bin Laden attacked America, until NOW!

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

Since we cannot create growth at the point of a gun, we will continue to loose jobs as our labor rate is abhorrent compared to the rest of the world. Doesn’t matter why, it just is. so we are going to have to many people with nothing to do. Historically not a good situation to be in. The best busy work we have in the near future is changing bedpans for our aging population. Go to a 30 hour work week and keep more people employed.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Personally, I like work and consider it an essential aspect of who I am. In addition, I also try to DIY many things – home remodeling, gardening, cook most of my meals (versus eating out) rather than working to pay for others to do those things for me. So now I own my house, have a decent savings account and no debt. That is important in this life and allows a freedon to make choices about life – so yes, while work is very important financially, I get a high level of personal satisfaction from all those activities.

Anybody who thinks people who lived in Franklin’s time through ~1940 led a life of leisure, just doesn’t understand what it takes to DIY on a farm – which is where most Americans lived in those days. We have grown accustomed to many things which would have been considered luxuries back in those days. Working hard and being focused while you are at work does not have to be unique to Germany, either. Take your vacations and spend time with your family rather than the TV or surfing the internet. Spend more time doing things instead of vegging out with some electronic device – pretty simple really. I work hard, but still have plenty of time for family, music and sports – along with the activities mentioned above. Just don’t get sucked into behaviors that keep you from living a full life. I don’t think it is all that complicated, but you have to be willing to do more than expect somebody else to figure it out for you. Nobody handed it to me on a silver platter and everything I have I got with my own two hands – that concept has eluded many people.

Posted by AuAgExpl | Report as abusive

as a psychologist I agree with the sentiment of the blogger. There is a universal need to fill time till death. Modern people do this through modern work while hunter gatherers did it through other means. The search for meaning underlies the work, if the economic environment allows this. Obviously, doing something, anything, to survive in a slum, takes precedence. When, however, survival is assured, as in the modern world,then social relations and personal fulfillment come to the fore.

Posted by meiler84 | Report as abusive

“Just don’t get sucked into behaviors that keep you from living a full life.” Good tip. I have got to stop trolling Reuters.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

To an older person the choice might be to hang out at some Senior Center, comparing recent operations and other physical problems, or working among people of different ages and remaining current. Many elderly prefer the latter, those that can find employment. Some start businesses, such as the handymen who installed my wife’s new kitchen sink. It’s important to them mentally, physically and economically to be employed.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive

The psychologist Maslow came up with a similar schema called the Hierarchy of Needs. After the basic survival needs are satisfied, humans look for social relations and esteem; personal satisfaction. As Churchill supposedly said: “Work is the curse of the leisure class.”

Posted by meiler84 | Report as abusive

People are forgetting the “leisure class” as Veblen named the well healed who did nothing with their enormous fortunes but spend them? Anyone with any significant wealth – even before the industrial revolution (and even Veblen said it was the rule of historic life) made sure that all they had to do was hire people to do everything for them. They were free to pursue social connections, the arts, humanities and science. The generous or more comfortable sponsored charities and founded schools and colleges. Having leisure was the aim of life, not just here but in every country on earth for most of history.

It not only has Biblical creds but every other religious tradition seemed to want the same thing. That worked best when the world was still primarily at an agricultural level of production. It started to look idiotic with the industrial revolution and democracy.

But the country must have higher employment or the entire economy is going to seize up and fail. If the only people with spare money – more than enough to live on for generations – are the few working at more than subsistence (and we have raised the bar on what is considered a necessary standard of living) while the rest are making ends meet or failing, it’s not going to survive. The economy lives on demand and if demand weakens the whole edifice gets rickety. That’s what Obama knows. I was never sure of Bush II. I think he saw OBL as a chance to control the entire country for the benefit of his wealthy supporters with a little esprit de corp lite for the rest. I think he wanted imperial conquest without the pain and al the so costs on layaway..

Even Louis XIV and Vauban knew that the old regime in France had to devise a better way of apportioning taxation than the Capitation and the various consumption taxes they used. But Louis XIV was afraid to antagonize the nobility by adopting Vauban’s more rational and fairer land taxation system. He even knew taxes had to be raised based on the ability to pay. They had a system that allowed a built in dispensation from taxation the higher one rose in the ranks. Those with the means, connections and leisure to pursue politics knew that was the way to shunt the burden to the least capable of paying without feeling the pain. That’s why that revolution was so savage. That system bred the class hatred that exploded during the revolution. I think both Carlisle and de Tocqueville said the same thing.

We aren’t in quite the same position but getting closer. The “nobility” is now the major corporations and practically anyone with major incomes. The knowledge industries don’t have employment protection for the most part. We now seem to live in a system that is more meritocratic, but tending to shunt the burdens to the least capable of self-defense; except for their idiotic guns under their beds. If they ever have to use them en masse – the jig would be up anyway. They could kiss it all good bye if they ever have to fire a shot. The madness wouldn’t stop with them or when they ran out of ammunition.

LysanderTucker wants a return to the economies of the Middle Ages. The Taliban is catchy in all sorts of surprising ways. He forgets that the Middle Ages saw the hundred years war and all those with any wealth or power tended to have to live in fortified castles. They weren’t building fortified town walls for their recreation. No unified currency and central control of that currency means no unified country: or not for long anyway. Louis XIV knew that too. I’m sure there are people in this country that would love to be warlords and they are building their arsenals now. Those who want a more competitive workforce to meet the gains of China and the developing world want sweatshop conditions to return and hate the social welfare legislation of the past 100 years.

We’d sooner or later long for the stability of Louis XIV type absolutist government and that’s probably what we’d get. Without stability, any form of government is disgraced.

BTW – that mining magnate turned cruise ship operator to rebuild the Titanic, is a fool. The ship will not impress people who take cruises. He would be better to build something with a real future for humanity than waste it on that anachronism. We should be thinking about developing the potential of living on the ocean and not just living a romantic dream.

It should be obvious that “lebensraum” is still eagerly fought for. And the ocean is more accessible than outer space. I don’t think the modern wealthy elite is particularly brave or risk taking either.

Another BTW – I don’t think the new Titanic is going to have the decor of the original unless they are building it all of fiberglass, or he was able to buy the sets from the movie? Preview photos I saw don’t show any Louis XV boiserie or Georgian paneling or stained glass anywhere. The Titanic wouldn’t rank high as a luxury ship today even with all the period details. But the dumbest thing of all about that idea: he wants the passengers segregated according to the class distinctions of the original. That is one hell of a confession of what really animates the wealthy in this society. They are desperate for status and a feeling of exclusivity.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ’d) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

Posted by lovedOne | Report as abusive

Thank’s again @paintcan, you amaze me sometimes.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive


What an incredible breadth of thinking!

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

me too, I ate one sour too…

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