Someone sent me an interesting article about how US workers get so little vacation compared to workers in other developed nations. The article makes the usual points: US workers get typically 2-3 weeks, at best, while Germans get 6 weeks and loads of countries provide four. Part of the reason, of course, is that other nations’ laws require businesses to provide paid time off, while US laws do not. Many workers get no paid time off in the US – not even sick time, and I think too few middle class Americans are aware of this fact. Retail workers, customer service workers, temp workers, contract workers – quite a few jobs only pay you if you show up, so bring your nasty flu and come on down if you want to afford the doctor you have to pay out of pocket because you also get no health care. Viva America!
But the article asks the question: why?
“There is simply no evidence that working people to death gives you a competitive advantage,” said John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, a group that researches the effects of overwork.
He noted that the United States came in fourth in the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 rankings of the most competitive economies, but Sweden — a country that by law offers workers five weeks of paid vacation — came in second.
This is nothing new. We’ve known for a while that longer hours don’t equate to heightened productivity, and can even correlate to a drop in productivity as stressed-out employees take sick leave to deal with stress-induced ailments. Employees working long hours should suggest to a CEO not that everyone’s motivated and productive, but that a lot of time is being wasted.
We know these things. Law makers know these things. If CEOs don’t know these things, they are not paying attention. The human brain cannot focus in high gear for a neat 8 hours a day with a lunch break. We can’t be productive five days a week and then rest on the other two. Our work and everything else in our lives is all jumbled together in our brains, which haven’t evolved to compartmentalize for pre-arranged blocks of time. So why does American culture value working long hours and taking little time off as a signal of good work getting done?
Answer: because that myth furthers the real goal behind a job-based economy.
Employment isn’t about enabling people to fend for themselves more comfortably than our ancestors had to. It might seem like a much nicer arrangement than having to grow crops and hope the weather doesn’t wreck them, and hunt meat and grow livestock and worry all the time about whether it’ll be enough. And it can be. But employment merely shifts your dependency on Mother Nature to dependency on some company continuing to employ you – and in some cases, your chances would be better with Mother Nature.
And even good companies who nurture and respect employees have to lay people off sometimes, and employees know this. The dependency on the job is always in the back of your mind, coloring your thought processes and decisions about your entire life.
The net effect of employment is not to empower you, but to make you dependent. That dependency ensures a few things:
- You’re less likely to whistle blow than you would be if you had another way to make ends meet.
- You’re less likely to complain if you’re mistreated, which can give your company a significant unfair advantage against other companies.
- If you’re harassed, you probably know complaining is more likely to result in your being let go than your harasser being let go, so you just take it. Nice perk for the company’s pet bullies!
- You have less time to devote to family and community, let alone grass roots movements that might challenge the establishment. That’s good for the establishment!
- You’re probably too stressed out to do anything but take shit and convince yourself it’s not so bad.
I’m not suggesting every company takes full advantage of this dependency – they don’t. My point is that the system is engineered to create a dependency that works out really well for those few people who are living most luxuriously at the expense of the vast majority. How do you oppress a huge majority of people? Keep them exhausted. Keep them dependent. Keep them frightened. It’s what family abusers have known for years – how else would one person ever manage to abuse a spouse and one or more kids? It happens all the time, because abusers intuitively know the rule: keep them exhausted, dependent and frightened.
I’m also not saying that employment is a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be. But the way we go about it, especially in the US, it functions primarily to reinforce classism and only secondarily to get stuff done. We need to reverse that order.