One way I’ve tracked the state of American society over my years as a reader is to revisit books that made a splash when they first appeared. Mostly it’s a depressing exercise. A book comes along that offers a perceptive critique of this or that aspect of the culture, and soon enough the chattering classes are abuzz with observations on the subject. The problem is dissected and moaned over, and then promising new approaches are identified and mooned over.
But after a few months interest in the problem is displaced by the next perceptive critique. Revisit the whole matter after ten or fifteen years and you find that the problem exists unchanged, or perhaps changed by events and circumstances that completely escaped our diagnostic efforts at the time; meanwhile, the promising new approaches turn out to have been stillborn, or to have faded away after the initial splash, or (all too often) to have been used as an opportunity for a few “experts” to build a career writing books and giving talks about the promise of the approach.
It’s all a shame, because quite often we miss the value that could have been gotten from a less ambitious, more patient, humbler take on the matter. If instead of taking these critiques as presenting a problem to be solved (a take usually encouraged by the writer), we took them simply as discussions of difficulties whose sources should be sought out and pondered, we might end up accumulating some wisdom in the process.
As an example, take the matter of the American habit of working to exhaustion for the sake of material gain. This was a hot topic twenty years ago. One of the best-known (and best) works on the topic was Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure; I don’t remember if it was the book that actually sparked the national discussion, but it was certainly emblematic of it. And some of Schor’s observations live on in the national consciousness, e.g. the fact that Americans spend many more hours at work than their counterparts in other affluent Western countries. But do we really remember what Schor had to say about how we got into this mess, or the reasons why it actually does constitute a mess, or the promising new approaches that might get us out of the mess? More likely we have a vague feeling that people in the know have looked at the problem, fixed it as best they could, and whatever remains of the problem (in this case, all of it and more) is simply intractable.
But if we if had set aside our impulse to cut to the chase, and instead taken our time to fully understand Schor’s account of the situation, we could have come away from the discussion with a bit of wisdom that could be applied to much more than this specific subject. And that bit of wisdom is staring us in the face, right there in the book’s subtitle, The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. What? The ongoing decline in leisure was unexpected? We somehow expected that leisure would not decline, that it would at least stay constant and perhaps increase?
Well, yes. And most of us should have at least a vague memory that this was one of the promises of modern living, that technology would provide us with labor-saving devices that would free up time previously devoted to labor, that could then be devoted to leisure. Perhaps accompanied by a vague puzzlement about why we have more such devices than ever, but are also working more hours than ever.
Juliet Schor addresses that puzzle in some depth. And it turns out to involve much more than merely the failure of technology to deliver on its promises. Here are some of the things that Schor establishes in her study:
- Americans really are working longer hours, not by choice but out of necessity.
- Before the advent of wage labor, the average person invested about half as much time in providing for their needs.
- When wage labor became widespread, employers found that once their basic needs were covered workers were prone to choose leisure over further pay for further work.
- Employers would much prefer to have fewer workers working longer hours than more workers putting in fewer hours.
- In the beginning a primary goal of unions was to obtain shorter working weeks for their members.
- To increase his work force by one hundred, Henry Ford had to hire one thousand new workers, 90% of whom would quit rather than endure the conditions. This changed only when the culture changed and laborers began to live larger, requiring more disposable income, making them dependent on keeping a wage-paying job.
- Labor saved by new devices in the home was more than offset by a corresponding change in standards of living—more frequent housecleaning (and more stuff to be cleaned and maintained), changing clothes daily, fancier meals.
- Consumer credit did more than anything else to establish a cycle of work-and-spend, where spending increases the need for paid hours, which leads to further spending as a compensation for circumstances made increasingly miserable by work.
Schor ends her book with the usual account of promising new approaches to addressing the problems she has identified. I realize that such optimism is de rigeur. Some of the writers I admire most, such as Jacques Ellul, are regularly dismissed because they offer analysis and criticisms without proposing solutions. After three exceptional books analyzing various ills of modern society, Neil Postman announced that he would no longer do so, finding it too depressing, and would from then on write only on subjects where he had positive proposals to make.
But it is exactly this demand on the part of readers that diminishes the value of the resulting book. It is tempting, and too easy, to breeze through the early chapters of The Overworked American, come away only with the idea that we work too hard, and then be comforted in the end by the knowledge that forward-thinking people are on the case. Instead, I think we ought to be astonished at how much of Schor’s historical account is at odds with conventional wisdom, and then start looking at how radically our own thinking needs to be adjusted so as to be consistent with it. In the end it is clear thinking, rather than some poorly understood off-the-shelf approach, that will help an individual negotiate the maze of his own life.