Some French companies just banned employees from responding to work emails after work hours. A city in Sweden is trying out a 30-hour work week in earnest. But while the prospect of working less and enjoying more leisure time used to be the great futuristic promise of midcentury America, today it’s little more than a punchline.
Funemployment, staycations; these words have crept into the national lexicon as a cultural coping mechanism. Americans who are actually lucky enough to have a job here in the early 21st century are working their asses off to keep them. So what happened to the push-button world of leisure that Americans of the 1950s and 60s were told was just around the corner? Politics.
Once a key component of the American Dream, George Jetson’s button-pushing 3-hour workday has been unceremoniously tossed to the gutter in favor of a half century of increasingly dystopian futures. After World War II, Americans were told that if they worked hard and played by the rules, a technological utopia was just over the horizon. Somewhere along the way, this most American of promises was twisted into a joke about silly, entitled Spaniards and the lazy, crepe-munching French. Progress became a function of working more, not less.
Want to spend more time with your family? Maybe you’d like to take a vacation and show Junior the Baseball Hall of Fame? Move to France, you hippie! I’m sure your kids will love the Baguette Hall of Fame! You’ll stop working when you’re dead! It’s the American way!
Just about every other modern industrialized country has some basic amount of guaranteed vacation time, and many have paid public holidays. The United States has no such laws. The U.S. doesn’t even have guarantees of paid time off for sick leave—a good thing to remember the next time a barista with the sniffles hands you your pumpkin-spiced-doodle-frappu-whatsit. Strangely, we forget that paid time off used to be as American as Mickey Mantle riding an eagle through the Grand Canyon with two fistfuls of apple pie.
Americans can’t even catch a break when they’re bringing new life into the world. Sure, federal law mandates that women be allowed 12 weeks of maternity leave, but that’s unpaid leave. We’re the only industrialized country where this is the case. In Australia, it’s 18 weeks off with guaranteed pay of the federal minimum wage: about $600 per week. In Germany, it’s 14 months off with 65% of a worker’s regular pay. Why should employers have to foot the bill for maternity leave? They don’t. In most countries with paid leave, the government helps pay for it. But even that is a controversial concept here in 21st century America. It was far less controversial as a futuristic ideal 50 years ago.
The productivity and labor experts of the 1960s were certain that tomorrow would become something akin to a worker’s paradise, built on the backs of robot labor and the undying worship of efficiency. Today, many new mothers can’t even afford to take the legally guaranteed minimum number of weeks off to spend time with their new child. It perversely became un-American—un-conservative even!—to believe that spending time with your family was beneficial for society at large.
It’s difficult for those of us here in the year 2014 to appreciate just how certain this exceptional future of leisure was. But the 30-hour work week wasn’t just some navel-gazing futurist’s dream. It was taken as a given by mainstream prognosticators. With the tremendous advances in automation and robotics happening after World War II, how could you see an abundance of leisure time as anything but inevitable? The media echoed this assurance of inevitability.
In 1967 Walter Cronkite told TV-viewers at home that workers need only wait for the year 2000 for their life of leisure to arrive:
Technology is opening a new world of leisure time. One government report projects that by the year 2000, the United States will have a 30-hour work week and month-long vacations as the rule.
In 1967, some political scientists thought that the work week could be as short as 16 hours by 2020:
Those who hunger for time off from work may take heart from the forecast of political scientist Sebastian de Grazia that the average work week, by the year 2000, will average 31 hours, and perhaps as few as 21. Twenty years later, on-the-job hours may have dwindled to 26, or even 16.
And in 1969, 30-hours was seen as the futuristic norm:
“The work week and the work day will be drastically reduced,” said Gillis. “The majority of the people will be working less than 30 hours a week.” He didn’t predict just how the populace will adjust to the increased free time.
The biggest problem we would face with our newfound lives of leisure? Suicide. In 1959, Parade magazine speculated that people of the future would be driven to bouts of extreme depression from the lack of meaning in their lives. When there’s no more need to work, who wants to go on living? The world may become a “paradise” where robots do all the work and we have a guaranteed income, but at what price? Crippling depression, apparently.
Again, this shift—from the inevitability of having “too much” leisure time to the ridicule of anyone who wants to legislate paid time off—finds its roots in the politicization of how we talk about leisure and labor. Mainstream America at midcentury saw the rise of unions as a bare minimum safeguard that would ensure we were heading in the right direction. But even if you hated unions, most people saw a shorter work week as a kind of progress, however it was delivered.
In 1950 the Associated Press insisted that the people reading their article about life in the year 2000 would be able to tell their children about a primitive era when Americans worked more than 20 hours a week.
It’s a good bet, too, that by the end of the century many government plans now avoided as forms of socialism will be accepted as commonplace. Who in 1900 thought that by mid-century there would be government-regulated pensions and a work week limited to 40 hours? A minimum wage, child labor curbs and unemployment compensation?
So tell your children not to be surprised if the year 2000 finds 35 or even a 20-hour work week fixed by law.
Sadly, these hopes for the leisure society of tomorrow are relegated to the techno-utopians who are no longer taken seriously in American discourse. And with good reason. Our struggles are less technological than they are political. The American worker today is 25% more productive than he was in 2000 and 400% more productive than he was in 1950. And yet he’s seen no real inflation-adjusted rise in his wages.
The robot future is here. Our American life of leisure is not. We may lament the death of our relaxed, push-button world, but George Jetson didn’t die. He just moved to Sweden.
[Update: The wording of the first sentence of this post was changed to reflect that the agreement doesn’t affect all French workers.]
Image: Production sketch of George Jetson circa 1962 scanned from the book The Jetsons: The Official Guide to the Cartoon Classic by Danny Graydon