Live to Work or Work to Live?

In this blog entry, Benjamin Hunnicutt, author of Free Time, ponders the mysteries of living to work and the frantic pace of our lives.

July 4, 2013 looms. Fond vacation dreams return—for some of us at least. For an increasing number in the USA, however, vacations are shrinking. Expedia’s 2012 Vacation Deprivation Study, done by Harris Interactive Inc., found that Americans have far fewer vacations days that most people in the industrial world. If that were not bad enough, the study found that on average, we now fail to take about 20% of the vacation days we have earned. [1]

Widespread complaints (Google “overworked” for the past 24 hours!) about the frantic pace of our lives multiply.[2] Everyone seems to be progressively anxious, overworked, overbooked, and overstressed. Few expect relief, even when vacation season begins. “Live to work” seems to have become the unavoidable human condition.

On its face, this seems a strange state of affairs in this, the richest of nations. Set in relief against the backdrop of American history, it is incredible.

For nearly forty years I have been struggling to solve what I am convinced is one of the great mysteries of our time. Beginning early in the nineteenth century and continuing for over a hundred years, working hours in America were gradually reduced, cut in half according to most accounts.

No one predicted that this was going to end, much less that would be complaining about the frantic pace of our lives. On the contrary, prominent figures such as John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw regularly predicted that a “Golden Age of Leisure” would arrive well before the twentieth century ended when no one would have to work more than two hours a day. As late as the 1960s and 70s, the likes of Times Magazine’s Henry Luce, CBS’s Eric Sevareid, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy were sure that leisure would soon overtake work as the center of life.

However the century-long shorter work hour process stopped after the Great Depression. Since then we have had little or no decrease in our work – indeed, the work year has expanded over the last few decades. We work about five weeks longer now than we did when John Kennedy was president. Most of us would think a return to a forty hour week would be heaven-sent. Unlike previous generations, we no longer worry about leisure’s challenge.

What happened!?

Over the years, I have spent untold effort, overworking myself trying to solve these mysteries, exploring various social, economic, and historical developments. At last, I have come to the conclusion that the most important reason for the end of shorter hours, the frantic pace of life, and the unquestioning acceptance of “live to work” is something like a nation-wide amnesia.

We have forgotten what used to be the other, better half of the American dream. In our rushing about for more, we have lost sight of the better part of Freedom—of what Walt Whitman, with so many others throughout American history, called “higher progress.”

Hunnicut_approved_081412_smIn, Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, I attempted to re-present the traditional American dream of steadily increasing freedom from work. As we began to “solve” what John Maynard Keynes called the “economic problem,” a host of Americans, from colonial days to the mid twentieth century, assumed that our time would become more valuable to us than new goods and services we had never needed, or even seen before. Then we would welcome the opportunity to live more of our lives outside the marketplace.

Then we could begin to make some real progress, developing our potential to live together peacefully and agreeably, spending more of our time and energy forming healthy families, neighborhoods, and cities, increasing our knowledge and appreciation of nature, history, and other peoples, freely investigating and delighting in the mysteries of the human spirit, exploring our beliefs and values together, finding common grounds for agreement and conviviality, practicing our faiths, expanding our awareness of God, wondering in Creation—a more complete (but far from exhaustive) catalogue of such free activities envisioned over the course of our nation’s history is one of the burdens of  my new book.

Claiming a vantage point as democracy’s poet that opened to him “Democratic Vistas,” Whitman recorded scenes of an American future in which all would be free to celebrate and sing. Monsignor John Ryan envisioned “higher progress” as increasing opportunities beyond necessary work and the marketplace to “know the best that is to be known, and to love the best that is to be loved.” Struggling to save the Jewish Sabbath in America, Abba Hillel Silver wrote that the Sabbath was “much more than mere relaxation from labor. It is a sign and symbol of man’s higher destiny.” The Sabbath provided a model for “higher progress” because it represented the importance of time for tradition, family, spiritual exercise and for developing our free, humane interests.

New voices joined in during the twentieth century, swelling in a magnificent chorus, singing the praises and possibilities of “higher progress.” Bubbling up from the ranks of workers and their organizations, the chorus was taken up by educators such as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, best selling-author and president of the Adult Education Association, and Robert Hutchins, legendary president of the University of Chicago, who urged teachers and administrators to retool their schools to teach people “the worthy use of leisure.” Conservative business people such as the celebrated cereal maker W. K. Kellogg took the initiative, instituting a six-hour workday in their factories in the 1920s and 1930s. Walter Gifford, president of AT&T from 1925 to 1948, reported that “industry . . . has gained a new and astonishing vision.” The final, best achievement of business and the free market need not be perpetual economic growth, eternal creation new work to do, and everlasting consumerism, but “a new type of civilization,” in which “how to make a living becomes less important than how to live.”

Radicals and socialists such as Helen and Scott Nearing, Norman O. Brown, and Herbert Marcuse saw increasing leisure as a form of bloodless, democratic revolution, and progressively shorter hours as the practical way for Americans to free themselves from the tyranny of corporations. They predicted that with abundant leisure and public education, ordinary citizens would begin to understand that perpetual work and everlasting scarcity were the creatures of capitalism and corporations rather than laws of nature. Increasing free time might translate into the political power necessary to counterbalance the building tyranny of concentrated wealth.

Naturalists and environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold and Sigurd Olson argued that an economy that produced more leisure instead of ever more consumption was the last, best hope for the preservation of the natural world. Parks, wilderness preserves, and national forests held open the possibility that humans could learn and nurture an alternative, leisure-relationship with nature, based on wonder and celebration rather than exploitation and development.

Poets such as Vachel Lindsay; playwrights and theater builders such as Percy MacKaye, Paul Green, and E. C. Mabie; painters such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton; architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Flagg; musicians such as Shin’ichi Suzuki; chefs such as Julia Child; and craftsmen such as Elbert Hubbard envisioned a world in which citizens wrote their own poetry, staged their own local dramas, performed pageants, played and sang their own music together as naturally as they spoke their mother tongue, cooked gourmet meals for each other, and helped design, build, and decorate their own homes in their free time.

Understanding our lives as the subjects of our own community-based literature, drama, sports, fine arts, and quotidian discourse, we moderns had the potential to transfigure the commonplace, elevating everydayness with the do-it-yourself creations of democratic artist and artisan. “Higher progress’s” free, creative endeavors would join people in vigorous, free civic engagement, creating communities held together by tolerance, conviviality, and perhaps even affection.

By the middle of the last century, the original American dream seemed to be coming to life. The days were arriving when Americans children devoted more and more of their lives to what John Ryan foresaw as opportunities to “know the best that is to be known, and to love the best that is to be loved.” The day of democratic community and culture was dawning. Real progress was just beginning.

I have long argued that this strange turn of events might be best explained by a new, primarily twentieth century view of work, what might be called, pace Max Weber, “the spirit of capitalism.” This novel belief elevated work, for the first time in history, as an end in itself rather than the means to other, better things— as the main arena in which to  realize the full potential of human beings. Two historical corollaries followed the advent of this belief: the perpetual need to regenerate work continually lost to technology; and perpetual economic growth necessary to support eternal work creation. This new American dream and its corollaries, together resembling, more and more, a new modern faith/religion (what Robert Hutchins called “salvation by work”) eclipsed both the “forgotten American dream” and the shorter working hours process that supported it for so long. As shorthand, I have called this new, thriving faith “Full-Time, Full Employment,” tracing its origins to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first two administrations and outlining its continuing, pervasive political, economic, and cultural ramifications, summed up in the politician’s mantra, “jobs, jobs, jobs”  and the corporate apologist’s  job-creation based justifications of obscene corporate salaries and practices.

But “Full-Time, Full Employment,” is not sustainable. The belief/expectation, “good jobs” for all, is a failing faith: a hopelessly utopian dream. The perpetual economic growth necessary is unsustainable on several levels. The environment: As so many have pointed out, sooner or later, the environment will be depleted— nature  is showing more and more signs of her exhaustion. Politically: governments’ efforts to sustain “Full-Time, Full Employment” have passed the point of diminishing returns as progressively slower economic recoveries and mounting debt complicate governments’ attempt to stimulate their economies. Economically: as governments’ efforts fail, chronic unemployment and more frequent and severe cycles result as job killing machines continue to outpace the job-creating abilities of modern economies (economic growth will have to advance at record high levels for decades in order for most of the modern industrial nations to grow themselves out of chronic unemployment). Globalization and the Internet compound the problem of chronic unemployment. Ideologically: what Robert Hutchins called “salvation by work” is progressively unable to fulfill its promise of good jobs for all, creating new generations that feel betrayed by their jobs.

Economic growth has become cancerous, destroying healthy culture and civility, destabilizing the vital functioning of society and undermining the essential foundations of trust. “Full-Time, Full Employment” has produced what Herbert Marcuse called  “one-dimensional man,” nearly incapable of imagining anything better than work for more work, or of recognizing when he has enough, pilling up evermore wealth, security, reputation, and consumer goods with no destination in sight.

Economists since John Stuart Mill have repeatedly suggested shorter working hours as one of the few solutions to the problems caused by capitalism’s cancerous growths. In order to encourage the renewal of the shorter hour process, we must recover the forgotten American dream. We need to hear again the words of Jonathan Edwards: “Labour to get thoroughly convinced that there is something else needs caring for more.” We need to listen again to Walt Whitman, passionately calling us to the “Open Road,” urging us to live out our humanity to its fullest—to search out and experience “the thing for itself” and to realize “only the soul is of itself . . . all else has reference to what ensues.” We need to hear again the voices of industrial feminists such as Fannia Cohn urging us to cultivate “deep community” in a shared “spirit of intimacy,” making progress in both aspects of our lives, “Bread and Roses.”

We are prevented from realizing the forgotten American dream by no inexorable political or economic reality. Shorter working hours remains the portal to the “realm of freedom,” offering an eminently more practical and sustainable future than the pursuit of eternal economic growth and everlasting job creation. What only is lacking is belief and commitment.

With the revival of the forgotten American dream the will to change might reemerge, either by government regulation of work hours or, much better still, at the level of individual firms such as Kellogg’s and through individual choices in the marketplace. Higher Progress will be possible once again when more of us choose freely to liberate more of our lives from the economy, making the most basic of consumer choices to forgo new spending and luxuries, as well as modern illusions about the everlasting need for more wealth and work, in favor of spending our lives beyond work and outside the marketplace.

Quoted passages are from Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream

[1] The 2012 study was conducted online by Harris Interactive among 8,687 employed adults in September and October 2012 on behalf of in North America, Europe, Asia, South America and Australia. Go to

[2] see Tim Kreider’s “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” New York Times, Opinionator Blog, June 30, 2012

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