Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
From the perspective of North America, New Zealand sometimes looks quaint and naive. The recent announcement that the Government is setting up a steering group to co-ordinate policies to promote a work-life balance is a great example.
A government not only acknowledging that its people work too hard but doing something about it? In this day and age? Unbelievable.
But only when you compare it to the United States, where the overwork ethic has become so bad that this year October 24 has been dubbed "Take Back Your Time Day".
That's the day the average American will have worked the equivalent of a full European work year. Take Back Your Time Day is a nationwide initiative to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that the promoters believe threatens health, families, relationships, communities and the environment.
In fact Americans work more now than they did in the 1950s (remember how all those mod-cons were going to free up your leisure time?), more than medieval peasants did, and more than the citizens of any other industrial country.
Americans, caught in the vice-grip of spiraling work hours, spend nearly nine full weeks more a year on the job than their counterparts in Western Europe. Even the standard two-week holiday is almost a memory.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it has now become 8.1 days after the first year, jumping to 10.2 days of holiday after three years. While Australians get four weeks a year and the Chinese three, 13 per cent of US companies provide no paid leave at all.
But what does all this time deprivation do to a person? For one, it keeps you so busy you can't think, not in any depth, not with any acuity and not about a lot more than what to mindlessly consume next (after all, mass production requires mass consumption).
Volunteer and other social functions decline in a work-obsessed society. And as time for family and friends is extinguished, so, too, are foundational relationships.
And you can't sleep. The National Sleep Foundation says the reallocation of time and prioritization of work has a direct effect on sleep. Those who work more sleep less, it says. The result is a nation of fractured, sleep-deprived people.
But it's the children who suffer the most. For the kids of "over-workers" it means extra hours in every day being "on", their creativity besieged by their time pressure, their lives spent fitting into their parents' stretched schedules.
And if parents aren't taking holidays, neither are the children, at least not the kind of family-centered holidays on which great childhoods are built.
Of course the Government's plan to set up the work-life balance steering group to address these issues before they become endemic, before we become mired in the work-to-live society, has met the usual chorus of disapproval.
The National Party employment spokeswoman, Katherine Rich, called it an example of social engineering. She is worried it could end up hurting business.
"Even the concept of work-life issues sounds very Orwellian, this idea that the Government can somehow extend its tentacles into areas that it hasn't before," she said.
And she's right. It may end up hurting business. But the impact of the alternative is far more wide-reaching and damaging to the cohesion of our society.
And it is social engineering. But the real naivety is to think that allowing business values and goals to run the country is not social engineering. Clearly it is.
The alternative is the American system, a society engineered and run by corporate kleptocrats, aided and abetted by the very governments they have bought.
In that world, workers are minions, too exhausted to think, let alone vote or care much about the results. A populace too tired and stressed to protest.
For those of us living on the cusp of America, and crossing its borders regularly, it is clear it is a nation in distress. People don't travel and they hardly take time out, except to shop.
Unless they're unemployed, and there you have the motivation behind the overwork ethic.
Fear of losing: your job, your status, your consuming ability. The ironic fear of missing out causing you to miss out on a grand scale, your affluenza finally killing you.
But that fear doesn't come naturally. It is the most effective tool a corporate-run society can have and it is being sculptured, molded carefully to fit so seamlessly around US society that Americans are hardly aware they are wearing it.
Taking the wide view, our Government's plan doesn't look idealistic, far-fetched or draconian. Instead, it is clear-headed and intelligent, the far-sighted action of a Government with a vision for a society that puts people first.
President George W. Bush calls the American way their "blessed lifestyle". But then he gets three months' holiday a year.
Earlier this year, the President visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi death camps in Poland.
It seems unlikely that he would have stopped long enough to read the inscription over the concentration-camp gates: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Will Set You Free). It was a lie then and it's a lie now.
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website to read more of her work: http://www.sumnerburstyn.com/.