“THE FOUR-DAY WORK WEEK WON’T BREAK THE ECONOMY…IF WE DON’T BREAK FIRST”
Capitalism is proving detrimental to our mental health, and we’re all burning out
By Amanda Farr
We’ve all heard the expression, “work to live, don’t live to work.” Yet, somewhere along the line, those ideas became blurred and entangled. We are living to work because without work we won’t live.
Capitalism and the Millennial Generation
It was once believed that capitalism and technological advancement would actual shorten our working hours. Professor David Spencer of Leeds University writes that in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously dreamed of a 15-hour work week by 2030…If only, right? Instead, work persists and the demand signal has not diminished. If anything, it has increased. Spencer highlights that consumerism (read: capitalism) has promoted a work ethic that assigns a level of normalcy to longer hours.
Collectively, society has ascribed morality to overworking, and it’s hurting us. Author Malcolm Harris argues that millennials, especially, have been thrown into “a state of perpetual panic” due to inheriting the “economic damage wrought by late-20th-century capitalism.” One of his greatest points of contention is with the dividing gap between productivity and compensation. This gap is a level of exploitation for workers and a byproduct of capitalism. We are all working more every day with little increase in our wages (as evidenced by the disappearance of a true middle class), and this has disproportionately impacted millennials.
Author Anne Helen Peterson, published her book Can’t Even How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation. Peterson breaks down how millennials entered an economy where the question was never if you would go to college, it was where. My generation were constantly assured that hard work mixed with a college degree and sprinkled with a litany of extra curriculars was the recipe to success. The reality was this formula didn’t guarantee success at all. In many cases, we simply gained anxiety and overwhelming student debt. The latter of which has simply reinforced the former, because how else can we get out of debt? We must keep working.
We simply don’t own our time
By unpacking some key lessons from Marx, writer Thomas McGath breaks down how working less, working more together, and working towards the liberation of all will lead to the end of what he called “the tyranny of the workday.”
McGath notes that even the leading advice on career progression and productivity imply there is a level of sacrifice to our time in order to achieve our goals. We’re faced with the daily paradoxical choice to use our downtime for a mental reset before the next day’s challengers or focus on optimizing your own output. Even our free time is somehow hijacked by our working hours.
Peterson agrees, workers must constantly prove their productivity throughout the work day and there are rare opportunities to unplug whether via email access, mobile phones or in some jobs that employ social media, work hours truly never end. Millennials work all the time, now. They have to, according to Peterson.
We are statistically seeing higher rates of stress, overwork, and burnout…yet struggling with unemployment. McGath argues that a fight for a shorter work week is a way to equal the playing field and share “the productive exchange value with those systematically shut out of it.” It focuses more on working towards meeting needs not profit, because in a shorter work week there is more focus on the actual labor required to get the job done.
According to Professor Spencer, evidence shows how longer work hours are associated with various forms of sickness – both physical and mental. The reduction of work hours, in this case, could help to raise the health and well-being of workers.
This progressive new definition for the value of our work and more equal distribution of labor would yield more control over our free time as well as more productive capacity to use our time as we see fit, according to McGath.
Our modern capitalist society has perpetuated a sickness across our culture. We are selling our labor and, most importantly, our time at exponentially greater rates with less and less return. We are burning out, and we need to find a way to break the cycle. The four-day work week is one place to start.
Where do we go next?
Embracing a four-day work week requires a paradigm shift in our approach to the workplace. The fix is not one-size-fits-all, and there are clearly arenas that need greater analysis such as education. But it’s not impossible, and to pass over an attempt because its challenging would be a disservice to the working class.
We need to start through deliberate and thoughtful engagement in the workplace on burnout and employee workload and productivity. Leadership at all levels must be prepared to own their culpability in a culture that has pushed employees to overdrive.
Late in 2020, I was looking to alter our organizational structure. We were having some issues in the office with time management, chain of command, and meeting standards. I presumed that some basic reorg changes would be the antidote. But, before I dropped the sweeping changes, I first opened an anonymous feedback channel. I knew that no matter how much you can espouse an “open-door policy” or encourage free discussion, people may still fear retribution or judgment of their viewpoint. I used this channel to baseline the climate for my unit. I was able to find some recurring themes, as well as identify the clear outliers (there are always one or two). I read every single note, twice.
When I walked into our next meeting to discuss the feedback, I left no stone unturned. I focused on one key leadership lesson I’ve gained from Dr. Brene Brown over the years: vulnerability. I wanted to meet my people where they were. Even though I may have disagreed with their feedback or concerns, their perspective needed to have equal value and voice in the space we were creating as a team. If they didn’t feel heard from the beginning, why would they have buy-in with the solutions moving forward?
I finally opened the discussion with acknowledging my part in some of the “failures” or less that perfect moments for our team. I outlined the feedback given and added some of my perspective. I found when I re-opened the floor for discussion, people were more compelled to contribute and feel their voice would be heard. Through our dialogue we were able to collaborate on some of the solutions to the reorg together, and the expectations were explicitly clear as we walked out of the room. It was a much more productive way to approach the tension and respect our office dynamics.
In order to engage in any tough conversation or proposition expecting pushback, you must come prepared. Presenting alternatives to the status quo will be picked apart. It doesn’t mean you need to have all the solutions, but your argument should be researched and fact-based.
This infographic by Society for Human Resource Management is a great place to start. Poke holes in your own argument, and consider the same questions that your opponents may bring to the table.
You also need to consider that everyone walking into the conversation will have both unconscious and implicit biases. Name them where you can. It’s uncomfortable, but when you can make space to discuss them you can then start addressing how to tackle them. In some cases simply by naming the bias, you may be able to dispel the myth on the spot.
The most important part of discussing a controversial topic, however, is to listen. It may feel like the end goal is to be right. But truly, the end state should be the best solution for the team. This means honoring the questions and feedback you receive. You must drop your pride and recognize that another perspective may help you grow, develop or even evolve your initial solution in the first place. This requires active listening. You can always start there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Farr is graduating in Winter 2021 with a master’s degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication. She received her Bachelor of Journalism in Public Relations from Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, in 2012. Upon graduation, she entered the U.S. Air Force through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps as an active-duty service member. Amanda currently serves as the Chief of Public Affairs, 60th Air Mobility Wing, Travis Air Force Base, California. In this role, she directs the Public Affairs program for Air Mobility Command’s largest wing with C-5, C-17, KC-10 aircraft, and the Air Force’s largest medical center. Amanda lives in Vacaville, California, with her husband and three children.