Our Soured Romance with Overwork

Why we keep falling for overwork over and over again.

Even today, books and TED Talks are dedicated to proselytizing the benefits of working long and hard. Yet there is increasingly little evidence that working longer yields better results for anyone. The average American spends 50 minutes (10 percent of the working day) doing anything but work, according to an analysis of the American Time Use Survey—and productivity declines once you work 50 hours or more. If anything, most of the productivity gains of the past four decades have come from advancements in technology, not from working longer.

 

The idea that working ever harder and longer leads to better results is as American as apple pie, despite all evidence to the contrary. Chronic overwork is unproductive, unhealthy, and destructive of a balanced life.

Yet against the evidence—and against the advice of incredibly successful people such as Henry David Thoreau and Henry Ford—overwork remains America’s second unofficial religion. How did we get here? Look to the earliest days of America’s history. Even as technological and social changes have made it easier to work less and earn more, we’ve still clung tenaciously to a certain vision of the past.

Survival and opportunity

The men and women who settled on the shores of Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and the rest of what would become the original 13 colonies were all too familiar with the Calvinist beliefs that 1) labor was evidence of saved souls, and 2) idle hands were the Devil’s workshop. But working harder than they did back in Europe (where the average laborer of the time worked six hours a day, according to historian Lois Green Carr) wasn’t just about securing their places in heaven.

Many of the early colonies, including Jamestown and Plymouth, were founded by companies whose original goals were to find gold and silver. After finding none, they began trading in tobacco and other natural resources. High mortality rates, both before and after arriving, meant that fewer people had to work much harder. In Jamestown alone, all but 60 of the original 500 settlers died within three years of settling due to starvation, lack of knowledge of farming and hunting, and conflicts with the American Indians who were already there. The lack of existing infrastructure meant that the settlers had to build it for themselves.

Thanks to Capt. John Smith, whose books on colonizing Jamestown and the New World were popular in Europe, settlers also knew that there were real opportunities to master their own fates and attain the kind of wealth unavailable to them in the Old World. So long as you weren’t a debtor, an inmate or an African slave (the latter of which were unable to profit from labor until after the Civil War), your farming, fur-trapping, fishing, forestry and skilled labor could yield prosperity. This thinking also reinforced beliefs that your prosperity was a sign of God’s favor.

So Americans worked long and hard, often in back-breaking toil. By the end of the 17th century, Carr estimated that the average colonist worked between eight to ten hours a day for at least six months of the year—and that didn’t include other tasks that could take another three hours a day. Colonial governments also encouraged long hours through laws, requiring laborers to work from sunrise to sunset. By the time the colonies gained their independence from Britain, they didn’t need Benjamin Franklin’s admonition to “be always employ’d in something useful.” Because they always were.

Work more versus work hard

Working harder and longer remained the unquestioned norm of American life—until the Industrial Revolution came along.

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