Why Americans can't stop working: the poor can't afford to, and the rich are enjoying themselves

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the title probably says more than the story and will run the unsuspecting away unless they have experience or knowledge of this sometimes controversial issue. I ask “What is work?” There are way too many persons occupying buildings without being expected to actually perform a functional duty. Then are those who perform and perform for years the work of ten people. Management level philosophies have historically followed an exo-Euro pattern of kings and peasants in the US where concepts of worth and value remain unbalanced. Many humans are doing busy work that does not help others or makes no sense and have no time to develop thoughts.


Depressing, very depressing.


Our economic policies are too often codependent with the idle wealthy by failing to use enough common sense, democratic solutions to support working people: single payer health care, fair access to no-interest credit for college, in-fill development, affordable housing, campaign finance reform, increased penalties for profiteering, public transportation, local food, etc.

Supply side economics is basically plutocratic socialism that benefits people who live primarily from fees and capital gains and leverage from “smart deals” predicated on social inequality and predatory credit practices.

… Whew. Sorry. Feels better though.


And yet what most of us are told is that we’re not working enough.


Management aren’t owners. they, too, are reliant on a steady paycheck to pay for health insurance. If the owners demand that anyone who wants access to a hospital in case of emergency needs to work 8- hours a week, then managers must also comply.

Unless somebody in is the 1% they are 1 accident and 2 paychecks away from catastrophe. Managers have a nicer house and better food in the mean time.


Friedman article summary: The key reason is that [Keynes’s prediction that the work week would shrink with rising production] failed to allow for changing distribution.


It’s less about it being a a “labour of love” than that people in the American management class define themselves by their work (and, less salubriously, from the hours they put in doing it and from using money as a score).

I can understand the first part. Despite what they say about early retirement if they come into money, most people aren’t The Dude and want to spend their days doing at least a little more than bowling, driving around, and having the occasional acid flashback.


Yes, the stakes are higher because they have more to lose. And as you say, in the absence of single-payer universal health insurance it doesn’t take much to lose it all. Add in consumer debt and the system is designed to keep them on the treadmill for 50-80 hours/week, which is too much even for work one enjoys.


I’d caveat to say we’ve got two problems

  1. We treat management as if it’s a more valuable skill than actual competence in a field. Being able to manage a bunch of people is a different skillset, not a better one, and it shouldn’t be the default growth path for skilled workers.

  2. The big ‘suck’ is actually way beyond management and instead comes from the top .1% and .01%, who rarely venture foot into the buildings we work on and very few of them have any positive relation with productivity. They’re just good at paying people to help them influence policy and make money off of investments and tax breaks.


Upward re-distribution works.

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Since 2008, only better food is likely. Home equity and retirement assets aren’t safe assumptions any more. Also, more non-dischargeable student and medical debt service is the new black for many professionals, including managers.


This explanation doesn’t hold up to me.

The top 1% don’t really intersect with my social circles, I don’t see why my poverty in relation to them would make me work longer.

As for my standard of living what are they measuring? I have far more access to travel, unusual food, entertainment, and all other non-service based goods than I would have had 20 years ago.

There’s a guy in our office who wants to transition to a 30 hour work week with the corresponding pay cut, I think that’s a great idea, though he’s very much the exception.

I think we work more than other cultures because our social networks aren’t as good as they used to be (fewer things to draw us out of the office) and because work is more enjoyable than it used to be (better workplace practises).

The boss explanation strikes me as an ideological justification, why can’t non-bosses like their jobs too? I think that would have more to do with the feeling of responsibility for the things that need to be done. I know people who were in senior management and left because the hours were too long.

Well according to the OP, it’s because the increased wealth from increased production was distributed disproportionately to people who were already wealthy. For working people, esp. over the past 30 to 40 year period, wages and salaries stayed flat or dropped, benefits decreased, home equity, retirement assets and savings decreased, and debt increased.


I believe the point in this case is that with the top 1% (and more importantly .1% and .01%…the 1% is kind of a red herring here) gobbling up a disproportionate amount of our newfound bonus productivity and the people doing the work aren’t reaping the benefits.

It’s like a tax on the efforts of the people doing the actual work.


I’m in management and my wife is not but we both work in silicon valley engineering organizations. We’ve discussed this over dinner more than once and we’d each happily take half our pay in order to work half as many hours if that was an option for us. It isnt…so we work for the wages we make, even when high, for the hours given because it is that or no work at all (and no one wants that in America anymore if you want to keep a roof over your head and have any resilience).

Do you set the number of hours you work? Do you go “Oh, this week I’d like to work 24 hours but next week, I’d like to work 48?”

I know of no one who isn’t an independent contractor or freelancer (or self-employed) who gets that choice and those folks that I know are hustling all the time just to have the knowledge that they’ll have enough work coming in with no lulls that they don’t normally take breaks of no work.


I think you’ve missed the key point here. Its not that people are working more hours in an attempt to make a wage closer to their wealthier bosses. Its that the average worker has to work more hours for the same pay and benefits as compared to the average worker 10, 20, or 30 years ago. It takes more working hours just to keep it together these days. Whether in a work week that greatly exceeds the “normal” 40 hour work week as a requirement to maintain employment, increased (paid) overtime to compensate for stagnant wages, or in the holding of multiple jobs.

On paper you would think that if workers are producing more, doing more work, in the same amount of working hours. If better productivity equates to more money in the system (which is usually does). Then the actual number of hours should stay the same with pay going up, or working hours should go down with pay staying the same. But that isn’t happening. Productivity is going up, but in the US working hours are also increasing while pay stays the same or goes down. Which is not necessarily something you see (or at least not as extreme) in other countries. These guys are attempting to figure out why. The answer increasingly looks to be that all of the extra funds and benefits of all that additional work are going to the already wealthy owner, investor, and executive class.

Its absolutely nothing to do with an aspirational attempt to make more or reach the 1% status by working more. A working week in excess of 40 hours is a requirement for maintaining employment or current economic class.


Given your background and experience, you seem like the best person to address this question: the legacy arrangement of tethering medical care insurance with employment— what’s its relevance (if any) to this trend?

I occassionaly work a 35 hour week. I have to be sneaky and make sure my bots and automation are tip top, and I’m also on call 24/7.

When this gig is over I’m gonna be a pretentious Baker, and charge mast brothers chocolate like prices for ‘single source, organic sourdough with flax’ to rich fuckers who can’t taste the difference between Franz and Acme.

yeah, I’m part of the problem, but I’ll give a loaf for free to anyone that just asks


Also we have expanded the number of goods and services we consume since 1973. In 1973 there was essentially no consumer market for computers, internet access, Pay TV (Including Streaming services) and the average price of phone services and equipment has grown substantially. This is one of the things that defused hyperinflation in the 1980s. In the US we’ve created and expanded the number of goods and services that are available for buyers to spend their money on. At the same time real wages have fallen, prices have increased and society changed. All of this together staved off the hyperinflation crisis and reduced the impact of stagflation while normalizing the concept of prices will rise much faster then wages.

Now technology promises to make the unskilled or semi-skilled worker pool a highly competitive Just-in-Time market. the new “gig economy” want’s to break down all of the power of the worker and pit them against each other so that employers can cut administrative and tax costs to the bone. At the same time many technically skilled employees are voluntarily becoming contractors because the industry is volatile and many companies come and go in a short time frame.

All while the concept of the union dies slowly of starvation. Organized workers are vilified in the press and public opinion for being “too greedy” because they are fighting for what was normal before the 1970s. And they are starved by “Right to Work” laws and companies that negotiate in bad faith because they know that every strike makes the unions weaker.