In America, we tend to think that success is all about individual effort. And recently Jeb Bush reinforced that idea in suggesting that our economy could be more robust if each of us worked harder.
That’s a truism, at best, but deeply misleading. Actually according to statistics collected by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, we already work harder than others in first world countries.
Americans now put in an average of 112 more hours per year than the British, and 426 hours (over 10 weeks!) more than Germans. And there is no doubt that we feel it as, typically, our corporations, averse to hiring new workers, will redistribute workloads among existing employees whenever they can. And those that take on the extra work, as those who already have, are fully aware of the risk that, no matter how hard or effectively they work, they also face the risk of being downsized themselves.
So, yes, if we work more hours we will be more productive, but then we would need to factor in the costs of overwork: illness, alienation and anger, stress, inattention, less time with our families, resentment and, even, sabotage. Moreover, as T.M. Luhrman pointed out recently in The New York Times, workers in the U.S. already have one of the world’s highest levels of anxiety. (See “The Anxious Americans.”)
Work is perhaps the most meaningful and important of our activities. In the modern world, work is not only how we support ourselves but also how we are connected with each other, how we gain self-esteem, and how we define who we are. But, at the other extreme, when the conditions under which we work are not protected, we face the risks of exploitation and helplessness.
There is yet another risk stemming from the fact that not all work is equal or equally rewarded. The benefits of work are distributed disproportionately, as things stand, and will become even more so, as we become an even more stratified society. As a result we will become a progressively less unified, coherent and just society.
It’s better to have a job, of course, but it matters significantly what kind of job. Those who work at McDonalds or Walmart are underpaid. So it is crucial to have social safety nets and minimum wages, as well as guarantees against exploitation. Those who work in the banking and technology industries are less likely to care about the disparities – or even notice them. But we will all end up paying the cost in terms of illness, accidents, and social friction.
But thinking on that scale seems to take place in a zone that is dead to consciousness, a kind of stagnant sea, where awareness of our deeply interconnected lives tends to disappear. We don’t think about it. The media doesn’t usually report it. It doesn’t register.
That is what makes Jeb Bush’s comment plausible. And he is not alone in thinking that way.