For most of human history, leisure has been a luxury reserved for the ultrarich. The more money you had, the more you could kick back and enjoy the good life. People didn’t work because they enjoyed it, or because it helped them achieve their unique potential, or because it gave meaning and purpose to their lives. They worked because they had to. In 1870, the average American toiled about 3,100 hours a year — more than 60 hours a week — often in backbreaking, lung-blackening factories and mines. If you were lucky, you got two weeks off a year to call your own.
Jump to 1980. The average American work year had plunged to 1,800 hours — almost half what it had been only a century before. Thanks to widespread economic growth and massive gains in productivity, spurred by everything from assembly lines to computers, people were working less and earning more. America seemed on the verge of achieving the free-time utopia envisioned by Benjamin Franklin, who dreamed of a society in which everyone would work only four hours a day and “want and misery” would be banished from the world.
But then something strange happened. In Europe, the average workweek continued to get shorter. But in America, the long, steady march toward a more leisurely future came to an abrupt halt. Today, according to the international economic database Penn World Table, the German work year is an astonishing 380 hours shorter than ours — which means that Germans work almost 10 weeks less than we do every year.
Even stranger, Americans began to glamorize their lack of free time. As the boomer generation reshaped society in its own image, it brought its ’60s, countercultural ethos to the workplace — transforming the staid, conformist office into a vessel of self-expression. Work became the central means by which you undertook to live your best life, follow your passion, and change the world. As Goldman bankers and Google idealists alike began to toil through the nights and weekends that previous generations had fought so hard to secure for them, mental-health professionals bemoaned the rise of what became known as “hustle culture.” Working long hours was suddenly the ultimate status symbol, a peculiarly American form of humblebrag. In 2017, a clever marketing study found that if you told an American you worked long hours, they assumed you were rich. If you told an Italian the same thing, they assumed you were poor.
The following year, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tesla’s huge popularity with young engineers. It was puzzling, because the carmaker paid lower salaries than the Big Tech establishments and was famous for making its staff work crushing hours, as many as 100 a week. “They run on adrenaline, stock options, and a shared passion with the company’s leader to change the world,” the paper observed. Elon Musk tweeted the article. “There are way easier places to work,” he boasted, “but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” The message was clear: If you want to rid the world of gasoline-powered cars and colonize Mars — and become the richest person on planet Earth in the process — you need to devote your life to your job. Leisure is for losers.
America wasn’t founded on a cult of work. It was founded on an ideal of personal liberty. Work as we think of it today — a place we go to, for a set amount of time, to earn a wage — didn’t take shape until the early 1800s. Until then, most people, whether they were small-scale farmers or independent artisans, blended what we would today consider work with plenty of personal activities throughout the day, including long meals, naps, and drinking. There was no separation between labor and leisure. Everyone worked from home. Work was home.
As industrialization drove more and more people into factories, Americans fiercely resisted the punishingly long hours that came with mechanized labor. “The order of things should be somewhat reversed,” argued Henry David Thoreau, the country’s foremost champion of leisure. “The seventh should be man’s day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow; and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul.” Workers organized into unions to demand shorter weeks, and they lobbied for legislation to limit work hours. Their efforts paid off: Every decade from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, according to estimates compiled by economic historians, the workweek decreased by about an hour.
Americans spent their growing free time — and their expanding paychecks — on a range of new businesses designed to cater to their recreational interests: saloons, dance halls, cafés, amusement parks, movie theaters, and professional sports events. As cities built out their public services, in the hopes of encouraging more wholesome activities, thousands of parks, beaches, libraries, schools, community centers, and playgrounds sprung up across the country. Even corporate leaders saw the benefit of less work and more play. In 1928, the president of AT&T, Walter Gifford, predicted the coming of a new civilization in which “how to make a living becomes less important than how to live.” In an echo of the American dream espoused by the Founding Fathers, he added, “Every one of us will have more chance to do what he wills, which means greater opportunity, both materially and spiritually.”
Then came the Great
, which supercharged the movement for free time. With unemployment spiking to 25%, shorter hours became a way to create more jobs. The cereal maker Kellogg turned its three daily shifts of eight hours into four shifts of six hours, making room to hire more people. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, a landmark law that capped the workweek at 40 hours and required employers to pay extra for any overtime. In the battle between work and free time, the winner was clear: Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Americans had reclaimed more than 20 hours a week for themselves.
But there was one catch. The Fair Labor Standards Act didn’t cover a small but growing class of workers: salaried white-collar professionals, who were emerging to serve the bureaucracies of big corporations. Sheltered in clean offices, separated from the indignities of the factory floor, this new middle class started to develop its own ethos of professionalism — one that sought to minimize free time by emphasizing devotion to one’s employer. In a text for managers titled “Developing Executive Ability,” a professor of commerce advised that “every man should put his whole soul into something, should nurture a ruling passion and tremble under the influx.” This was something new — what sociologists would come to call the norm of the ideal worker. As it evolved, the white-collar dream became less about serving your employer and more about fulfilling your potential and passions through your career.
This new ethos of work — combined with the loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act — soon proved critical in the battle over free time. Around 1980, as President Ronald Reagan launched an assault on labor unions and government benefits for the poor, the century-long decline in US working hours came to an end.
But this time, in a strange twist, it wasn’t the working class who wound up being subjected to longer hours — it was professional elites. Dora Costa, a professor of economic history at UCLA, tracked the shift by analyzing three working-time surveys. In the first, conducted in the 1890s, the lowest-earning 10% of American men worked the longest day, at 11 hours, while the highest-earning 10% worked the shortest day, at nine hours. That made sense: Those who were earning more could afford to work less. In the second survey, conducted in 1973, that difference between the top and the bottom had compressed to about 40 minutes, but the poor still worked more than the rich.
But by 1991, when the third survey took place, the country had turned upside down. The top 10% of earners were working the most hours (8.7), while the bottom 10% were working the fewest (8.1). The economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano found something similar in a different dataset: Between 1979 and 2006, there was a big jump in the share of highly paid men who worked 50 or more hours a week. For some reason, the people who needed to work the least were now toiling the longest.
The reason was simple: Despite the right’s attack on organized labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act prevented employers from overworking their hourly employees without providing overtime pay. But they were free to squeeze as many hours as they wanted out of salaried employees, without paying them a penny more. And the rise of globalization, combined with a wave of mergers and acquisitions, meant that loyal professionals who had devoted themselves to their jobs could no longer count on lifetime employment. “Because of this risk,” Mary Blair-Loy, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, told me, “people felt compelled to work harder and become indispensable.”
At the same time, salaries and taxes were shifting in a way that gave professionals an added financial incentive to work nights and weekends. Between 1980 and 2014, the earnings of the top 1% of Americans tripled, while tax rates in the highest bracket were slashed by almost half. If you commanded a high salary and could look forward to hefty bonuses and stock options, working nonstop was increasingly worthwhile.
But salaried professionals didn’t just put in long hours to get richer. In the mid-1990s, Blair-Loy studied the motivations of female executives in high-powered industries like finance. These women worked extreme hours and made huge salaries — a median of $450,000 in today’s dollars. But Blair-Loy found that they weren’t just motivated by the money: They loved their jobs. They lost themselves in their work in a way that transcended time — a state that psychologists call flow — and it gave them purpose and meaning in their lives. They talked about their work in ways previous generations spoke of God. “It was complete euphoria,” one executive explained. “I really worshiped my mentor,” another said, adding that her job had been “enormously good for me” in terms of “who I think and know I am.” By contrast, they hated their free time. They considered it “mundane,” Blair-Loy noted, “compared to the excitement, significance, and intensity of work.” One executive said holidays were a “nuisance” because “you have to stop working.” Work was fun, and leisure was drudgery. “To say that these women lack ‘work-life balance’ is beside the point,” Blair-Loy wrote. “For these women, work is, in large part, their life.” Blair-Loy gave this a name: the work-devotion schema.
Blair-Loy also found that the executives demanded the same level of commitment from their teams. One executive refused to promote a talented employee who had children, because she couldn’t “stay all night to finish a deal.” Another complained about female employees who didn’t show up early enough because they insisted on driving their kids to school instead of shoving them in a cab. The executives were punishing people who didn’t put work first, as they did. It was no longer enough to do your job. You had to be your job.
By the time I moved to San Francisco in January 2012, the single-minded devotion to work that Blair-Loy identified in finance executives had been taken to a whole new extreme in Silicon Valley. I came from Japan, where karoshi, which means death by overwork, is an official cause of death. I was moving from one overworking culture to another, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. In corporate Japan, you stayed in the office until 9 every night out of obligation to your employer. It didn’t make you rich, but you were ensured job security until you retired. In California, you also stayed until 9 every night, but only because you wanted to: You were changing the world, connecting billions of people on the internet with status updates and cat videos, inventing new categories of things. What could be more rewarding than that? Besides, there was the prospect of an enormous payout, potentially far greater than even the gaudiest salaries on Wall Street. Four months after I arrived in San Francisco, Facebook went public. Rumors circulated that the initial public offering had created 1,000 millionaires overnight.
Thankfully, I was never lame enough to post #hustle or #thankgoditsmonday on Instagram, as many were doing by the end of the decade. But even so, I wound up guzzling plenty of the Kool-Aid being ladled out by the cult of overwork. When I lived in Japan, I liked my job as a business journalist just fine, but I didn’t consider it my identity, and I certainly didn’t associate it with any grander ambitions. I was more concerned about my dating life. Flash forward to a few years after I arrived in San Francisco. My ambition had inflated to Silicon Valley proportions. I was staying later and later in the office, even though my wife didn’t think it was safe for me to bike home in the dark. I wrote and edited on weekends. I love my job, I told everyone I met. It’s so rewarding. Like those sad executives who Blair-Loy studied, my free time felt empty, devoid of the rush I got from crafting a perfect sentence or opening a supportive email from my boss.
None of this felt weird or wrong, because all my friends, whom I was seeing less and less of, were working even longer hours. When we did manage to meet up for the occasional dinner, we loved to talk about how busy we were — our skills so rare, our time in such high demand that we didn’t have enough hours in the day. Commentators had once heralded us millennials as the first generation to demand a true work-life balance. Others scolded us for being lazy. Both turned out to be wrong. But at least my friends and I were still eating. Plenty of others in the Valley were turning to powdered Soylent shakes to avoid losing time on meals, despite some pretty gross gastrointestinal side effects.
What made hustle culture so powerful was that we wanted to live this way. We were told it was fun, and therefore not really work. We were told it would make our lives worthwhile and complete. “You’ve got to find what you love, and that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers,” Steve Jobs told Stanford’s class of 2005, shortly after he recovered from pancreatic cancer. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Love what you do: Jobs wasn’t the first person to suggest it, but it was especially powerful coming from such a singular, history-altering figure. By then, a cottage industry of self-help books, blogs, and management consultants had sprung up to spread the Gospel of Love What You Do to every laboring soul in every walk of life. No longer was a zeal for work the sole province of coders and clergy: We came to expect it from our baristas and bartenders as well. The sociologist Erin Cech gave it a name: the passion principle. In her new book, “The Trouble with Passion,” Cech documents how college students trying to decide on a career have come to value pursuing their passion above material concerns like income and job security. And the same trend applies to students from every socioeconomic background, whether they grew up rich or poor.
Millennials and Gen Z, in short, had fully embraced the “work is life” ethic they inherited from their boomer forebears. In 2018, about the time Elon Musk was crowing about the grueling work hours at Tesla, the Pew Research Center surveyed American teenagers about their aspirations for the future. Some 95% of them said having a job or career they enjoyed was extremely or very important to them — beating out helping others (81%), having a lot of money (51%), getting married (47%), having kids (39%), and becoming famous (11%). Once a niche and novel ideal of the few, hustle culture had invaded the still-forming brains of virtually every kid in the land. The transformation of American work culture was complete.
Benjamin Hunnicutt, now a professor at the University of Iowa, began studying the history of American leisure as a graduate student in the 1970s. Over the years, he has watched the scales tip more and more toward work. He wrote several books, published op-ed articles, and talked to every journalist who showed an interest, urging Americans to reconsider their ever-growing obsession with work. In “Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream,” he struck a pessimistic note. “It is doubtful,” he concluded, “that recent efforts to combat overwork will delay capitalism’s colonization of more and more human life.”
But Hunnicutt made that dire prediction way back in 7 B.C. — Before COVID. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, the question of why we’re all working so hard suddenly became foremost in the minds of millions. Virtually overnight, our jobs started to feel way less important than our personal lives. Americans began quitting in record numbers: an average of 4 million every month since April. It was the most abrupt and sweeping shift in our collective assumptions about labor and leisure since the creation of the eight-hour workday.
Older professionals I’ve spoken with say the unexpected disruption to everyday life helped them see there’s another way to live. They like getting to see their kids more than an hour every night, and they can’t imagine going back to the way things were. “Before, I’d drop off my daughter at school at 7:30 in the morning, I’d pick her up at 6, take her to a sports activity, put her to bed, and then keep working,” a 43-year-old human-resources professional told me. “Everyone else I knew was doing that, so I didn’t think it was weird. I did a lot of things on autopilot before that I wouldn’t do today. I know better now.” Younger professionals, meanwhile, began looking for less demanding jobs, or decided to take a break from work for the first time in their lives.
A similar reckoning has been taking place across corporate America. Suddenly, in a throwback to the six-hour shifts of the Great Depression, it seems as though every HR department in the country has been desperately trying to get its employees to work less. Splash, an events-marketing platform, gave employees two mental-health days a month. Bumble and LinkedIn shut down for a week. TextNow, a texting app, started paying for vacations and established a paid sabbatical for long-tenured employees. But the most radical change was led by Bolt. In September, the e-commerce checkout company began experimenting with a four-day workweek — without cutting anyone’s pay. “When you’re given permission to take a break, you really get that recharge,” Laura Levinsohn, the head of employee experience at Bolt, told me. In a staff survey in October, 84% of employees reported that the change had improved their work-life balance. This month, Bolt announced it was making the policy permanent.
There are signs Americans are eager for a deeper reorientation toward work. Last year, when the Pew Research Center asked Americans what gave them meaning in their lives, only 17% cited their jobs. On Reddit, some 1.7 million people — young and old, blue collar and white collar — have flocked to a community called r/antiwork. Some come to celebrate quitting their terrible jobs. Others spend their time hating on billionaires, or urging everyone to support workers across the country who have gone on strike. What they share is a sense that our prevailing notion of work is deeply, deeply amiss. “The only reason we spin this hamster wheel daily with our ‘routines’ is because it’s just how things have been,” one Redditor wrote. “The pandemic has catalyzed what has the potential to be a new era where we value our lives over our jobs.”
The one thing you won’t find at r/antiwork, unlike virtually every other corner of the internet, are self-help tips to make you a better employee. I’m not a regular Reddit reader, but over the past few months I’ve found myself returning to r/antiwork on an almost daily basis. It’s energizing, in this moment of peak burnout, to spend a little time with people who flatly reject individual, Band-Aid responses to America’s collective epidemic of overwork. Thoreau would have felt right at home in the online equivalent of Walden Pond. “There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living,” Thoreau wrote in an essay published in 1863. “It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work.”
The way we glorify work in the United States is both a historical and geographical anomaly, a recent American invention. In Europe, industrialized nations have found a way to marry robust economic growth with dramatically shorter workweeks. And before you try to explain this away with some version of well, that’s Europe, it’s worth noting that from 1870 to the 1970s, Americans actually worked less than the Germans and the French. “While it may seem today that differences in work patterns are eternal aspects of European and American lifestyles,” a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research observed in 2005, “these differences are modern in origin.”
Europeans, the study found, don’t have more leisure time than Americans simply because their labor unions rallied behind a continent-wide message of “work less — work all.” They have more leisure time because it’s the law. France introduced the 35-hour workweek in 2000, and it has required large employers to negotiate with unions about when they’re permitted to email employees, a protection called “the right to disconnect.” In Germany, no workday may exceed 10 hours, even if there’s a big presentation the next morning or a product’s about to launch. And it’s illegal for most managers to ask their employees to work on Sundays.
The study also raised an intriguing and more speculative possibility — that a “social multiplier” may have turbocharged the European trend toward less work. Europeans, in other words, value their leisure time more because their friends and family are around to enjoy it with them. It’s a virtuous feedback loop that favors time off: The more people there are who are free from work, the more everyone comes to enjoy their freedom.
All of that translates to a striking difference in working patterns. In 2019, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germans worked four hours less than Americans every week. What’s more, Germany requires employers to offer at least 20 paid days off. In practice, though, the average minimum is 30 days — which comes on top of nine public holidays. That’s nearly two months off a year. The United States, by contrast, doesn’t require employers to offer a single paid day off, even on national holidays. Somehow it is Europe, not America, that has come to put a meaningful value on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“These ideas about the reduction of work are not radical,” Hunnicutt observes. “They’re not communist. They’re not Marxist. They represent the best of the forgotten American dream.”
In my conversations with American expats in Europe, they say what surprised them the most was how seriously, almost militantly, their European colleagues would guard their personal time. What would be a sure, I’d be happy to jump on that quick call at 8 p.m. here at home is a nonstarter across the Atlantic. If their employment contract states their hours are 9 to 5, Europeans leave the office at 5, and they won’t log on from home after their kids go to bed. They’re able to be firm with their employers because it’s not up to them as individuals to strike some sort of work-life balance. The law, and the powerful work councils that serve as their company-level unions, back them up.
Today, there are signs the pro-leisure ethos that long animated American life may eventually make its way into federal law. In March, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would be the biggest expansion in labor rights since the New Deal. In December, the Congressional Progressive Caucus endorsed a bill that would limit the workweek to 32 hours. And President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill seeks to reduce the burden of work on millions of Americans by extending more tax credits to families and guaranteeing new parents four weeks of paid family leave — a benefit already provided by 186 other countries. All these measures face strong political headwinds, but they represent a warning shot across the bow of hustle culture.
In December, one member of r/antiwork prompted the community to get more specific about ways we might put an end to our cult of overwork. “What are our demands?” the Redditor wanted to know. “What systemic changes do you want to see?” Thousands of responses rolled in. Universal fucking healthcare that isn’t tied to employment! A mandatory number of paid vacation days! A livable minimum wage! Unions for everyone! A 32-hour week! It all sounded so earnest, so impossible, so utopian. Except for one small fact: Almost all the solutions they proposed to America’s culture of overwork are already firmly in place throughout much of the developed world.
Two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers believed it would be America, not Europe, that would lead the world into a more leisurely future. A “Political Arithmetician,” Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend, had calculated that four hours a day of work from everyone would produce “the Necessaries and Comforts of Life” so “the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure.”
So what was standing in the way? “The Eyes of other People,” Franklin said. “If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine Clothes, fine Houses nor Fine Furniture.” It was an astute diagnosis. We work for status. And we’ve done it so single-mindedly, so relentlessly, that work has become status.
Today, America is 50 times as wealthy as it was in Franklin’s time. His descendants can fly across the globe and sequence the DNA of world-threatening pathogens and talk to anyone, anywhere, on a device they carry in their pockets. But his dream of a four-hour day still feels like little more than a dream. Since 1982, America’s economic output per person has doubled. But if time is money, as Franklin famously observed, we have failed to spend a single penny of those hard-earned gains to buy ourselves the most American of all assets: freedom.