One thing American capitalism and communism can agree on

Nathan Adlam
7 min readJul 20, 2020
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The idea of communism hits a nerve with many Americans.

As the polar opposite of what America stands for, one can understand why. Freedom, individual rights, and pursuit of happiness, all hallmarks of American society, are squashed under communism.

With respect to the current coronavirus crisis, detractors of common sense public health measures are quick to cry communism. Social distancing? Communism! Mandatory mask orders? Communism! Dare the government to do anything to help out those who need it most…. communism.

All that said, American capitalism and Communism can look at each other across the table and nod their heads to the fact that that every working person should have two weeks of vacation per year.

At my first (and last) job, my first year I got 10 days of vacation. The next three years I received 12 days each. When I inquired with HR about getting unpaid leave, they looked at me blankly. Nobody really does that.

It’s hard to look at this and not think this is going to be the rest of my life. At this rate, I’ll never travel to Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, or South America, and the highlights of the rest of my life will be the one week a year I get to go somewhere. Maybe in 15 years I’ll have twenty days of vacation, and I can go somewhere. Oh, well. I guess that’s normal.

I distinctly remember having this conversation with an older coworker. Why should I even live? I have kids, so I live for them. But otherwise, what’s the point?

Given the current social climate, vacation is pretty low on the list of things to complain about. As many of us crawl out of our holes following a lengthy home-office quarantine, we realized how much time we actually spend working, and how that vastly differs from the number of hours we spend in the office.

The purpose of this article is not to lament our lack of freedom, but to put a spotlight on the culture of work; to challenge a society that the highest midlife mortality rate among 17 high income countries, despite spending around twice as much as comparable countries per capita on healthcare. That has seen drug overdose deaths increase by 386% between 1999 and 2017, obesity-related deaths increase by 115%, suicides rise by 38%. That has some of the most stressed-out people in the world; in this Gallup survey, the only countries that had higher rates of stress than the US were Greece, The Philippines, and Tanzania.

In America, everything must be earned. College is $100K + per year? Earn it. Want a few more vacation days? Work for a few more years at the same company and earn a couple. What is the secret sauce to getting marginal improvements in your life? Work exponentially more.

It must be a sad life thinking that working 55+ hours a week is the only way to have a real job.

Working a lot is not inherently a bad thing. Doing so at the expense of our physical, social, and emotional health is a false god. Being a work martyr is not admirable. Working your marriage to death and slugging anti-depressants are seen as badges of honor in some work circles.

It’s almost common knowledge at this point that the five-day (or more), 40-hour (or more accurately, 47 hours, per this Gallup poll from 2014 ) workweek is bullshit. It’s rigid, archaic, and unproductive. Given the fact that the 40-hour “limit” is not enforced as a corporate standard (with mostly salaried employees) what people are paid for (stress, anxiety, lack of family time) far exceeds a number of hours spent in an office per week.

Seeing as productivity drops sharply after working about 50 hours/week, this 47-hour boundary pushes it pretty close.

Back in 1914 (106 years ago, for those counting), Henry Ford cut working hours from between 10–16 (holy shit) down to eight, while doubling wages. Productivity increased (really? No way *eye roll*). This is still the standard work-day. The next company who DARES to shorten their work day and reap the benefits of healthier, happier, more productive workers, will look like a genius. The question is… who would dare to do such a thing?

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, establishing the standard 40-hour work week. That’s 81 years ago, for those same counting-types. In this year, my 91-year-old grandmother was ten. The standard, archaic work schedule has only seen marginal improvements since then. Considering how much the world has changed since 1938, it’s fascinating that this schedule still reigns supreme.

Numerous studies have shown positive results with reducing the number of hours worked every week, to no avail with much of the corporate world.

A recent study conducted by vouchercloud.com, (the UK’s largest money-saving brand) based on responses from 1,989 office workers in the UK, suggests that the average office worker is productive for about two hours and 53 minutes. This includes spending about an hour a day on news websites, about 45 minutes on social media, and about 40 minutes discussing non-work related things.

Considering you spend about 33% of your life at work, this is a sizeable chunk of wasted time, spent with people who (no offense, colleagues) you didn’t choose to spend your time with.

Latvian startup DeskTime, an employee productivity tracking software, suggests that the most productive workers work for 52 minutes, followed by a 17 minute break. This equates to around 75% productivity — 45 minutes working, followed by a 15 minute break. While the corporate work day almost never allows for such simplicity, this equates to about six hours of productivity.

Maybe you’re productive from 7–10 AM and 4–7 PM. There’s your six hours for the day. You’re good. The rest of the day, you might as well do something enjoyable. That sounds like a nice idea and all, but the corporate structure doesn’t really allow you much flexibility for that. Sorry.

Back in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the work-week would be reduced to 15 hours/week sometime in the future. This aligns quite well with the study that demonstrates that the average worker is productive for about two hours and 53 minutes per day. According to Keynes, living standards would be 4–8x higher, and we would have more time to enjoy leisurely pursuits. While he was right about living standards being higher, he was spectacularly wrong about the leisure part.

Time fills the space you give it. After having a reduced-hour workday, you’ll wish you had more time off, similar to how every single person I talk to in Europe complains about having only five weeks of paid vacation (all of which they use, compared to the United States). Talk about spoiled. That said, parents with families have to choose between health/convenience based on the extremely limited amount of time they have.

In my experience, older millennials/Gen X-ers who have families don’t have time for anything. If you’re lucky, you leave work at five, get home an hour later, make some dinner, and take the kids to soccer practice, and have approximately five minutes to themselves per day. And those five minutes are of shitty quality due to the fact that they’ve been busy or been trying to be busy for the entire day.

Is there any wonder that there’s a severe crash in the global birth-rate?

There is a massive stigma around not working during working hours, especially around leaving work early. Those who leave at 3, 3:30, or 4 get the stink eye from colleagues; it doesn’t matter if they have an appointment, are leaving early to take a meeting from home, or are just going to beat traffic; colleagues look at this person with one eyebrow raised, to suggest some unfairness about Kevin leaving early again.

The other stigma exists around doing non-work related activities in the office. We see companies like Google and Apple implementing nap pods in their offices for their employees to get some shut-eye during the day; yet for some reason, this perk is only reserved for the most progressive companies.

One of my biggest disconnects I have ever experienced between upper management culture and that of younger workers are those pesky all-people meetings. I’m swamped with work, up to my eyeballs, and yet I have to go attend an (at least)1 one-hour meeting, where I get to see the Q3 revenue of the product line on the other side of the building. Where I get to see a bunch of primped-up statistics and green charts, indicating success, like a dog-and-pony show. After I go through all this, fighting my heavy eyelids, I can finally trudge back to my desk, and continue to work on the things that I was missing out on for the last 90 minutes. Woo.

So what does the future of work look like? I’d say it will favor projects over hours, contract workers over salaried employees, and elementary-school-recess-style selection of the best workers for the most desirable projects, and everyone else to fight for the rest.

And hopefully, a bit more life.

This is an excerpt from Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights, due later in 2020.

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Nathan Adlam

English teacher, engineer, expat… writing about things I am passionate about. Author of Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights.