Almost everyone I know is working way too hard just to make ends meet (and oftentimes not even meeting that modest goal). But at the same time so many of us have been working overtime, there's been a healthy debate about why. Is there a good reason we are working more and more for less and less? And would it be better for individuals, the environment, and even our overall economy if we all worked less? Plenty of smart folks think so.
Trust the founders of Google to tackle this complicated issue in a video chat between Vinod Khosla and Sergey Brin and Larry Page (see full video below). Long story short, they think there's no need to be working as much as we are.
As Brin said in the interview: "Most people, if I ask them, 'Would you like an extra week of vacation?' They raise their hands, 100 percent of the people. 'Two weeks vacation, or a four-day work week?' Everyone will raise their hand. Most people like working, but they'd also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests."
And while we all need something to do to fill our days, it doesn't necessarily need to be paid work. (Imagine what a great country we'd have if more of us gave 10 hours a week to endeavors that supported our local communities, for example. That could be anything from taking elderly folks hiking a few times a week to tackling local environmental problems to teaching low-income people how to cook on a budget.)
So why are we so far away from that goal? Part of it seems to be that we need to readjust our priorities: Page said, "If you really think about the things that you need to make yourself happy — housing, security, opportunities for your kids — anthropologists have been identifying these things. It's not that hard for us to provide those things. The amount of resources we need to do that, the amount of work that actually needs to go into that is pretty small. I'm guessing less than 1 percent at the moment."
Cutting consumption — buying less of what we don't need — is key. And living with less, as those who have experimented with minimalism know, tends to lead to more happiness and less stress. Having fewer things doesn't mean a lower standard of living — and may even mean a higher one, if you define that standard as "health" and "time with friends and family" and "getting enough sleep," and not the newness of your TV or lack of time spent cooking. Ask yourself some hard questions about your spending. Some practical ideas that may or may not apply to your situation include big and small ideas: Could you live someplace smaller (a way to stay in your current neighborhood for less cash)? Does every member of the family need an electronic gadget? Can you get rid of a car? (Insurance and gas add up and repairs can knock an entire year's budget out of whack; I got rid of my car for this reason.)
Raising wages is another part of the puzzle. The reason, plain and simple, that people are working 60 hours a week and still not eking out a livable wage is because they aren't being paid enough. Wages haven't risen much in the last decade, and certainly haven't kept pace with expenses (housing, especially) or even the overall growth of the economy, which in the United States, is robust. There's a reason that one person could support a small family in the '50s (including vacations and home- and car-ownership): people were paid more relative to other costs).
Saying "no" can also be effective. You can choose not to answer emails after a certain hour in the evening (let your boss and colleagues know this ahead of time if they have come to expect it — or even start a conversation about it; it is a reasonable request and you won't be the only one happy to get your free time back). You can also tell your kids that requests for school lunches, or rides to friends houses or whatever else needs to be made in advance. Growing up in my home, it had to be written on the calendar. If I forgot to write it down, I was out of luck, and I didn't get the ride or the help with a project. It taught me to respect the time of the adults in my life (and bonus: it forced me to plan).
"The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is just not true," said Brin. It will take some cultural changes, as well as some personal ones, to work less, and this is certainly a complicated question. But it seems worth tackling for a future where we could all take four-day workweeks.
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