Why are we working more and more?

Woman working too hard in an office with files and paperwork all over her desk.

In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the century technology would have progressed to the point where the average person would quite easily have lived on a 15-hour work week. The other time could be dedicated to personal projects and betterment. Yet in the past couple decades, Americans on average spend an increasing portion of their lives at work. Could this be accounted for by increased enjoyment and meaning found at work?

The quest for meaning in work is having an (extended) moment. Coming into the job force nowadays, you’re often told that you should find your passion. You hear the idea that if you “love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life” or that you are asked “What color is your parachute?” Many recent TEDx Talks explain how you should search out your ‘ikigai’ — a Japanese word that has recently been popularized as the intersection between your passion, mission, vocation, and profession. The search for ‘meaningful’ work often appears paramount to having a fulfilling life. Maybe we’re working longer for a good cause?

It’s a nice thought, but as anthropologist David Graeber argues in his recent book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, the reality is that more and more people in the developed world spend their days in ‘bullshit’ jobs. A bullshit job, as Graeber defines it, is a job that isn’t “stupid or bad,” but rather is one where “where the person doing them secretly believes that if they didn’t exist the world would be exactly the same or it might be slightly better.” In developing his theory, Graeber points to the fall of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector and the correlating rise of professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers who have gone from 1/4 to 3/4 of total employment. His ideas are also supported by the fact that “despite the long hours, people only spend about 3.6 hours actually working, according to estimates from the Department of Labor” (Dennin 2018).

So why are we spending more and more time at work – if we don’t find our jobs meaningful? Graeber points to the dark side of correlating personal success and worth to work as he argues that “everyone is trying to prove they’re working really hard regardless of whether they’re actually doing anything. There’s this morality that work and suffering justifies your existence.” Thinking about how many times I’ve heard my colleagues and former classmates complain (humble brag) about how busy they are, how many all-nighters they’ve pulled, how late they’ve had to work, I find this correlation between busyness and self-worth rings true in my own life. This is a cruel trap in many working lives — that while we are told we should find meaning in our work and therefore work longer hours to prove it, many are mired in bullshit.

So what’s the answer to this cycle? Perhaps it is to look outside of work. As the writer Arthur Brooks notes, people frequently ask “What do you do?” But rarely do you hear, “Why do you do it?” And that second question is important to consider.”

Contributed by Katie Pfeiffer, Freelance Strategist


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