We Need to Rethink Our Overwork Culture

Miles Howard on 2019-05-09

2020 Democrats are feeding into the “dignity of work” mantra. They should be talking about the “dignity of life” instead.

Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

Recently, while out to lunch with a colleague, I found out that her four-year-old daughter had just received a study guide for an upcoming test. She mentioned this casually, as if the idea of a preschooler studying for an exam was as normal as a person staying late at the office or taking up a side gig. “These kids have barely learned how to play,” I told my friend incredulously, “and they’re already being sent home with test-prep booklets.”

“I guess it’s a bit strange,” she conceded. “But what can you do?”

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. The idea that work should always precede play is central to America; it’s hammered into us as early as preschool. And, as we know, Americans work too much. We plow through the standard 40-hour work week. We rarely take vacations or personal time off (even if our employers offer it). We honor our virtuousness as workers with catchphrases like “always hustling” or “you’re crushing it!” — only to try to convince ourselves that fetishizing labor is good and healthy.

But, in fact, work is killing us.

Study after study has revealed the alarming physiological effects of working too much. Overworking can result in stress, high blood pressure, a vanishing libido, and insomnia. It’s no wonder depression costs U.S. businesses an estimated 200 million workdays each year. Conforming to our overwork culture now feels like a survivalist necessity. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the 2020 presidential race.

Just look at how the candidates frame the value of work. Sen. Elizabeth Warren launched her campaign by calling for a restoration of the promise that if you “work hard” and “play by the rules” you can afford to take care of yourself and your family. Joe Biden, considered the Democratic frontrunner, has since shoehorned a similar talking point into his campaign speeches and messaging: “The dignity of work means that hard work pays off for everyone,” Biden said at a recent rally in Ohio. “We can restore the dignity of work.”

“Dignity of work” is a more ideologically loaded idea than Democrats likely realize.

The core idea behind this mantra is that working bestows dignity upon a person. Candidates often lean into this messaging in a patronizing attempt to court working-class voters who’ve been impacted by wage stagnation and trade deals that led to labor outsourcing. But “dignity of work” philosophy is a more ideologically loaded idea than Democrats likely realize.

Today’s overwork culture couldn’t have taken root without the Protestant work ethic—a remnant of Puritan roots that defines human goodness as the result of hard labor. While the Protestant work ethic may have given Americans a competitive advantage, there’s an ugly side to it too: Namely, it fueled the long-held idea that the poor are less hardworking and are thus less deserving of sympathy. So when Democrats say things like “people who work 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty,” they’re propagating the notion that work—and work alone—is what gives us dignity.

But this is a deeply misguided and harmful idea. Not only does it lay the rhetorical groundwork for depriving some people of resources and lifelines—on the premise that they’re not working hard enough—but it deprives all of us of having a more honest conversation about America’s problematic work culture. Obviously jobs are important, but so is our ability to lead a life with dignity beyond our professions. And the latter isn’t being addressed by any of the candidates who aspire to lead the post-Trump recovery.

Imagine how cathartic and emboldening it would be if, instead of waxing poetic about “dignity of work,” candidates talked about “dignity of life.” “There’s dignity in simply being human,” they might point out. All of us should be guaranteed the means to enjoy our time here, regardless of how we pay the bills.

In some ways, this wouldn’t actually mark such a significant departure from the 2020 rhetoric. Top candidates routinely declare, “health care is a human right.” It would hardly be a stretch to turn that message into a bold and full-throated dignity of life argument. Access to health care is critical to enjoying life to its fullest. If that’s indeed considered a human right, everyone deserves to have the ability to enjoy our time here together.

Medicare for All activist Ady Barkan made exactly that case last month. While testifying before members of Congress, Barkan gave a passionate plea for a single payer health care system on the basis that spending less time dealing with the headache of navigating our insurance system would allow us more freedom to do the things we love. Time is among our most precious commodities, he noted; health care could be a vehicle to reject the age-old philosophy that hard work must be valued above all else.

The Democratic party is presiding over what may turn out to be the most progressive presidential platform in modern U.S. history, and that’s cause for hope. But universal health care, education, and childcare will only take us so far in a society where work is still considered our principal reason for being alive. As long as overwork reigns supreme, millions of us will continue to find ourselves strapped for the time and space to fully benefit from new parity measures. Failure to recognize and uphold the dignity in being human will sabotage the party’s vision and leave most of us just as tired, angry, and anxiety-stricken as we are today.

Just ask all those burnt-out millennials. Or my friend’s toddler, once her next exam rolls around.