34. The tragedy of overwork in a society without time

Nobody works more than Mexicans. While for some this is a matter of pride, behind this reality lies the massive abuse of the Human Right to rest and reasonable work time. We will first explore the consequences of a society without time, before proposing some alternatives.

“No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal” (Seneca, on the Shortness of Life)

According to the latest statistics of the OECD (year 2020), Mexico ranks nr. 1 amongst industrialized countries in worked hours with 2124 hours on average per year. Before the pandemic, this peaked at 2149 hours in 2018, when only Colombia has  been able to top this. To give context to just how much Mexicans work: Germany has an average of 1331 hours. Especially (but not exclusively) in the North this comes with a culture of overwork, where people are expected to either work 12 hour jobs, or combine multiple jobs in an attempt to become or stay middle class. This is of course not counting the domestic work for families, and certainly not counting all the outsourced domestic work of the cleaning ladies, nannies and grandparents that are the real backbone of society.

    This essay will examine life in a society without time. In the first part I will argue from various perspectives why the lack of leisure is one of the most underrated problems of life under late capitalism. A life that is, for many of us that, absurdly tiresome given the means that are available to us. In the last part we reflect on the question how we could even start to reverse this, ending in some policy proposals for work time reduction and more enforceable labor rights.

We start with an observation of the Roman philosopher Seneca in his book On the shortness of life (49 AD): “Men trifle with the most precious thing in the world; but they are blind to it because it is an incorporeal thing, because it does not come beneath the sight of the eyes, and for this reason it is counted a very cheap thing—nay, of almost no value at all”. While it is popular to say that ‘time is money’, our society is organized around letting go of the first in massive amounts to obtain the latter, which makes us collectively forget that time is our life itself while money is only an asset. Ironically, for the middle class this money is then spent on goods that we don’t have time to enjoy. The capitalist rat race thus shortens our life in two ways: first, indirectly via the epidemic of stress related diseases and anxieties; second, directly by robbing us of time to live.

    The fact that Seneca is still relevant despite that he wrote this almost 2000 years ago should be cause for alarm: all that progress and we are still struggling!? Indeed, one of the gravest lies of modern society is that technological advances would save us time. While this is partly true in the domestic sphere (to a large extend thanks to the washing machine), professionally little advancement was made outside certain regions like Western Europe which used legal enforcement. In our side of the world, the advance of machines and robotics has created uncertainty, unemployment and replacement for one part of the population, while overburdening those who are still employed. Thinking technology will somehow ‘free’ us on its own betrays a naive understanding of capitalist power relations, as it serves capital more to cut people and place their remaining tasks on the shoulders of others. With new possibilities mainly came new opportunities – from artificial light to teleworking – for overwork.

To further understand the injustice behind this tragedy, we must next look the issue from a Marxist angle. Marx’s theory of exploitation taught us that profit comes from making people work longer than the time it costs to generate their wage. At some point of the day, employees will have earned enough to pay for their own salary, and any time spent working after that is pure ‘surplus value’ or profit for the owner. In other words: because of exploitation there is a direct relation between average work time and inequality. Unsurprisingly, many of the countries (Mexico, Costa Rica) that top the chart of highest average work time also rank in the top of highest inequality. To combine the insights of Seneca and Marx: we are wasting our life and personal development by making other people rich. Those same rich people will of course make us believe they work even more, yet one has to only drive by the full parking lots of expensive restaurants at 3 PM to understand there is a qualitative difference. Especially with Amazon and call center employees with rationed toilet time. 

    Besides injustice and shorter lives, what are some of the other negative consequences of our collective lack of time? One evident consequence I discussed in a previous essay is the impact on family life – or lack thereof. We have outsourced, rather than solved the issue of family work/balance. To move of woman into the labor market simply means that they (and their husbands) have less total free time than before, unless they outsource that work to for example grandmothers. In what follows, I will discuss two less evident consequences to demonstrate the broadness of this issue.

    First comes the lack of quality in almost any professional interaction. People are structurally overburdened, late at everything, tempted to cheat and underperforming because they lack the time to do any given task correctly. As too often happens in Mexico, the lack of quality is made up for by even more hard work, which creates a negative cycle that is hard to break. Our institutions are full of quick fixes,; and dedication to a single set of tasks and the quality that comes with this are rare to find in middle class jobs. To use an example from academia, many professors who work other jobs to supplement their salary don’t prepare for classes and don’t actually read the works they grade (sorry to reveal this to you). Increasingly large classrooms have a similar effect, and since nobody can receive feedback, nobody improves. Especially amongst younger workers this overburden is sometimes self-imposed, and they grew up in a culture where you say “yes” to any opportunity, which paradoxically might end in you failing at all of them.

     Lastly, I want to touch upon the consequence for political and civil formation: who still has time for that? The old Greeks like Plato understood early that political participation (including informed dialogue) was directly related to leisure, and made the creating of this leisure time a key political issue. In a modern context, less time means only the consumption of headlines, tweets and political gossip at the water cooler rather than real political formation. Those on the Left who complain about Mexicans being distracted by football, should have realistic expectations of people who come home from a 12 hour shift (+2 hour traffic) to a pile of domestic work and other obligations. I would argue that late work (9 to 8 jobs) and weekend work are amongst the key factors that hold back the political emancipation of workers in the North. How many ambitious and idealist young people simply get crushed by overwork until they lose interest in politics?

Who is going the lead the charge against this injustice? Not your servidor, for he suffers from the same sickness as the rest and works multiple jobs. In my life I only have met a handful of people who both do valuable work and take the limits of their own work time serious. Those of us who have trouble breaking the pattern could at a minimum encourage those who can, and end the toxic norm of overwork in our culture. We are all conditioned to be happy for those with material success, let us also be happy for those with control over their time. Habitual over commitment is a big part of why people fail us and why we fail others. This nigh constant occurrence leads to even more overwork in picking up the pieces and time wasted waiting for people. We need to learn to say ‘no’ to commitments that we cannot keep, instead of the disingenuous ‘sure’; and start appreciating people telling us ‘no’ as a sign of honesty and a commitment to quality.

    In this context of cultural change, it is important to remember that the right to rest is not an abstraction but an actual human right, article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948) reads: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay”. This is one of the most routinely violated and least known human right in Mexico (economic rights in general are marginalized). If we can see through the toxic culture of overwork that the late-lunch-tell-nanny-to-pick-up-the-kids elites push on the middle and working classes, we can start demanding a change.

    One concrete proposal is worktime reduction. Since Mexico is so far ahead of other countries in annual hours, we don’t need to do anything radical. Since we on average already work more than 8 hours a day, making the 8 hour work day a reality would by itself make a difference. As we discussed, this is not to be expected from technology, as employers will seek to cut people rather than hours and our digital work will follow us home. We should travel in reverse: less hours, more people. Besides opening up more time for family, health, self-development and participation, the most important benefit is enabling a better coverage of jobs amongst the population, potentially reducing unemployment. Consider the following example: the average night guard works 12 hours shifts, which means we need two persons to guard a building around the clock. With an eight hour work day, we would have three guards in rotation: one new job gets created. The example I gave is extreme, but in most contexts eliminating overwork should at least allow for a few more contracts. Spread the word, if you find the time!