How Can the U.S. Make Life Less Draining for Workers?

The problem isn’t so much not having it all, but having way too much.

KieferPix / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

A&Q is a special series that inverts the classic Q&A, taking some of the most frequently posed solutions to pressing matters of policy and exploring their complexity.

Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.

That’s how the 40-hour week is supposed to work, right?

But as many American workers—and especially working American parents—know, those eight hours for “what we will” seem all but nonexistent, drowned out by an endless cycle of housework, childcare, commuting, and more work. According to one recent OECD survey, the United States ranked 29th out of 36 countries for “work-life balance,” a comparison of hours worked versus hours devoted to leisure. In most cases, the brunt of this brutal load falls harder on women, who still do the bulk of housework and may find careers, particularly those with the most financial and personal rewards, impossible to sustain.

Less than a century ago, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the labor-saving effects of technology would mean that by 1929, Americans would hardly have to work. For a time he was right: The workweek shrunk until about 1970 and has remained stuck at about 40 hours (and for some groups, such as top-earning professionals, it’s even gotten longer). Is there any way to put America back on the course he predicted, one that would give workers a bit more time to invest in their families, their communities, and themselves?


Workers need paid parental and family leave so they can take care of new babies and sick kids and spouses and still have a job to come back to and money to live off of.


There is no question that paid parental and family leave is a fantastic starting point. The U.S. is radically out of step with the rest of the developed world, which guarantees new moms paid leave.

In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act provides workers with 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but this law only covers about 60 percent of the workforce (many small employers are exempt, as are many types of families) and, even for those who are covered, many can’t afford to go without pay.

A national paid maternity-leave policy would bring the U.S. in line with the basic offerings of other developed countries. Paid family leave would take this even further by covering workers when they have sick children or parents.

At the same time, no child is self-sufficient by the age of 12 weeks, and most parents need to occasionally miss work for things other than illness. Even when nothing is wrong, how is an employee supposed to both work until 6 and be at daycare or an after-school program by 6? What can be done to make life easier in the regular day-to-day, when workers aren’t on leave?


There should be affordable or free childcare—not just school starting at age five, but daycare and pre-K starting as soon as parents return to the office.


The cost of childcare is, to put it in simple terms, crazy. As the economist Heather Boushey recently put it to The New York Times, “Childcare is just as expensive in many places as sending a kid to public university, but a college kid can get a part-time job. A toddler can’t.” For many families, the cost of childcare can mean that one parent simply can’t work, and as a result families end up cash-strapped.

Although lessening the cost of childcare would not directly give families more time, there clearly would be indirect effects, such as reducing the time a parent needs to work to cover the childcare tab, or the aggregate effects of enabling more women to advance further in the workplace. Perhaps more importantly, the cost of childcare is central to balancing the competing demands of work and life; it reflects the value society places on parents’ time and ambitions and the work of caring for one’s family.

But even when workers have good, reliable childcare, work and life can still come to butt heads. What happens when a worker needs to be home so that an electrician or plumber can come? What happens when a kid has a rough day at school and needs a parent’s embrace and comfort?


Beyond parents, all workers could use a bit more flexibility. If telecommuting is a possibility, depending on the field of work, employees shouldn’t be expected to physically be in the office every day; working from home should be allowed, even encouraged. Hours, too, need not be so rigid. If an employee can easily wrap up a project or task after the kids go to bed, it’s unnecessary to force them to get it done between 9 and 5.


Flexibility can definitely be a major life-saver for those days when the demands of home and the demands of work are just not going to fit neatly together. But there can also be negative consequences: Often, workers who have the “perk” of working from home wind up working even more hours in order to prove their worth. And once you’re set up to work from home on occasion, what’s to stop that from becoming a more regular expectation? In some ways, “flexibility” might be lead to even more hours devoted to work and fewer devoted to self-care or family or friends.

Also, who benefits from flexible workplaces? Only a rarefied few have jobs for which working from home or on off-hours is even a possibility. For many industries—medicine, education, retail, food service, childcare, manufacturing, resource extraction, etc.—the majority of workers need to be on-site to get the work done.

Perhaps a more instructive question is this: What are U.S. workers seeking out when they try to gain “flexibility”? It’s control—control over their schedules and whereabouts. Flexibility may provide that to some extent (albeit with some costs), but if what workers want is control, the best option may be self-employment. One recent study found that mothers valued the flexibility of self-employment at around $7,000, and that for many of them, that’s reason enough to leave their jobs and try to make it on their own. The thing is, plenty of people who leave standard jobs to work on their own find that it’s not just the regular paycheck that they miss: A lot of benefits and protections—for example, how employers pay half of their employees’ Social Security and Medicare taxes, or insurance in the case of on-the-job injury—are tied to formal employment, not merely working and generating income.


So to support people who decide to go that route and become their own bosses, we should just make benefits “portable” and not tied to traditional employment.


No question this would be a significant step toward encouraging more Americans to work for themselves, and there is already a coalition of technology and business leaders and other advocates who are pushing for such a change.

But no one—self-employed or traditionally employed—can work less (portable benefits or not) if they can’t afford their basic expenses. Without greater pay, of course Americans are going to be working long hours in order to earn more to make ends meet. In fact, one recent poll found that half of hourly workers want to be working more. Why? They need the money. Would these portable benefits actually enable them to work less?


So perhaps wages need to rise so that people will not need to work as much.


Inequality does in some ways does seem to be the core of Americans’ struggle to spend enough time on the things that matter outside of the office. When Keynes made his prediction that Americans would be working just 15 hours, he did so based on trends of increasing worker productivity (and therefore, he assumed, wages) over time.

Though the economy’s aggregate productivity has followed Keynes’s projected path, worker compensation has not. Instead, the gains are going to a very few at the very top, while for the vast majority of people, wages are about what they were four-and-a-half decades ago. At the moment, Americans can’t work less because they need the money.

But even the richest Americans are working more than ever. The reasons for this are not well understood. One theory is that they simply like their jobs—these are professionals with interesting careers; perhaps, as economists would put it, the “disutility” of their work is sufficiently low that doing more of it (especially given their compensation) is worth it. Another theory is that the alternatives available to them are much worse—they could give up their intense hours, but then they’d have to switch to a whole different career path, presumably one that’s less appealing and less remunerative. Doing the same job 80 percent of the time just is not an option. But at any rate, if those at the top of the income ladder work more despite rising wages, how could we be sure that the pattern wouldn’t hold true for other workers as well?

In other words, if more Americans were doing well financially, would they bear down on work just the same as highly paid professionals are doing today? Or would greater equality change American culture so dramatically that work-life conflict might, for once, dissipate a bit?

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Is there any reason to think that the situation might get any better?

It’s possible that should the economy continue to improve, a tighter labor market will have all sorts of implications for how much and how hard people are working. If employees have a bit more negotiating power, will they be able to attain better benefits such as paid family leave? If they start getting paid better, will they be able to reduce their hours?

One thing that’s shifting is that for years this issue has been largely discussed as a women’s issue. But there is a growing acknowledgment that work-life conflict is a problem for families of every arrangement. Will this issue get more traction as an “everybody” problem? As men take on more work at home, will the question of overwork and resulting burnout become more salient politically?

Maybe there’s an answer we haven’t considered yet. Drop your thoughts into an email to