The Moral Case for Working Less

We shouldn’t work less simply because it allows us to be better workers. We should work less because it allows us to be better humans.

Illustration of a briefcase with an umbrella and a beach chair on top.
IIllustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Forty-year-old Josh Epperson works 10 to 15 hours a week and makes about $100,000 a year. After more than a decade in the corporate world and seven years working at a global brand consultancy, he has spent the past three years running what he calls “The Experiment.” The Experiment has three precepts. First, Epperson accepts only work that he finds meaningful. Second, he accepts only work that pays well (his rate is $130 an hour). Third, he never works more than 20 hours a week. Rather than leverage his expertise for more money, as is customary for most ambitious professionals, he’s chosen to leverage his expertise for more time.

For much of human history, the more wealth an individual accumulated, the less time they spent working. But in the past 50 years, a strange trend has occurred: Despite gains in wealth and productivity, many college-educated Americans—and especially college-educated men—have worked more than ever. Instead of trading wealth for leisure, American professionals began to trade leisure for more work.

Book cover of "The Good Enough Job" by Simone Stolzoff
This article is excerpted from Stolzoff’s new book.

Epperson—whom I first interviewed last year while researching the role of work in Americans’ lives—grew up with his mother and older sister in a Section 8 housing project in Reston, Virginia. After a few years of community college, he transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, where he’s lived ever since. His first job after school was “as one of those people who waved the little glow sticks” for United Airlines at the Richmond airport. He worked five night shifts a week, from 4 until the last plane arrived, after midnight. He was paid $10 an hour with no overtime, even when flights were delayed into the morning.

Epperson’s early experience was typical of many exhausted employees working long hours just to get by. According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, the lowest-earning quintile of Americans worked nearly 25 percent more hours in 2016 than they did in 1979. As wages have stagnated for low-income Americans, they’ve had to work more hours to make ends meet.

At 25, Epperson found an administrative job at a local hospital that paid $12 an hour. Though the pay increase wasn’t life-changing, for the first time Epperson was surrounded by people who were passionate about what they did. “Being in the orbit of people who cared about how they spent their time, to the point where they wanted to dedicate a ton of time to their job, was novel,” he told me. “It challenged my ideas about what work could be.”

In 2011, while working for the hospital, Epperson started to explore his next career step. He took a trip to New York City to attend a five-day conference called the Festival of Ideas. The conference featured keynote speeches from authors, meals from up-and-coming restaurateurs, and public art installations from the city’s trendiest museums and galleries. Of the hundreds of exhibits, one project captured Epperson’s imagination.

The project was called FEAST, an acronym for Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics. At each FEAST event, artists and organizations presented their project ideas to attendees. Afterward, attendees voted on their favorites, and ticket sales from the event were distributed as grants to the winners.

After returning from New York, Epperson and a friend got busy bringing a Virginia version of FEAST to life. Epperson still worked at the hospital during the day, but his passion and attention lay elsewhere. The Festival of Ideas had sparked a new identity for him. Epperson left the hospital job. He wrote articles about gallery openings and concerts for local publications. He produced the first FEAST Virginia event, which sold out.

After witnessing his community-organizing skills at FEAST, a local consultancy called Prophet hired Epperson to plan a series of events to showcase Richmond’s history. At 28, Epperson began his first salaried job, making $45,000 a year. The agency became the center of Epperson’s life, social circle, and sense of purpose. As Epperson advanced at Prophet, so did his income. Soon he was making $140,000 a year. He worked long hours and traveled in his role multiple times a month. But even as the work wore him down, he interpreted his burnout as a sign of success.

The irony was that as Epperson worked more hours, his work didn’t necessarily get better. As he started to lead teams and take on more responsibility, meetings and corporate bureaucracy condensed the space in his days where he could synthesize what he had learned and generate new ideas. Still, Epperson kept his head down. He was making a salary that would have been unfathomable to the young boy who grew up in project housing. He was also vying for a promotion to become one of the firm’s creative directors.

One day, Epperson’s work mentor invited him to go for a walk. Epperson thought he knew what the invitation meant: a promotion. But instead his mentor turned to him and said, “I’m sorry, Josh, but you’re not going to get it.” Without skipping a beat, Epperson said, “All right, I’m leaving.”

Epperson decided to give himself a three-month sabbatical. But after the first two weeks, he started to feel uncomfortable. Rather than avoid that feeling of guilt, he chose to interrogate it. “Do I believe that in our one, short human life the thing that gives my life value is contributing to corporate work that has economic returns?” he asked himself. “No. My answer to that question is no.”

Epperson had no delusions. He needed to make money. But if he wanted to infuse more awe into his life when he returned to the working world, he knew he would need to make changes, including integrating more unstructured time into his days.

Epperson began The Experiment by scaling back the obligations on his time and money. He resigned from his role on the board of a Black film festival. He moved out of his swanky apartment to a cheaper part of Richmond and traded in his Land Rover for a Honda CR-V. Despite these downgrades, his new path came with advantages. Epperson prepared his meals and ate more healthily. He spent unhurried afternoons with friends in the garden. And he got into regular meditation and exercise.

Epperson also saw how the added time benefited his professional life. He started working on projects for the Smithsonian and an urban-farming nonprofit called Happily Natural. With more space around his work, his work got better. “In the old industrial model of employment, the more hours you put in, the more products come out,” he explained. But if the product is an idea for a marketing campaign or a headline for a website, Epperson found that there wasn’t a positive correlation between how many hours he put in and the quality of the output. With more room to seek inspiration and develop his ideas, Epperson was doing more work that made him proud.

There’s something to Epperson’s insight that less work can yield better work. From 2015 to 2019, Iceland conducted two large-scale four-day-workweek trials. Combined, they reduced the workweek from 40 hours to 36 or 35 for more than 1 percent of the nation’s workforce without cutting pay. The workers came from a wide range of industries and included teachers, police officers, construction workers, and employees in the Reykjavík mayor’s office.

For context, Icelandic people work more hours on average than those in any other Nordic nation. The country has a robust social safety net and low unemployment, but it lags its Scandinavian peers in productivity. “Worn down by long hours spent at work, the Icelandic workforce is often fatigued, which takes a toll on its productivity,” the final report on the trials reads. “In a vicious circle, this lower productivity ends up necessitating longer working days to ‘make up’ the lost output, lowering ‘per-hour productivity’ even further.”

Given this backdrop, the results of the four-day-workweek studies were impressive. Across industries, there was no decline in work output. The immigration department, for example, reported no delays in processing time. Other organizations actually improved their productivity. A government call center showed 10 percent more calls answered than a control workplace with longer hours. Workers reported having not just more time, but also more energy for hobbies, social lives, and family. And with well-rested employees, organizations maintained, if not improved, the quality of their services.

More recent, though smaller, experiments in the United Kingdom and the United States have found similar results. Among the 60 firms that partook in the U.K. study, 92 percent plan to continue with a shorter workweek. Reducing hours is harder for sectors like manufacturing and construction, where there is a more direct relationship between hours worked and output. “We couldn’t afford to give staff one day off every week,” the owner of one industrial-supplies company told the BBC. But for the most part, workers were able to get the same amount of work done in fewer hours.

However, although productivity-based arguments might help persuade employers and legislatures to consider shorter workweeks, we shouldn’t shorten hours just because we can still produce the same amount of stuff. In addition to the business case, there’s the moral one. We shouldn’t work less simply because it allows us to be better workers. We should work less because it allows us to be better humans.

What impressed me most from my time with Epperson is that he doesn’t treat leisure only as grist for the mill. He doesn’t unplug so that he can be more productive when he sits back down at his computer. Nor does he, like so many of us, exist in a perpetual state of half-work, swiping down at dinner to see if any new emails have come in.

For Epperson, reducing his working hours gives him the space to invest in other facets of his life. He is involved in his community. He is a generous friend. He takes care of his body. Walking the streets of Richmond with Epperson is like walking next to the mayor—he seemed to know every shopkeeper and skateboarder we passed.

On my last day in Richmond, Epperson and I sat on a boulder in the middle of the James River, the sounds of chirping birds and rushing water in our ears.

“Do you ever worry about how long you can keep this experiment up?” I asked.

He nodded. “There have been times where the money has started to slow down and I ask myself: Is this working? Is this worth it?”

He paused for a second. “But I hold. I’m not ready to walk out of the lab just yet.” Frankly, he has the time.

This article is adapted from The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life From Work.

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