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Monday, November 29, 2004

Unpaid Overtime and Unstable Economies

I keep hearing that the economy is doing OK, but I'm just not seeing it. I keep hearing that people are working a lot of unpaid overtime and I do see it, because I'm working with a lot of people who are doing it and I'm doing it myself.

I was musing on these two facts this morning when I realized that they're directly related. The just-barely-passable economy is the direct result of a lot of people working unpaid overtime. Such a system is exquisitely unstable; if enough people decide that they're not going to work long hours for no extra money, suddenly productivity will drop, and the economy will begin to collapse.

Once upon a time there was such a thing as the 40 hour workweek. This was the result of a lot of people making a lot of sacrifices and doing a lot of hard work to make sure that the rights of the workers were balanced against the needs of industry. But over time the 40 hour workweek has eroded and more and more people find themselves working 50, 60 or more hours a week, with mandatory "overtime" (unpaid, in many cases) and weekend work.

Spending more time at work means spending less time on everything else. Most Americans are already putting in between 5 and 10 hours a week just commuting to work. How much time is left for family, for socializing, for relaxing, exercising, and getting involved in the community? Not a hell of a lot. And frankly, when you're done with work for the day or the week, you really feel pretty damned drained, and not really up to doing anything much more vigorous than eating dinner in front of the TV or surfing the 'net.

On September 11, 2001, before I watched the towers collapse like water fountains that had just been turned off, my friends and I watched unbelievingly as dark objects plummeted with agonizing slowness against the bright backdrop of the World Trade Center. "Are those birds?" I asked. My mind was doing lightning-fast physical modeling of the air currents around the buildings, the updraft caused by the flames, the turbulent forces that would be running along the faces of the buildings, the consequences of a bird getting too close...they weren't birds. They were people. My mind wouldn't let me see that for a long time, until our makeshift monitor-turned-TV showed closeups of the people. Falling. Falling because, faced with the choices of certain death in the flames caused by burning jet fuel and the thick black smoke of incinerating workspace and workers, and the possibility that they might suddenly find themselves able to fly, they chose to leap from an unimaginably great height to fall, fall, fall, faster and faster until they hit terminal velocity and then, cushioned by air, fall at a constant speed until, several eternities later, they struck the ground and died as their bodies were torn apart by the harsh realities of physical law.

I watched them and was reminded of the grim joke that no one had ever died wishing that they had spent more time at the office. What wouldn't these people have given to have not been at work that day, to be able to live out the rest of their lives with their families and friends instead of dying at the office because some religious fanatics felt that the best way to express their moral values would be to slam passenger jets fully-loaded with fuel into gigantic office towers full of innocents and infidels and people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. People who had just gone to work that morning. People who probably thought that work was a pretty goddamned big part of their lives.

I decided that day that I would need to reprioritize the way I look at work and play, work and family, work and everything else.

But we've forgotten that. We've come a long way from that day, and we're in a situation where our economy is precariously balanced on the backs of workers who have forgotten that family and friends and life are more important than the thing we do for money. It's something we need to remember. And it's something we all need to do something about.

And now, at long last, I've taken care of a bit of unfinished business. I didn't mean to. It didn't start out like that. But that's where it went.

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