Mar 16, 2008

On Distance Learning, Weekends, and the Malignant American Work Ethic

While perusing statistics on a distance-learning (DL) class I teach, I began to think about the ways in which American society has changed across time. One of the most significant pieces of data that I examined was student site usage by day of the week. While it came as no surprise that Sunday was the busiest day for my DL students, the fact that almost one-third of all activity occurred on Sundays was a bit startling. When adding the second-busiest day, Saturday, to the mix, approximately 48 percent of all DL activity occurs on the weekend.

Most of my students are working at or near full-time status in addition to their studies, so it makes sense that the weekend would be the ideal time in which to focus on their coursework. And I, as someone stringing together more part-time academic positions than I have fingers, join my students in working seven days a week in the seemingly endless rat-race of self-improvement in a socioeconomic system that punishes those who would rather spend their non-work time in pursuit of activities that refresh the mind.

We have become a nation of people for whom time spent away from some sort of work is viewed as unproductive and perhaps even wasteful. No longer do we collectively see the need for the traditional day of rest, as the drive for productivity has long encroached upon even the traditional sanctity of the Sabbath.

For me, a "day of rest" simply means that I can wake up an hour or two later than I must during the week. If I have not started my weekend workdays by 9:30 am, I will undoubtedly fall behind and start fretting about the backlog of work. I find myself feeling guilty if I leave the accumulating mountain of work-related obligations in favor of taking in a movie, or a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood.

Even our language reflects the American obsession with constant productivity. We describe people who enjoy spending time enjoying the sun as "beach bums," while a person who chooses to spend a weekend afternoon resting in front of the television set is a "couch potato." Even activities that seem recreative in nature - such as golf, dinner at a quiet restaurant, or social gatherings - often take on an atmosphere that makes such a pursuit an extension of the business world, and some folks claim that more business transactions get finalized away from the workplace than in the offices of American business.

In this era of hypercapitalism, a 40-hour workweek is the province of slackers, while most people who toil at full-time jobs expect to put in a minimum of 50 hours. The 60-hour week gets a person the designation of "dedicated," while it is those who are willing to devote 70 or more hours a week to their job who are more likely to be rewarded with promotions.

So I sit at my home office space on this Sunday afternoon, taking a break from correcting exams and preparing lectures, and thinking of a time in the not-so-distant past when weekends belonged to families instead of employers. Am I just an anachronistic and nostalgic daydreamer, or do other folks question the wisdom of the American obsession with maximizing productivity at any cost?


Anonymous said...

Git back to work, slacker!

Tim Higgins said...


Isn't it wonderful that the technology that was supposed to create more free time for us has instead provided additional working hours.

Ah, progress...

Randy H said...

The idea of working for the sake of working is an old one. In Walden, Thoreau mentioned a neighbor who was so afraid of being thought lazy that, in the winter when there was nothing to do on his farm, he would hitch his team to a boulder and drag it around his field. Now, we are so afraid of idleness that there are workstations available at tire and muffler shops. We can get some work done while we're waiting for our cars, instead of frittering away the time sipping muddy coffee and reading a tattered old copy of Field and Stream. At home, we can decorate our walls with dramatic scenic photographs captioned with inspirational mottos, so we know that we aren't supposed to be relaxing.
The irony is, Americans used to make fun of Communist countries for this sort of thing.

microdot said...

Recent studies have shown, that though they take more vacations and still try to cling to the 35 hour week, the French work force produces more and higher quality work.

I just thought I'd toss in my lump of merde, excuse moi!

The Screaming Nutcase said...

I'm not sure where all of these overworked people are. I used to work with a bunch of people who showed up to work late, didn't do a whole lot while we were there, and did less when they left.

Granted, I'm in med school now, so I'm in with a whole different boat of people, but the rest of us lazy folks are still out there.

Ben said...

Very interesting findings.