Most people who go to work every day will have noticed that the nature of work has radically changed in the past 20 years. Especially since the financial crisis, gig work has become common and the lines between life and work have become blurred for workers at all levels. Workers with low wage jobs are called upon to work almost at all times and higher-paid workers are checking email and are essentially available 24/7. That’s on top of a practically non-existent social safety net when people are in-between jobs (a new commonality). How do we make modern work actually work for people?
One of the biggest problems that the United States has is the lack of support for unemployed workers. For regular employees, 6 months of unemployment insurance is available to help cover costs but in an increasingly expensive world, this may not be enough. For gig economy workers or those who work on an independent contractor basis, there is no help at all unless it is privately financed and many simply cannot afford to spend that kind of money on that sort of service.
Making unemployment available to all workers at full salary with decreasing amounts over time would be helpful to create a safety net for those that move frequently between jobs. Unemployment should be available for anyone moving from one job to another.
Universal healthcare would be a big step to decoupling health insurance from employment. Although 159 million Americans have some sort of health insurance from their employer this leaves out those that work for themselves, part-time workers or workers who can’t access healthcare through their employer.
Another area where America falls behind is childcare and universal pre-K. Making childcare and preschool available would not only help get kids ready for school but would ease the burden of childcare on parents. Many parents spend more on childcare than rent. Government child care services indexed to income would be a great relief to working families.
Commuting and Work Week
Commutes for the average worker are getting far longer than they used to be. This is caused by a couple of factors including the rising cost of housing and the concentration of jobs in major cities. Often, people cannot afford to live anywhere near where they work unless they make a high wage. Even for high-wage workers, buying a home can be unsustainable in a city center and this forces a move farther out, stretching commute times. Combine this with an increase in working hours and the average American is spending most of their day either working to commuting to and from work. This makes for a difficult work/life balance.
The best way to fix this would be to build a variety of types of housing around job centers. This would lower the cost of housing and allow people to live closer. Investing in mass transit would ease commuting times and allow the denser housing that would allow people to live closer to where they work as well and spend less time commuting.
Learning to Take Time Off
Both workers and employers need to change the culture of work in America. America works harder than other OECD nations. The average workweek is 47.5 hours plus commuting time. Lunch hours are now half hours and professionals often do not even take that time. Americans have no guaranteed paid vacation, just the standard two weeks. Many employers don’t even allow that for the first year, even among office workers. America needs to take a page from Europe and explore flexible start time options, making guaranteed paid vacation a reality, and embrace time away from work and spent on personal matters and recovering from work.
Fixing Work/Life Balance
There are a variety of cultural changes, policy changes, and environmental changes that need to come together to fix this problem. The reality is that the work/life balance in the United States is helplessly broken. It’s affecting the mental health of America’s workers and it is affecting the environment. It’s time for America to give up its obsession with “working hard is good” and begin to rebuild a society that prioritizes people instead of profit. It would benefit everyone and it would benefit the economy in all sorts of surprising ways.