In the darkest days of the early Covid-19 pandemic, when millions of Americans were struggling to feed their families and living in constant fear of a deadly virus, something unusual happened. Neighbors all over the country started coming together to help one another, buying groceries, picking up medicine, and generally caring for each other at a time when even venturing outside the house was infused with uncertainty and fear.
New mutual aid organizations sprang up and saw unprecedented participation and donations — Bed-Stuy Strong, for example, in central Brooklyn, mobilized more than 1,200 people and distributed $1.2 million worth of food, according to founder Sarah Thankam Mathews.
Part of the reason for this outpouring was the overwhelming need and a desire to do something to help. Part of it was that some Americans, finally, had time on their hands. The “massive crisis response” of Bed-Stuy Strong was fueled in part, Mathews said, by “a lot of people losing their jobs or having to do much less work at their jobs.”
Prior to the pandemic, work was a huge obstacle to community involvement, with lack of free time the most common reason Americans cited for why they didn’t volunteer. Covid-19 has shown that in an extraordinary moment, Americans can come together, but in our ordinary lives, we often just don’t have any extra time to give to others.
That shouldn’t be a surprise given the way that American work culture swallows up our days. Whether you’re working 80 hours a week at a high-pressure office job or trying to make ends meet with multiple hourly gigs, “the end result is that you are left with very little time that you would see as being open,” Jenny Odell, author of the book How to Do Nothing, told Vox.
We know that long work hours and unpredictable schedules are bad for us as individuals — they contribute to heart disease, anxiety, depression, child care struggles, and more. But the time pressure Americans experience may be harming us on a broader social level as well.
When you’re working constantly — or when you’re perpetually on call, never sure if or when you’ll have to go to work — you might not have the energy to volunteer with your local mutual aid group. You might not have time for political activism, even if it’s a cause you care about. You might not be able to get together with others in your workplace or your industry to advocate for better conditions because your schedules never overlap enough to organize.
“Part of being a member of a community is coordinating your time with others,” Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Vox. With the rise of precarious and unpredictable work in today’s economy, many people simply can’t do that.
An inability to engage with our communities hurts everyone, contributing to social isolation, a decline in worker power, and an inability to tackle problems like climate change that require people to work together. But policies that give Americans back some of their time, through paid leave and more predictable scheduling practices, can help free them up to act communally. And for people who already have some semblance of control over their time, there are ways to push back against the hyperindividualistic ideal of constant productivity and self-optimization.
One way to do that is “trying to develop other ways of talking about and evaluating time,” and advocating for “larger collective structures that make it easy and possible for more people to see their time differently,” Odell said. That may sound easier said than done — yet the reward is a world in which we all have more energy not just for ourselves, but to support and care for one another.
American capitalism in the 21st century has all but destroyed the concept of free time. For some, that destruction has been insidious. Work hours for salaried employees have been slowly rising for years — in 2014, the average such worker put in 49 hours a week, with 25 percent working more than 60 hours.
Child care availability hasn’t kept pace with this rise in hours, and the pandemic has forced many parents, especially moms, to work and care for kids at the same time. Even time that’s not spent on work or family is supposed to be somehow “productive” — the precarity of American jobs and the rise of hustle culture have led to a “feeling that you need to get something out of all of your time,” and an emphasis on “squeezing results out of every minute of your day,” Odell said.
That’s if you’re lucky. While salaried workers have been descending deeper into overwork, many low-wage hourly workers are subject to unpredictable schedules that change from day to day or week to week, sometimes with almost no notice.
In a sample of about 150,000 service-sector workers surveyed by The Shift Project, which Schneider co-directs, just 20 percent have a regular daytime shift. Two-thirds get less than two weeks’ notice of their schedules, and 10 percent get less than 72 hours’ notice. Meanwhile, two-thirds say they have to keep their schedules open just in case they are called to work on a particular day.
The problems of salaried workers and hourly workers aren’t the same — the former tend to make more money and have greater control over their time, even if it doesn’t always feel as though they control it. In both cases, the lack of open time affects everything from sleep to hobbies to how we experience time with our families. It also affects our ability to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Take the case of unpredictable schedules. Research suggests that such work arrangements could be “toxic” for community and political involvement, Schneider said. Unpredictable schedules lead to increased work-life conflict, Schneider said, from difficulty finding child care to trouble finishing school.
It stands to reason that if being on call all the time makes it hard to coordinate with day care providers and college classes, it makes it hard to coordinate with volunteer groups too. The people most able to devote time to Bed-Stuy Strong, Mathews said, tended to be people with jobs that were neither too demanding nor too precarious — “jobs that are structured to allow you life outside of your job.”
Unpredictable schedules can also make it difficult to organize within a workplace. Having a constantly changing work schedule means you likely see different coworkers every day, limiting your ability to form close relationships with anybody, sociologist Hana Shepherd has found. Related conditions of the modern workplace, like understaffing and overwork, also make it harder for coworkers to form close relationships with each other. When workers can’t bond with one another, it’s more difficult for them to form unions or other groups to push for better working conditions.
Another barrier to organizing is that “these schedules wear people down,” Schneider said. “To do the hard work of organizing and self-advocacy, that takes reserves — that takes resources.” Being constantly on call for a schedule that’s always changing depletes those resources — be it time, money, or energy — leaving little left over for forming coalitions or pushing for change.
Even for salaried workers, the contemporary American economy encourages isolation and discourages communal behavior. Research shows that being in a hurry can make people less likely to help a person in distress. “If you are feeling very possessive about your time,” Odell said, “you’re not necessarily going to be listening to your environment” — including the people around you and their needs.
Many forms of community engagement require a level of awareness of the world around you that’s difficult to maintain if you’re always focused on your own productivity. To be involved in mutual aid, for example, “you have to know what people need” and “you have to be very responsive to a situation that’s changing” — a tall order if you’re working a 10-hour day, putting your kid to bed, and then staying up late working on your side hustle.
For some people, the pandemic put a temporary pause on the pressures of work, either because they gained new flexibility by working from home or because they were laid off but had enough savings to get by (others saw only more pressure as they went to work in essential jobs or tried to care for kids while working). But now, a return to offices and the need for the unemployed to find new jobs may be contributing to a decline in involvement with mutual aid, with one group reporting a 70 percent drop in volunteers.
Even something like reducing your environmental impact is more difficult if you’re overworked. As Alden Wicker reported for Vox in 2019, cutting down on household waste “can be a lot of undervalued, unpaid work” — researching sustainable alternatives, going to different stores to find washable silicone storage bags or bulk dried beans. That work is a lot harder — maybe impossible — if you’re already operating on a time deficit.
So are other types of conscious consumerism. People may want to support their local small businesses rather than shopping at Amazon or other big-box retailers, but visiting several different stores to find, say, surgical masks or the right size diapers for your kid takes more time and energy than many people have at the end of a workday.
Overall, the conditions of American capitalism affect different categories of workers in different ways. But for many people, the pressure to maintain our precarious lives makes it all too hard to look out for anyone but ourselves.
That’s a problem because the various interlocking crises facing America and the world today, from the pandemic to climate change, demand collective consciousness and action. None of that is possible with Americans’ current relationship to our time. “You get into this constricted posture,” Odell said, in which “everything around you is either something you can have or use, or it’s an obstacle. Or it just doesn’t exist.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are straightforward policy changes that would give Americans back some control over their time.
Predictable scheduling laws, for example, offer protections for workers like advance notice of scheduling changes and the right to request a different schedule. These laws, already in place in Seattle, New York City, San Francisco, and elsewhere, are typically modest in scope, requiring just two weeks’ advance notice of any change. Yet even this small reform was shown to improve Seattle workers’ sleep and happiness, and decrease the amount of hardship they reported in their lives. “Was it a silver bullet? No,” Schneider said. “But it really did move the needle.”
A similar law, the Schedules That Work Act, has been proposed at a federal level, but so far has made little headway in Congress. Beyond scheduling, policies like paid leave and a universal basic income could help change the conditions that force Americans into a single-minded focus on our own time and our own work, Odell said. A more “portable” safety net, with benefits like health care uncoupled from our jobs, could be helpful as well.
Meanwhile, American expectations of work and workers will have to adjust as well. As a culture, we define good workers as putting in long hours and always being present at work, Youngjoo Cha, a professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, told Vox. “Those kinds of cultural notions have to change.”
Companies can do their part by allowing time off and flexibility — and by providing those benefits to everyone, regardless of family status, Cha said. That way, parents (especially moms) are less likely to be stigmatized for taking time off, and child-free people are able to take time too, rather than always being expected to fill in for coworkers who have child care responsibilities. Cha has found that at companies where flexible work policies are offered in a gender-neutral and consistent way, employees report greater well-being and are less likely to equate long hours with success.
All these broad-based reforms could help free up some of our time and mental energy for causes larger than ourselves and goals more lofty than getting through another day. Individual Americans may be able to make changes in their lives too, if they’re in a position to do so. Hourly workers who are constantly on call and juggling multiple jobs and family obligations may not have the luxury of rethinking how they spend their time, Odell said. But people who do have some control over their schedules can adjust the way they plan their days. Odell recalls a time a few years ago when two friends “gently shamed” her out of working after 5 pm. Such conversations among friends and colleagues can start to change norms away from always working and toward a more expansive ethos that allows for collective well-being. Today, Odell said, “I’m really careful about how I talk about time and values to people.”
Another small prescription: talking to strangers, if you feel safe doing so. “Just being reminded that every person that you pass by has a whole history, and they have their own problems, and they’re often way more interesting than you thought” is a great way to build empathy, Odell said.
It’s not on any one person to completely change the structure of American life. But by looking outside ourselves a little more, if we can, we may be able to make such change more possible.
After all, “community care is, really simply, part of being human,” Mathews said. “It’s how we survived for this long.”