Opinion | How to Fight Back Against the Inhumanity of Modern Work

Jobs site Indeed reported in 2021 that 61 percent of remote workers and 53 percent of on-site workers found it harder to unplug from work outside of work hours than before the pandemic began. Nearly 40 percent of all workers said they check email every day outside of regular work hours. Derek Thompson has convincingly argued in The Atlantic that for all the talk of “quiet quiet” it’s mostly a fad and a misconception, the sort of thing online followers hold on to to have something that they can talk about. Labor productivity has not really decreased. However, Thompson also says that neologism is a surrogate for more important “chronic labor problems, like under-representation of unions or a pervasive American pressure to be careeristic.”

When a careerist culture meets a digital revolution that allows unlimited access to work, something has to give way. And in America it’s not work requirements, it’s the human soul. The rise of digital technology requires us as a culture to re-examine what it means for work to be decent. In doing so, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us in the labor movement. They offer us a model of how to begin this re-examination.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries gave birth to the labor movement, which sought to curb the excesses of capitalism and new technology. There was a time when hunter-gatherers, and then farmers, only worked as much as they needed to survive, which was often less than 40 hours a week, according to a report by NPR. With the introduction of factories, working hours became longer and less flexible. The labor movement fought to change both the culture and the policies to limit our workweeks, and the 40-hour week eventually became the norm. It is clear that people have not suddenly become lazy and want to work less. Instead, a technological shift created a new way of working that required a response. With today’s digital revolution, we are faced with this again.

In the early labor movement, a broad and diverse base of religious people found common cause around the Sabbath laws. These laws (often referred to as the blue laws) are usually seen today as examples of antiquated, puritanical, even theocratic impulses: stiff religious people running around trying to make sure no one is enjoying a pint on a Sunday afternoon. However, proponents of Sabbatarianism saw their work as an act of resistance to greed and a fight for the workers.

When Philip Schaff, a 19th-century Swiss-German theologian, emigrated to the United States, he was struck by the ability of ideologically diverse religious groups to work together politically to solve social problems. For Schaff and many others, a key issue in the burgeoning industrialized economy of the North was the preservation of time for worship, rest, and family life in order to preserve the dignity of the worker. To accomplish this, they looked in part to the Sabbath laws. Schaff emphasized that keeping the Sabbath is not just a religious observance, but fulfills a civic function. It was a practical way of treating workers as valuable people to live for a lifetime.

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