Did you have a happy Turkey day? Or at least a day off? Did you get a chance to spend time with your family? Believe it or not, there was once a time in America where everyone expected a (paid) day off on at least Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. Your family’s major holidays may differ, but Americans used to believe that everyone needs some time off, and we all have family obligations. National Holidays and paid time off were a way that we all connected. When we did get back to work, “what did you do for Thanksgiving” was the subject of water cooler talk for weeks to come. Holidays and paid-time-off (PTO) was an acknowledgment from your employer and your customers that it’s OK to have a life outside of work, it is even desirable. An overwhelming number of workplace studies agree!
Today, let’s see how our view of how time off (and time in general) has changed at work. So, sit back. Have a hot chocolate. And grab some leftover turkey (or tofurkey if that’s your thing), and let’s see how our time at work has changed and will continue to change.
The US view of work was formed before the US was created. A century before the American Revolution, the Pilgrims were translating Biblical verses into the legal restrictions that we call, the Blue Laws. All religions have calendars that in some way tell you what you are supposed to do and when. In cities and states across America, communities put restrictions on what you could do on a Sunday. This usually limited which businesses could be open, or at least could be open BEFORE church services were over. Hospitals can stay open on Sunday, but most businesses will close.
In the earliest days, Blue Laws ensured that you could attend Sunday services. Later laws ensured that the workforce was well-rested and sober by Monday morning. By the mid-1970s, most Blue Laws were either repealed or o the way out. Working on a Sunday became common, but it only affected a few workers, mostly in cities. But by the early 80s, suburban shopping centers were everywhere. It made economic sense for businesses to pay for one more workday in exchange for more customers from nearby cities. Blue Law restrictions in cities helped to grow the malls that spread across America.
However, smaller businesses near malls weren’t that keen on adding another workday. Sure, malls might attract customers from the city. But small stores outside of the malls wouldn’t benefit nearly as much, yet would still need to pay as much for extra labor. Small businesses were aware that it wasn’t a real choice. If small stores stayed closed on Sundays, Malls would steal even more business. Maybe it didn’t matter. In a few years, local retail stores would be shuttered by Mega-Stores like Walmart, Best Buy, Barnes & Nobel, and Toys R Us.
If that wasn’t enough, Black Friday wrote this consumer culture into the bedrock of America. A big sale directly after Thanksgiving and before Christmas had been around for years, under different names. But by the late 1980s, Black Friday became a part of our language. Soon, small business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and other sale days joined in. Soon, Black Friday sales tried to start earlier in the holiday season, making all of November and December one gigantic sale, and kickstarting a new “work all the time” culture.
Up until now, longer work hours was a result of strategy. New corporations wanted more businesses, so they changed how they worked. But by the late 20th century, technology took these changes even further. In the mid-90s a humble online used-book store created the model for an online marketplace that would eclipse the malls and the big box stores. This new player, Amazon, would grow into the world’s largest retailer and the last generation of biggest and best would scramble to keep up. And so too would America’s workers.
To differentiate themselves from the shopping experience in brick and mortar malls, online shopping introduced free shipping and 24 x 7 shopping. Delivery “soon” became 2-day delivery, which became overnight and Sunday deliveries. Today, Amazon owns a fleet of air carriers and is considering delivery by drone.
The online revolution didn’t come cheap. It is quite literally not humanly possible to keep up with the delivery schedule Amazon created. Automation, computers, and a LOT of robots are needed to keep the goods flowing and make Amazon’s mega-warehouses function. The technology that Amazon funded, and the pace of change at work that resulted, is now moving into the rest of the world. This new consumer age may have been started by our craving for $400 sushi knives at 3 o’clock in the morning, but it made us want more immediacy in everything. Evermore capable ATMs made 24×7 banking possible, but mobile phone banking meant that YOU are whatever service you want whenever you want it. Airlines, employment services, real estate agents, insurance, streaming media… even the post office… are now online.
Many more innovations… especially automation and outsourcing… pushed us towards greater efficiency and higher productivity. 20th-century factories dealt with the same issue of management wanting more productivity without higher wages. But unions could negotiate with company owners to set new production goals, and it would be a part of negotiations over wages and work conditions.
But unions have all but disappeared in America. And the never-ending onslaught of mergers and buyouts… with their promises of higher profits… require ever more productivity from workers. After a merger, workers may keep doing the same work, but will often become “contracted workers”, losing their benefits and paid time off.
And so it was, until COVID hit. Frontline workers became heroes. We all had a lot of time at home to rethink our priorities. Maybe we expected more respect at work. Maybe we just want to be told that we went above and beyond, when we didn’t need to. But, after a lot of COVID-inspired soul searching, millions of American’s are refusing to go back to work.
Amazon has not just become an advocate of the $15 minimum wage, they offer health insurance, tuition payments, and other benefits. This may be the biggest signpost ever that we’re now leaving the land of too man billionaires and entering the land of too few workers.
A year from now, I’d like to hear that all of you have paid time off for the Holidays. But for now, just tell me what you’re thinking. Are you about to join the great resignation? Share your ideas and opinions with the rest of us. And make a little room for that extra slice of pie on Christmas!