A 30-hour work week could be the key to a more peaceful world

What if we didn’t strive to both work and earn more, and instead had a holistic view of how we steward our resources—including our money and time and our relationships?

Lumina | Stocksy United

When I was in college, I wanted to do mission work overseas when I graduated. After my first year of classes (and getting sticker shock from the loans I took out), I realized that I was not headed toward a particularly lucrative career, and needed to act accordingly. I went to community college for a time, ate peanut butter sandwiches for months, and eventually moved back in with my parents to finish college (while working two part-time jobs). My goal was to graduate with the least amount of debt possible, and I succeeded. When my husband and I decided to pursue master’s degrees, we chose a small, unprestigious school and both worked while going to school—counseling for him, and teaching English as a second language for me.

Right around the time we got married, my husband and I started living and working within low-income refugee communities. We kept our expenses low, and in between work and school we tried our best to be involved in our community in any way that we could—practicing hospitality, running after-school programs, mentoring families. We quickly realized that we adored this way of living, and wanted to ensure that we would have time in our lives for investing in others. It became apparent that working long hours and making money would only serve to push us away from our community, effectively alienating us from others, and so without much thought or discussion we embarked on part-time careers and enjoyed it immensely.

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Once children came along this proved even more effective, and we discovered that both my husband and I thrived on working limited hours outside the home—for me, usually something like 10–15 hours a week, and for him, somewhere around 30. We were able to take turns with the children and also be out in the world, all the while having time for being involved in the lives of our friends, neighbors and family, and volunteering with nonprofits in our community.

This is, and to this day, remains our ideal. It did take work on the front end: strategic decisions to eliminate debt as much as possible, simple living in small spaces, and educational degrees that could translate into non-traditional job hours. But truly, it was our driving desire to be connected with others that led us to the decision to work less and be more involved with others.

The impossible bind of the American worker

No matter what narrative you have about work in America, it is probably complicated. The discourse over work in our country has shifted in the centuries past from an emphasis on safety to job security to individualism and meaningful work. One consistent thread, however, has been the American tendency to workaholismbe it by necessity or ambition. But perhaps it is time for us to rethink our commitment to full-time (and beyond) work, and start seriously considering how work, vocation, and time all contribute to the well-being of our communities. Amazon might be leading the way in re-thinking work culture: the online behemoth is testing a 30-hour work week for some of its teams; employees will get 75 percent of the full-time paycheck and will retain full benefits. (However, while Amazon might be leading the way in some areas, the majority of their workers are still overworked and underpaid.)

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Traditionally, the jobs with the longest hours have been well-paid and prestigious—jobs in finance, or in the field of law, or politics. But other fields are starting to catch up, and even small business owners and freelancers can feel the creep of all the work one has to do outside of set office hours (in fact, according to Gallup the average salaried job is closer to 50 hours a week). While there is no one easy solution (since the workforce, and individuals’ needs, are so varied) an awareness of how beneficial working less can be to everyone—ourselves, our families, and our communities—is a good place to start.

There is a reason books like The 4-Hour Work Week remain bestsellers, why Americans longingly look at European countries in regards to maternity leave and vacation hours, why so many people—women especially—prefer the unpredictability of self-employment and freelance work to the traditional 95. We are being squeezed, in all directions, by financial obligations, caregiving obligations, and a culture of work. So how does one start to disentangle from this mess? For me, it started with the desire to live simply, and transformed into living with others in mind.

We couldn’t help but be envious of the relational connections our neighbors had, the way the communities all pitched in and took care of each other.

I credit our friends and neighbors for part of this awakening—many of our refugee friends come from cultures where relationships are prioritized over achievements. Our friends were always up to hang out, to visit, to drink tea and eat cookies, to help each other out in a crisis. For my husband and me, who have the luxury of certain privileges afforded to us, we couldn’t help but be envious of the relational connections our neighbors had, the way the communities all pitched in and took care of each other. It is worth noting that for many people with limited English or limited access to education or those who experience the constant chaos of poverty, working long hours for wages they cannot live on is their reality. This too colors our decisions: when we know so many people working hard just to survive, it makes it difficult for us to consider what we would do if had more money and worked longer hours. Would we share it? Or would we distance ourselves even further from our community?

Even as we eat beans and rice for dinner and forsake getting fancy drinks at a bar, we are happy with our choices. This is the life we want, but it is not necessarily the life we are being told to aim for.

Currently, my husband works around 25–30 hours in his office, and another 10 or so at home. With two small children at home, I am working less than ever, maybe five hours a week. We are currently in the process of buying our own home, and due to our decisions in regards to work, money is very tight. I am considering teaching two days a week, and my husband will be taking on one course at a local college. But even as we eat beans and rice for dinner and forsake getting fancy drinks at a bar, we are happy with our choices, knowing we are fighting hard to make space to be present for each other and to expand our table. This is the life we want, but it is not necessarily the life we are being told to aim for.

At this point, being a full-time teacher holds little appeal for me (or a full-time writer, whatever that would look like). Life is not about money, but rather about forging connections. If I have the privilege and resources to live without either my husband or me spending the majority of our time working for ourselves, then I feel a moral obligation to take my extra resources and pour it back into our community.

What if we took the American quest for achievement and used it for strengthening our communities? What if we didn’t strive to both work and earn more, and instead had a holistic view of how we steward our resources—including our money and time and our relationships. Not everyone can afford not to work full-time. But for those of us who can, it’s an option worth considering. In this way, nearly every job can become a part of our larger vocation—which is working towards the common good in our world.

DL Mayfield
DL Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield writes about refugees, theology, gentrification, and Oprah. Her work has appeared in McSweeneys, Geez, Christianity Today, and Conspire! among others. Her book of essays, “Assimilate or Go Home; Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith,” is now available.

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