A History of the American Work Model
Job. Money. Capitalism. Our company is built on the principles of work, a subject so abstract that it sums up everything a human being does in a day. Cooking, shopping, attending Zoom meetings: for us, everything is “work”. The United States is notorious for praising capitalism. The principles of the classical workforce serve as the foundation for entire fields of study, such as the anthropology of American materialism as well as gender and labor studies. The evolution of work has really come a long way, as last year’s pandemic taught us. Work has moved from cubicles and offices to the Internet and back again. But how did the United States create such a system? For that, we can learn a lot by examining the segregation of work in the American workforce, and our first stop here is to delve deeper into the gender divisions.
The American work model has its roots in the American nuclear family, centered on the codependency between a man and a woman. The basis of this model lies in traditional kinship models, where the structure of the family determines the role played by each member. In the nuclear family, these roles are strict: men work outside the home, women work inside the home. This division has been around for decades, creating the model we have today. But the nuclear model is not the only type of family that exists. Marriage and family are not always mutually inclusive, and this diversity is unrecognized and overlooked in the working models we know today. Discrimination is particularly common when it comes to single mothers. Discrimination based on marital status is not prohibited by federal law, but it has been banned in almost half of the states as well as in the District of Columbia. Single parents can be discriminated against because of their inability to focus on their work while putting their children first. This causes the average American worker to prioritize capitalism over their own health and personal relationships, an approach to life that is both unrealistic and unreasonable.
Not only does the work schedule favor men and their schedules, but it actively hurts women. Asking questions about marital status or family planning is illegal in the United States under several anti-discrimination laws, but the law does not prevent us from making assumptions about a person. Women often remove their wedding rings before big talks, fearing that an indicator of marital status could lead to other assumptions about their personal lives. Engagement leads to marriage, marriage leads to pregnancy, and pregnancy leads to maternity leave. Maternity leave means taking time off work, which means a drop in productivity and a loss of human and economic capital. Ultimately, the interviewer doesn’t have to ask a single question – a glance is enough.
Problems with the nuclear family model arise when women decide to break away from their assigned roles. They venture out of the home to pursue careers outside of home economics and family planning, causing a shift in the division of labor. Instead of assuming equal responsibilities in the household, women should pursue their professional goals while taking care of their families. They play a doubles game, working twice as hard to prove themselves for less money. This is illustrated by the pay gap that exists within the division of labor. In 2020, American women, full-time and part-time, earn 84% of what men earn in an hour. That means women have to work an extra 42 days just to break even with what men make – and that’s just American women in general. Women of color and transgender women earn even less. American women carry the double weight of a capitalist society that prioritizes productivity and does not value them equally.
It is easy to summarize the working model as a simple economy: some capital, resources and investments must be eliminated if they do not prove to be economically viable. But the United States has taken this mechanism a step further, internalizing it into society and reducing our interactions with each other to be simply number-based, fueling the endless hamster wheel of the American workforce. Whether romantic or platonic, every interaction seems to be a form of business. We do not see any change in the culture of our workforce because it is too ingrained in society and the fruits of capitalism are just too sweet.
It doesn’t always have to be like this. Employers in countries like Iceland have already successfully launched a transition to a four-day workweek without pay cuts for 85% of the population. With this extra time, workers realized they had to start valuing themselves, family, friends and themselves over the crippling stress of work. Parents found they had more time to spend with their children. And new research shows that as a result of this change, productivity and general well-being increased, and men were more likely to perform household chores. The ability to be with other people is an important part of being human – something that we have to start working on.
The devil works hard; American companies are working harder. American employers may be more reluctant to implement these changes, but Iceland is proof that with just a little community effort we can all stop the craziness with work.
Aarthi Muthukumar is responsible for illustrations and infographics. Contact her at [email protected].