Old time clock at a work place together with time card holding shelves.
"Old-time clock at a workplace together with time-card holding shelves." PixHouse/gettyimages.com

What is sorely missing from the news stories concerning the present labor shortage is an explanation that emphasizes what can for now be described as lockdown-time.

Another way of putting it is that time itself radically changed during the pandemic. We experienced a mode of time that was very different from the pre-pandemic period, which was defined by a work week that stopped decreasing in the 1970s. We have been stuck in the 40-hour week for half a century.

On July 14, Beltway website Axios posted this this story: "Poll: 1.8 million Americans have turned down jobs due to unemployment benefits." The right, of course, pounced on it like a hound in heat.

But the 1.8 million made up only 13% of those in the Morning Consult survey. What about the rest? What's their problem?

Nearly 14% turned down work because of "child care obligations"; 12% because they were not "given enough money to return to work"; 11% because the "job was not within [their] desired industry/function area"; 11% because the "job didn't allow remote work"; 10% because of "school/training"; 10% because the "job required fixed working hours/not enough flexibility"; 9% because of "family/personal obligations"; and nearly 9% because "the job required too many hours of work."

What does this add up to? 86% of those in the survey are refusing to return to the labor market because they have other things to do with their time: childcare (family obligations), education (looking for meaningful work), flexibility (which is what makes remote work desirable).

The pandemic did one big social thing, which I mentioned in my March post, "What a Year of Lockdown Tells Us About the Nature of Human Time": it gave many a lot more time to think, to think about time, to think about how we are spending our time. And so this was a time about what time is all about: one's life. This is what the feminist theorist and physicist Karen Barad and I call time-being (I discovered the expression independently). It's been captured by the working hours for as long as we can remember. It was exposed during the pandemic.

What a lot of people don't realize is the sanctification of work-time, in any of its forms (and most of its forms are what Marx described as simple), is a cultural invention. It's not in our blood to just love work. One only has to read these amazing lines by Hannah More, an English religious writer whose time on earth was between 1745 and 1833, to see the Eden of labor morality (second-stage, English industrial capitalism) is not nature but inculcation:

When I call in my labourers, on a Saturday night, to pay them, it often brings to my mind the great and general day of account, when I, and you, and all of us, shall be called to our grand and awful reckoning, when we shall go to receive our wages, master and servants, farmer and labourer. When I see that one of my men has failed of the wages he should have received, because he has been idling at a fair; another has lost a day by a drinking bout, a third confesses that, though he had task work, and might have earned still more, yet he has been careless, and has not his full pay to receive; this, I say, sometimes sets me on thinking whether I also have made the most of my time. And when I come to pay even the more diligent who have worked all the week; when I reflect that even these have done no more than it was their duty to do, I cannot help saying to myself, night is come; Saturday night is come. No repentance, or diligence on the part of these poor men can now make a bad week's work good. This week is gone into eternity.

We have lived with this feeling of a sacredness (or "meetness") to work for over 200 years. ("Meetness" concerns how prepared you are to meet your maker.) "An idle mind is a devil's workshop" sounds Biblical, but these words are not in the Bible. They form an English expression that has time-being (the existential experience) as its target.

The fear that instructs all resistance to the radical reduction of the working week has nothing to do with the loss of productivity and everything to do with the real danger of the wage-earning classes experiencing other modes of going through time.