What The Obamacare Debate Reveals About How Americans View Work

A construction worker relaxes during his lunch break on a steel beam atop the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, New York, in Sept. 29, 1932. In the background is Central Park, with the Esssex Hotel at center. (AP Photo)
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For the last week, the political class has spent a lot of time debating whether Americans should work less, a response to the Congressional Budget Office report that concluded some people would because of Obamacare. Is it a bad thing if a federal program encourages people to work less? What if it gives them freedom to do more of what they want?

House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) summarized the fear that Obamacare could destroy the American work ethic. The law could encourage Americans “not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class,” he said at a congressional hearing last week. “This means fewer people will do that.”

The hand-wringing from Republican lawmakers continued on the Sunday shows. “I think any law you pass that discourages people from working can’t be a good idea,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said. “Why would we want to do that? Why would we think that was a good thing?”

Below the surface political posturing is an important cultural subtext: Americans and their complicated relationship with work.

It is decidedly American that the opportunity for some people to retire earlier than planned, or to start a business, or to cut back their hours if they choose, because of the safety net provided by Obamacare, would prompt a political backlash.

New Deal Art mural by Charles Wells, Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse, Trenton, NJ (Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

You heard echoes of America’s Puritan roots in Republicans’ latest argument against Obamacare: Work is a irreducible part of who we are and anything that shifts incentives away from work is a step toward indolence and sloth.

We might be a more secular nation in the 21st century, but we still generally establish our self-identity through our occupation, experts say. The Protestant work ethic prevails.

“It’s not about becoming wealthy. Even when people have buckets of cash, they don’t quit and they don’t spend it. So there’s something else going on,” said Stephanie Mudge, research fellow at the University of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute and sociology professor at UC-Davis. “We’ve gotten married to a certain notion of what makes us good people. What makes me a good person? How do I know I’m saved? I know I’m among the chosen if I can prove that I worked hard.”

That might help explain why surveys routinely show that Americans work more than their counterparts in most other Western countries. It might only get worse: research suggests that smart phones and other technological advancements are making it easier for people to constantly be on the clock, with half of Americans checking work messages on the weekend and 4 in 10 checking in from vacation, according to the American Psychological Association.

“Work is very deep in our identity,” Tom Kochan, professor of work and employment research at MIT. “We want to be productive workers. We want to feel that we are adding value.”

There are a lot of nuances to these trends. Certain workers, like high-salary white-collar professionals, are more likely to work longer hours than their blue-collar counterparts, 60 hours or more a week, the highest rate in the world. Technology could be a net positive if it gives workers the ability to work around other parts of their lives, Kochan said.

The Great Recession likely contributed to that trend, too, making workers feel less secure in their jobs and more likely to prove their worth through longer hours, said Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor of work and employment research at MIT. This chart shows an uptick in working hours coming out of the recession:

“What it often is about that’s really driving this behavior is how work performance is evaluated. Workers’ insecurity about their ability to remain employed and to remain perceived as valuable,” he said. “In an environment where you never know if your job will still be there, you can’t afford to take the time off.”

The cliche remains true: Americans work a lot. Part of it is societal, that Protestant work ethic so often invoked. “The ideal worker phenomenon is still dominating a lot of our mentality,” Kochan said.

But part of is structural: As liberals will eagerly point out, the United States doesn’t have the policies that allow Europeans to take longer vacations and work shorter weeks. It’s likely a product of combining American cultural norms with a business lobby that has, almost without fail, stymied any legislation to change the status quo. Any efforts to, say, raise the minimum wage are also met with staunch resistance, as the debate so far in 2014 has demonstrated, Kochan said.

“We’ve had an impasse over labor and employment policies in this country since the 1970s,” he said. “The labor movement hasn’t been able to build the political strength necessary to advance and modernize our labor laws. Business has blocked everything.”

That’s where things stand, and it seems to reaffirm that Americans have consciously and subconsciously acquiesced to living in that environment. But is that what they want? If offered the opportunity, to put the question provocatively, would Americans rather live and work in France?

Sharone, whose research is focused on interviewing unemployed workers, said the most common thing he hears is how they would rather either create their own business or change jobs to pursue a career they find more fulfilling, but feel they can’t, and one of the biggest reasons is health coverage.

“That to me captures the American orientation to work, these kind of dual kinds of things: autonomy, adventure, looking for contribution and meaning. Those feelings are more common in the U.S,” he said. “The identity that we tend to derive from work, the identity we want to derive from work, we want to do something positive in the world.”

“I think the ACA can facilitate that,” Sharone added.

And that brings the conversation full circle. Implicit in the conservative criticism of Obamacare after the CBO report was a belief that the law was disrupting that cherished American work ethic. But a closer look at the evidence suggests that our relationship to work — as we perform it in the real world — is more ambivalent than that conventional wisdom allows.

Obamacare could open up the possibilities by giving Americans the freedom to start their own business or take a job that they’ll find more fulfilling or retire early, as Sharone said, and that could lead to a America that still possesses a work ethic that is the envy of the world, but in a way that’s fundamentally different from what exists now.

“The key is having control of our work. That’s what will determine the future,” Kochan said. “If we gave people control, I think we would see a very strong work ethic, but not the extreme hours.”

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