After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.
Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.
The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.
While some Americans are convinced that life in the U.S. represents the acme of personal freedom, in practical reality, it often doesn’t. Especially when it comes to finding and keeping paid work.
When you move to the U.S. from a nation with a stronger social safety net, let alone one with powerful unions and laws protecting workers, the lack of government oversight here is shocking.
To name only one example, many states legally only offer “at will” employment: a company can fire you at a second’s notice for no reason at all, with no severance. People who’ve worked for years, or decades, can be out on the street with nothing but six months’ unemployment benefits to get them, they pray, to the next job; New York State benefits are only $1,600 a month, (taxable income), less than the monthly rent for a tiny Manhattan apartment.
Few nations are as obsessed with the words freedom, liberty and justice — yet Americans’ muscular free-market capitalism and high-spending lobby groups who fight daily on Capitol Hill to protect the wealthy and their corporate interests ensure that the playing field is very far from level.
Some of the many challenges facing American workers include:
Virtually no vo-tech training or government/business partnerships to train, or re-train blue-collar workers into well-paid and badly-needed jobs requiring technical skills. Unlike, say, Germany.
The cost of college or training is too often crippling, even out of reach. When a college degree, let alone certifications to work in technical fields, is unattainable, frustrating, dead-end, low-wage service work looms.
If you desperately need affordable health insurance for you and/or your family, you may take and cling to a job you hate, in an industry you wish to flee but can’t — because market-rate health insurance is unavailable or, if unsubsidized by your employer, unaffordable.
The three-chair hair salon I use, its self-employed owner bedeviled by ever-rising rents, Grove St., New York City
Unions are weak, and the smallest they’ve been in American history. With fewer union members than ever, amidst tremendous income inequality, no one is there to fight, collectively, for workers’ rights and needs. When every man has to fight for himself, it pits individuals against one another — a great way to distract us all from how the rich are getting richer and too many of us are getting nowhere.
Non-compete clauses. Here’s a study that found even lower-level employees are getting caught in these snares, sometimes preventing them from finding work in their field for years. Once you leave an employer, having signed one of these, possibly under duress, you’re stuck with skills and experience you can’t use. Fair? Nope.
My husband and I both work full-time freelance, self-employed creatives; he’s a photo editor and I’m a writer and writing coach. We pay $1,800 a month for our health insurance — a sum ensuring healthy profits for the company selling it since we’re both, for now, in excellent health.
It’s the cost of self-employment.
The millions of us now working without a corporate safety net — no paid sick days, no paid vacation days, no family medical leave, no maternity leave — have no public policies to address our specific needs.
We earn less than we probably would in full-time staff jobs, but we’re also free from a tiring and expensive daily rail commute into New York, office dramas or emails at 2:00 a.m. demanding an immediate reply.
Our greatest freedom is deciding who to work with — and whom to avoid.
Since most of us will spend most of our lives working, we hope to find satisfaction in it, when possible, beyond income.
Here’s a smart story from the Washington Post about why we all really do need to take vacations:
The image that stands out most in my mind during the broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics? The Cadillac commercial with a boxy, middle-aged white guy in a fancy house striding purposefully from his luxurious swimming pool to his $75,000 luxury Cadillac ELR parked out front while extolling the virtues of hard work, American style.
“Why do we work so hard? For stuff?” actor Neal McDonough asks in the commercial that has been playing without cease. “Other countries work. They stroll home. They stop by a café. They take the entire month of August off. “Off,” he says again, to reinforce the point….
Americans are caught up in what economist Juliet Schor calls a vicious cycle of “work-and-spend” – caught on a time-sucking treadmill of more spending, more stuff, more debt, stagnant wages, higher costs and more work to pay for it all…
American leisure? Don’t let the averages fool you, he could say. While it looks like leisure time has gone up, time diaries show that leisure and sleep time have gone up steeply since 1985 for those with less than a high school degree. Why? They’re becoming unemployed or underemployed. And leisure and sleep time for the college educated, the ones working those crazy extreme hours, has fallen steeply.
One of the weird things about Americans is their endless obsession with being productive.
A woman I know — who at 33, has already produced three children and three books — has turned this obsession with spending every minute usefully into a thriving career, suggesting multiple ways for us to be more efficient with our time.
I get her exhortatory emails, but just reading them makes me want to take a nose-thumbing nap, or an 8-week beach vacation.
You know what they call the sort of cough that horks up a ton of phlegm?
But visible professional success is seductive — here’s White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett:
She’s out the door at 5:15 a.m. She arrives at the White House at 5:22 a.m. and hits the gym (where she assures me she watches Morning Joe!) before meeting with the rest of the White House senior staff at 7:45 a.m. on the dot. She tries to get home before 10 p.m.
“I have to force myself to go to bed and I jump out of bed in the morning, which is a good sign, I think,” she said. “You always have to pursue a career that you care passionately about so that it will not burn you out.”
Would you be willing to work her 13-14-hour day?
I grew up in Canada, and left when I was 30. I moved to the U.S., eager to taste a new country and its culture.
The first major difference? Two weeks’ vacation a year, if you’re lucky enough to even get paid vacation.
In Canada, I felt American — too aggressive, too ambitious, too direct in my speech. But in the U.S., because I also want to take off four to six weeks’ off a year — to travel, to read, to rest, to recharge — I’m wayyyyyy too European. i.e. soft, flabby, lacking the requisite drive to get ahead, gain even more social and professional status and buy tons of more/bigger/newer stuff.
Working hard 24/7 isn’t the best way to spend my life. I’ve been working for pay since I started life-guarding part-time in high school. It’s essential to earn and save money, of course. And it’s pleasant to have enough to enjoy life beyond the basic necessities.
But after a certain point….meh.
I work my ass off when I am working. But I bring an equal hunger for leisure and downtime — like many people, I just get stupid and bitchy when I’m exhausted and haven’t had enough time for myself.
I also love to travel, whether back to familiar and well-loved places like Paris, or the many places I still haven’t seen yet, some of them a $1,000+ long-haul flight away: Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Argentina.
A four-day weekend — which many worn-out Americans answering emails 24/7 now consider a vacation — just isn’t enough.
Here’s my friend and colleague Minda Zetlin on 10 dangers of overwork, from Inc.:
3. You suck when it counts.
I can tell you from experience that going into a meeting tired and distracted means you will suck in that meeting. You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.
4. Your mood is a buzzkill.
The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.
5. Your judgment is impaired.
The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.
When you have downtime, how do you relax and recharge?
It started with a father sending text messages to his daughter during the previews of a movie.
It ended with the 43-year-old man shot dead amid the theater seats, and a 71-year-old retired police officer in custody.
The shooting Monday during a 1:20 p.m. showing of “Lone Survivor” at a Wesley Chapel, Florida, movie theater escalated from an objection to cell phone use, to a series of arguments, to the sudden and deadly shooting, according to police and witnesses.
It was November 23, 2012, when Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, parking next to a red Dodge Durango full of teenagers.
The teens had pulled in for gum and cigarettes; Dunn, meanwhile, had just left his son’s wedding with his fiancee, who’d gone inside the convenience store for wine and chips.
Dunn didn’t like the loud music — “rap crap,” as he called it — coming from the teens’ SUV. So he asked them to turn it down.
What followed next depends on whom you believe. Dunn claimed Davis threatened him, and he decided to take matter into his own hands upon seeing what he thought was the barrel of a gun sticking out of the Durango.
But prosecutors asserted that it was Dunn who lost control, firing three volleys of shots — 10 bullets total — at the SUV over music he didn’t like.
Here’s a recent New York Times piece on the ongoing battle to integrate poorer Americans into the wealthy precincts of Westchester County, which stretches from the Hudson River in the west to Long Island Sound.
I live in this county, in a town that has always been, and continues to be, economically and racially mixed: subsidized housing for the poor; rental apartments and houses; owned single-family houses, owned multiple-family houses, co-op apartments and condominiums.
In our town of 10,000, you can find a $10 loaf of bread at one food store while another shop sits between two projects — New York jargon for government-subsidized housing. Here’s a recent story I wrote about Tarrytown, explaining its diversity and appeal.
It’s one of several reasons I felt at home where when I arrived in 1989 and, even though the town has changed with the influx of much wealthier residents in recent years, (many fleeing Brooklyn and Manhattan’s real estate prices), I still like that diversity.
But the town of Chappaqua, a 15-minute drive north of us, is home to former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with a median income of $163,201.
From the Times story:
Few places on the planet are as enviable as this Westchester County hamlet.
Stately houses are set on spacious, hilly lots shaded by old trees; its village center has gourmet restaurants and bakeries; its schools are top notch and its 9,400 residents have a median household income of $163,201, ranking the area roughly 40th among America’s wealthiest communities.
It is no surprise that Chappaqua is the home of a past president and perhaps a future one, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as a Hollywood star or two.
But the hamlet — like many other affluent, overwhelmingly white localities across the country such as Garden City on Long Island, Wellesley in Massachusetts, Marin County in California and several neighborhoods in New York City — has been churned up by plans to build new housing for people of much lower incomes, including black and Hispanic newcomers.
A developer is offering to build 28 units of affordable rental housing with caps on family earnings, though with no income floor; families of four earning no more than roughly $64,000 would qualify, as would poorer families, including those who receive federal vouchers.
It’s been said that Americans today have very few unifying experiences where rich and poor alike are subject to the same stresses and challenges — as they were in the Depression and WWII.
Today, with income inequality the highest since the Gilded Era, the nation feels as though it’s splintering into armed camps, whether the armaments are literal guns or a six or seven or eight-figure income.
Although economic downturns disproportionately affect black unemployment and home ownership, working-class and college-educated whites are now feeling the sting of restricted opportunity. In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes how these men often blame the trifecta of feminism, affirmative action and immigration for their woes.
The relative devaluing of white privilege has been interpreted as racial oppression of whites and “reverse discrimination.” Opinion polls (pdf) suggest that half of all white Americans now see themselves as the targets of racism, and that number pushes past 60 percent among self-identified Republicans and among those who watch Fox News.
It’s a frightening and depressing trend, certainly for those of us who chose to come to the United States from another country with all the idealism and hope that every immigrant brings.
(And yet, watching terrible images of Syrians fleeing their homeland, and Venezuela erupting into protests and Ukraine killing protestors there…this is not [yet] that.)
How do you feel?
Do you see this sort of class warfare or random, ugly violence playing out where you live?