Let's still do lunch Let's still do lunch

U.S. workers are giving away the gains of previous generations and getting nothing in return.

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH, we’ve all been told, but in the near future there may be no such thing as lunch, period. Following quickly on the demise of the 40-hour work week, collapsing health and pension benefits, and the renaissance of involuntary overtime, Americans seem intent on putting to rest another one-time commonplace of the U.S. workday: the lunch hour.

According to a recent study, the average U.S. lunch hour is actually a mere lunch half-hour, down from an already lean 36 minutes just 10 years ago. U.S. workers are choking down their lunch hand-over-fist (would they were making money similarly) so they can get back to work faster, do document-scanning micro-work while at lunch, or just day-bank some time so they can get home at a reasonable hour or catch up on personal errands. Those hastily gobbled meals and accelerated lifestyles mean poorer health as folks opt for the high-calorie, high-fat non-diet at fast food emporiums, but it also means sacrificing an ever greater share of our lives to our jobs and employers.

U.S. workers put in more than 1,820 hours a year on the job. That’s 300 to 400 hours more than our fellow workers in Europe and more than the legendarily work-crazy Japanese. Heck, it’s even more than a 14th-century English peasant is estimated to have worked (1,440 hours), and they pretty much died in the harness.

The extra hours may contribute to impressive gains in one measure of productivity (per person, not per hour), but those gains are not tracking back to workers’ paychecks. Average raises in recent years have barely kept pace with inflation, while employers passed on an ever greater share of health care expenses to workers. At the same time compensation for the top echelon managers of major corporations reached heights that would have left Zeus panting. In 2005 the average CEO of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company received $11.75 million in total compensation. That’s 262 times the pay of an average worker and more than 10 times the salary gap in 1965, when CEOs at major companies earned 24 times a worker’s pay.

“From shirt-sleeve to shirt-sleeve in three generations” was an adage applied to the rich in the past, a comment on their penchant for blowing a family fortune by the time the feckless grandchildren broke into their trust funds. But these days America’s ultrarich appear determined to consign that quaint truism to the dustbin of axiomatic history via an aggressive wealth redistribution plan, including a total tax share shift and the retirement of the estate tax, that has all the makings of a permanent economic aristocracy. For their part, U.S. workers seem oddly resigned to a modest version of the “shirt sleeves” saying for themselves, handing over rights earned—at sometimes mortal cost—by their working grandparents with barely a whimper of resistance.

That may be because more than 80 percent of U.S. workers are considered “at will” employees, working pretty much at the mercy of their employers, unprotected by civil service rules or union collective bargaining agreements. A growing percentage of U.S. employees are considered exempt from U.S. wage-hour laws (or at least their employers treat them as if they were). They can be terminated, too, without any of the protections offered workers in most other advanced economies.

That power differential can lead to some benighted workplace policies and blighted family life. U.S. workers are frankly afraid to take the daily, weekly, or annual time-off or other compensation they may be legally entitled to.

In 1891’s Rerum Novarum, the church began its long defense of workers and their families against the inhuman requirements of an unrestrained market system, railing against “the exaction of so much work that the spirit is dulled from excessive toil and . . . the body sinks crushed from exhaustion.” The essence of church teaching on the workplace is that work is intended to promote the dignity of humankind, that economies are meant to serve, not be served. Something worth remembering the next time you find yourself impatient for your lunch to be served just so you can hurry back to the office.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the September 2006 (Volume 71, Number 9; page 38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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