Breaking the social norm of the 40 hour work week

The New Economics Foundation suggests we work 40 hour weeks because that is the prevailing social norm, not because it is necessary:

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says there is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered a “normal” 40-hour work week today. In its wake, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things. Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies: so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and mostly just relative to those around us (who strive to consume still more, in a self-perpetuating spiral).

The NEF argues we need to achieve truly happy lives, we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial clock ticking in our heads. It sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons: it will redistribute paid work, offering the hope of a more equal society (right now too many are overworked, or underemployed). At the same time, it would give us all time for the things we value but rarely have time to do well such as care for our family, travel, read or continue learning (as opposed to feeding consumerism).

This reminds me of past visions where modern conveniences, like new appliances or flying cars or a a perpetually robust economy, would reduce the number of hours people would have to spend on “menial” tasks like housework and working. Alas, many of these things have not happened.

This group does raise an interesting issue: there are ideological reasons for sticking to 40 hours. This foundation suggests that working less would lead to more fulfilling lives full of relationships and time to pursue our true interests. I wonder how many Americans would really be willing to work less in exchange for less money or discretionary income.

I wonder if a movement toward this direction would require a respected company to make this change.

Rioting over cultural works and ideas: Blackboard Jungle and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Even though I have heard multiple times about the groundbreaking 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, I finally watched it recently. (Side note: watching the film without commercials on AMC was excellent. Watching movies on TV is often so frustrating as they drag it out.) After watching the movie (and noting how “inspiring teacher” movies of recent years seem to build upon this film), I read on Wikipedia about riots that took place when the movie was first shown in theaters:

The film markedthe rock and roll revolution by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, initially a B-side, over the film’s opening credits, as well as in the first scene, in an instrumental version in the middle of the film, and at the close of the movie, establishing that song as an instant classic. The record had been released the prior year, garnering tepid sales. But, popularized by its use in the film, “Rock Around the Clock” reached number one on the Billboard charts, and remained there for eight weeks. The music also led to a huge teenage audience for the film, and their exuberant response to it sometimes overflowed into violence and vandalism at screenings. In this sense, the film has been seen as marking the start of a period of visible teenage rebellion in the latter half of the 20th century.

The film markeda watershed in the United Kingdom. When shown at a South London Cinema in Elephant and Castle in 1956 the teenage teddy boy audience began to riot, tearing up seats and dancing in the aisles.[2] After that, riots took place around the country wherever the film was shown. In 2007, the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture published an article that analyzed the film’s connection to crime theories and juvenile delinquency.

This reminds me of the riots that accompanied the premieres of classical music, such as at the opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (and detailed in The Rest Is Noise – though this description comes from Wikipedia):

The première involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario and choreography shocked the audience that was accustomed to the elegant conventions of classical ballet.

The evening’s program began with another Stravinsky piece entitled “Les Sylphides.” This was followed by, “The Rite of Spring”. The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, some members of the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance.[6] Stravinksy had called for a bassoon to play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the première.”). Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience.

After the première, Diaghilev is reported to have commented to Nijinsky and Stravinsky at dinner that the scandal was “exactly what I wanted.”

Some scholars have questioned the traditional account, particularly concerning the extent to which the riot was caused by the music, rather than by the choreography and/or the social and political circumstances. The Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin has written an article about the première, entitled “A Myth of the Twentieth Century,” in which he attempts to demonstrate that the traditional story of the music provoking unrest was largely concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 1920s after he had published the score. At that later date, Stravinsky was constructing an image of himself as an innovative composer to promote his music, and he revised his accounts of the composition and performances of The Rite of Spring to place a greater emphasis on a break with musical traditions and to encourage a focus on the music itself in concert performances.

While we could do without the violence at these events, it suggests an era when ideas and cultural works prompted vigorous reactions. Today, do we have an equivalent? People going home and writing on their blogs (guilty as charged)? Critics spreading popular or contrarian interpretations? The occasional talkback session after a theater production?

I suspect that if people today read about these reports, they would do something like this: shake their head and ask why these moviegoers or concertgoers got so animated. But perhaps we could ask the opposite question: why don’t new ideas, particularly ones that push us to think beyond our accepted categories, animate us? Are we just so numbed by novelty and a plurality of ideas that nothing really shocks us anymore? Do we have space in our society to truly think through and debate the ideas presented in “entertainment”?

Of course, not all cultural productions are intended to push us in new directions. Some are there just for entertainment. But others push beyond typical boundaries. Take a recent movie like The Tree of Life: I saw it on the recommendations of a few friends and I’m still not sure what to think about it. But it certainly was thought provoking and wasn’t a “typical” movie. Is this simply an “art film” in its own category or is it more like what all cultural productions should be doing?

Crime down but today’s parents less likely to let first graders go places alone

I stumbled upon this 1979 checklist for parents who want their children to attend first grade. Perhaps the most interesting point on the list: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?” As you might expect, this drew some commentary:

It’s amazing what a difference 30 years have made. Academically, that 1979 first grader (who also needed to be “six years, six months” old and “have two to five permanent or second teeth”) would have been considered right on target to start preschool. In terms of life skills, she’s heading for middle school, riding her two-wheeled bike and finding her own way home. It’s not surprising that I came to this link via Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog. What is surprising is just how shocking a jolt it is to realize how stark the difference is between then and now.

I’d probably be considered a free-range parent by today’s standards; I’ve allowed a 7-year-old to walk to a friend’s house unaccompanied and left a 9-year-old in charge of siblings. But the idea of a kindergartener walking “four to eight blocks” alone? Crossing streets? Turning corners? Even though I suspect I did it myself, I can’t get my head around it. I have two kindergarteners this year (and one will be 6 in just a few weeks), and I check on them if I let them walk solo to the bookstore’s bathroom. Yesterday, I watched one of them get lost in the grocery store, trying to go two aisles over to the freezer section, where she’d been not 30 seconds before. Two to four blocks?

But there it is, in the middle of the list, as though the ability to find your way around your world at 6 years old was quite ordinary. The country isn’t different (Skenazy points out that crime rates are actually lower overall than they were in 1979). We’re different, and not just as parents. A commenter to the post points out that her children’s school doesn’t allow students to walk home alone (even with an older sibling) until fifth grade. And it’s a difference most parents are aware of already. But to see it laid out so clearly is to remember that it wasn’t just my own mother who expected more from me than I expect from my own kids, but all the mothers. I’m not suggesting we loose our kindergarteners on our neighborhoods, and I don’t plan to send mine romping any further than the yard. But I will try to broaden my ideas of what else they’re capable of—besides math and reading—this year.

It reminds me of the story of the New York City mom who let her 9-year old kid ride the subway alone (after proper training and guidance) a few years ago and the controversy that generated.

Somewhat hidden in the explanation of this shift in parenting is an important set of statistics: crime rates are down. Not just down; rates in some big cities, like Chicago, have hit lows not seen for several decades. But, as I have noted, this is not the public perception. Instead, we live in a world where crime always seems to just lurk around the corner (perhaps even in the suburbs!), we hear about all sorts of gruesome outcomes (real outcomes and on shows like CSI), and we hear more and more about child abductions (think Amber Alerts). In these cases, the perceptions about crime are more important than the actual data.

An analogy might also help explain this shift. In books like Scorecasting and elsewhere, some argue that football teams should never punt because they could then score more points. What can hold back teams from going against the norm is that coaches don’t want to be held responsible if their team does go for it on fourth down and doesn’t make it. It is “safer” to punt in most circumstances because one then can’t be blamed for following conventional wisdom. Could parents operate in the same way – which parent wants to play the odds, that their child will be safe when going places alone, and risk being wrong? How would other parents and other members of the community view such parents whose children then do fall into trouble?

h/t Instapundit

Thinking about a culture of homeownership

The recent cover of Time featured a story about homeownership. While the story emphasized the idea that homeownership is not an unquestionable good (particularly economically), it also argued something else: homeownership is an important part of American culture that should be examined.

For generations, Americans believed that owning a home was an axiomatic good. Our political leaders hammered home the point. Franklin Roosevelt held that a country of homeowners was “unconquerable.” Homeownership could even, in the words of George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Jack Kemp, “save babies, save children, save families and save America.” A house with a front lawn and a picket fence wasn’t just a nice place to live or a risk-free investment; it was a way to transform a nation. No wonder leaders of all political stripes wanted to spend more than $100 billion a year on subsidies and tax breaks to encourage people to buy.
With the economic crisis surrounding homes (and the foreclosure issue is going to be around for a while), some are beginning to question the role of housing within the American dream. From the early days of American life, the single-family home was a special place that dovetailed with American emphases on individualism, the nuclear family, and an anti-urban bias.
Of course, this cultural ideal was pushed along and aided by government and economic policies that emphasized homeownership. So, now faced with economic troubles, the country could either support or move away from this value:
1. Support this value by making houses a safer investment and tightening up the mortgage markets so that lenders and borrowers are working together rather than simply trying to profit.
2. Change or work against this value by supporting other kinds of housing tenure, primarily renting. But this could include moves toward more co-operative housing or other options.
Thus far, I would say Option #1 has been chosen: try to shore up the housing market without questioning whether homeownership should be the ideal or if other options are possible.
I’m not suggesting homeownership is necessarily good or bad. What this housing crisis does offer is an opportunity to ask how homeownership fits into our future vision of America.