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HERD IS A 4-LETTER WORD

In 1910, President William Howard Taft (the handsome man pictured above) urged Americans to take at least two months' vacation per year. Then came two world wars, the military industrial complex was formed and is now flying (pun intended: look at them drones!), and now Americans work harder than ever and rest much less.

Indeed overwork has made American vacation time rarer and more easily interrupted. Workers typically accrue paid vacation, but Americans are using less of it. On average workers failed to use 5 vacation days in 2013, and some of them didn't carry over. The average employee did $504 of free work instead of taking a vacay. This is $52 billion total.

And why? Most Americans say they are overworked. That the workload on return is too heavy, that nobody else can do the work, that they want to show dedication rather than seem replaceable. But even those that do, let's say, fly to Fiji, nearly 2/3 plan to work during their time off. This means email, text, phone calls and sessions on the laptop, which I hope is waterproof. 
  
Many factors have led to what Jack Dickey writing for Time calls an "undesirable destination," such as a pool of unskilled and interchangeable workers, the decline of organized labor, escalating travel costs when wages are stagnating. Workers are not secure and on edge. So they don't enjoy leisure time which has proven to be restorative and good for the heart. After all, the happy and rested employee does better work. Take Europe as an example. Luxembourg guarantees workers 35 yearly paid days off; Norway 29 days; Switzerland 28. These are not countries of slackers. Rather, they are the three OECD economies that finished ahead of the US in 2013 in GDP per capita, a measure of workforce productivity. Why did the US lag behind? Simple. A third of Americans say they are just plain exhausted. Harried days give way to stress-filled, sleepless nights. Depression and cardiovascular problems ensue. Productivity wanes.

And what is perhaps the most telling statistic is this: 33% of those polled said they didn't leave town because they could not afford to get away! You may think this is a reflection on poor wages, and it likely is, in part. Consider that in order to afford the cost of an average-size Los Angeles apartment ($1800) on a minimum wage of $9 you'd need to work about 200 hours that week. But rest assured, legislators are trying to increase it to $15 by 2020 and it's already being opposed, so good luck with that! A bigger contributor to overwork syndrome is the rise in consumerism dating back to the 1970s, forcing Americans to work more hours just to maintain a poorly-thought out standard of living.

And adding to this is the tech that's supposed to make you more efficient. That smart phone you're always on? A colorful and expensive ball and chain. Thanks very much, Steve Jobs!

What's sad is it wasn't supposed to turn out this way. As Dickey notes, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that in the 21st century our tech would be so savvy and hands-off that Americans would be free to do as we pleased, that we might work 15 hours a week, just to feel productive. Many Americans do work half weeks. Many don't work at all, but not out of choice. It's called being unemployed. Because with machines remaking the labor force, it is hard to find a job!

And so we wait for the expansion of the leisure class, which if it ever comes will be enthusiastically embraced. Or will it? Work too hard for too long and you become a philistine, defined as a person who does not know how to enjoyably spend leisure time. Why? because you are out of practice! Wired to be wired, you don't know how to unwind.

Companies recognize the benefits a little chillaxing has on job performance and are trying to add incentives to get employees to take that trip, but until paid vacation becomes mandatory, you will likely feel pressured to work yourself to the bone because everyone else in the office is doing it. The fear of falling behind.

What's more, more and more consumers are willing to rack up credit card debt to maintain a basic standard of living filled with its modern (if disposable and useless) pleasures. The result of "consumption smoothing" can be a deep financial hole out of which it is nearly impossible to climb. Lights on, food on the table, a roof over one's head is one (necessary) thing. Shopping sprees at Ross, Wall-mart and TJ Max, not so much. But everywhere you look, stuff is there, and it's so cheap! News flash: the stuff is mostly knock-offs. And homeless dudes collect a lot of crap too. Not something to aspire to.
Yes, higher wages and more stable employment would help many families with their financial troubles, as the study notes. But here's an idea: if you simply reduce your wants and live simply, you won't feel such acute economic pressure to work until you drop. As your expenses fall, income can give a little with it, no big deal. Granted, much of what people buy has a work-related purpose. The car to advertise status, the wardrobe updates to show you care about appearance, the latest smart phone so that you have all the major upgrades and run with the times.

But the major step in changing behavior is realizing how insane consumerism is in the first place. News flash: You are not your fancy car. You are not your Prada shoes. Nor the Gucci handbag or its knock-off. You are not the belly flab beneath your designer dress or its knock-off, though that fair weather flat tummy comes closer to the true you than anything you wear to cover it up. And yet these pretty products of your fancy come at the cost of your peace of mind, which is you, or as close as philosophers say you'll get to who you really are. Let's not descend into metaphysical speculation. The point is, we are running off a cliff, my friend - overworked and ill at ease and with smart phones in hand.


Consider the major result of our relentless pursuit of productivity. Technological development. Concomitant with the rise of tech has been a budding robophobia, a fear of unintended consequences that journalist Lev Grossman notes to be running through this summer's movies. And indeed the threat of robots destroying humanity has long been a major cinematic theme, now more than ever. Mostly, they take us over. Big budget Hollywood disaster flicks involving steely-eyed adversaries date back to Blade Runner and Terminator and have exploded into this century, with films like Avengers, Ex Machina, Tomorrowland and the eagerly-anticipated Ant-Man (how's that?) vying for advertising space next to Prada and Gucci. 

What do these films all have in common? An us against them premise, with them being genetically engineered or artificially-enhanced assassin, fiend, rogue force or mastermind, and us humans getting our asses handed to us, with or without a silver lining. In short, we are building the scenario we instinctively know may result in our destruction, meanwhile we are working ourselves senseless to make enough money to afford the ticket, so that we can watch as it all goes BOOM!
And unlike summer movies which have human beings usually winning in the end, in real life it may not be the hybrid dinosaurs (Jurassic World) who go extinct. Not all life's consequences are intended. Once upon a time we envisioned robots to make our existence easier by doing the menial tasks which would leave our hours free to pass at leisure, like wielding the broom and vacuum. Instead our machines may be the ones wielding the machine gun, machete or whatever new age weapon writers give our Hitman: Agent 47 to hold menacingly over our heads. And then we're done. Time's up. We can rest when we're dead. Because that's all we'll be able to do! But don't you have a say in how the real tomorrowland turns out?

Yes, you do. Even though you want to seem with it. We are social creatures hardwired with a desire to fit in with the group. But following along with whatever happens to be the prevailing behavior is also herd mentality, emblematic of the lower beasts, who lovable though they may be are not always known for their impeccable reasoning capabilities. 

And when the herd stampedes off a cliff, it's the one running in the opposite direction who seems out of his mind. And yet when the dust settles, you're the only one still alive. Save yourself while there's still time. Don't be fearful of going it alone. The herd mentality runs deep. Before long, there will be others flying right by your side.


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