In the Fast Lane: Speed and Overwork in the American Workplace

Fast Going
“Fast Going,” unknown artist, originally published in “White-Collar Jobs are Dangerous,” Pennsylvania’s Health November-December 1934, page 17.

“You can—if you choose—loiter lingeringly through shady avenues or you can press down on the foot-lever until all the scenery looks alike to you and you have to keep your eyes skinned to count the milestones as they pass.” –Henry Ford[1]

When Henry Ford described the ideal worker of the 20th century, he pictured someone more machine than man who utilized “every second necessary but not a single unnecessary second.”[2] At the turn of the century Ford and other industrialists revolutionized the American workplace with new technology and scientific management of labor, speeding up the tempo of work while generating massive amounts of material and wealth for themselves.

This obsession with speed was soon found in all corners of American society, spreading far beyond factory floors and white collar offices. But for the vast majority of the workers, increases in the speed and efficiency of work did not pay off. Quite the opposite, the faster pace of life and work crushed anyone who couldn’t keep up.

Critics started to comment on the dizzying speed in work and life shortly after the Civil War. Pennsylvania conservationist George Washington Sears was one of them. Calling the late 19th century an age of “hurry and worry,” he warned fellow outdoorsmen to resist faster lifestyles after seeing neighbors and colleagues driven full steam to exhaustion and mental breakdown.[3]

Sears worried that the rising tide of overwork was reaching into every corner of American life, even recreation and the great outdoors. He cringed every time he heard of campers going out to “rough it” in the woods near his rural Tioga County home. “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it” he explained, “we get it rough enough at home; in towns and cities; in shops, offices, stores, banks- anywhere that we may be placed- with the necessity always present of being on time and up to our work; of providing for dependent ones; of keeping up, catching, or getting left.”[4]

A generation after Sears, the fast pace of work and life still caused critics dismay. In one 1929 sociological study of an “average” American town, authors Robert and Helen Lynd were puzzled by the frenetic speed that everyone –from the greenest factory worker to wealthiest executives – lived their lives. The Lynds wondered “in some bewilderment,” why so many workers “devote their best energies for long hours day after day to this driving activity seemingly so foreign to many of the most powerful impulses of human beings.”[5]

The “present conditions of living,” one economist wrote a few years later, even drove Americans to change their consumer preferences. Rushed workers “favor the short smoke rather than the leisurely [cigar] smoke of the former times.” The fast pace and “rules of factory and office…all favor the short smoke.”[6] Easy to use and easy to carry, cigarettes were symptoms of American life’s speed and stress.

Industrial progress was supposed to lessen the burdens of labor and raise the standard of living. So why was work, and life in general, getting unbearably fast?

“We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it.”

While it is true that American workers were overworked well before the late 19th century, observers agreed that something had changed in the postbellum era. Corporate obsession with speed and extreme working habits intensified towards the end of the 19th century thanks in particular to the rise of scientific management and other changes in the ways workers were expected to function. Popularized by Philadelphia engineer Frederick W. Taylor, scientific management, (or “Taylorism) favored time-motion studies, wage incentives, and new management styles to make work as fast and efficient as possible.

Taylorism represented the the next phase of a long process critics like Antonio Gramsci said “began with industrialism itself,” but manifested “in more brutal forms” in the late 1800s.[7] Taylor determined the greatest evil in industry was a worker who ignorantly (or even worse, intentionally) did not work at the fastest possible rate.[8] His ideas were popular with industrialists and corporate managers and quickly spread outside the workplace. Before long, Taylor’s principles influenced living and working habits everywhere from Southern tenant farms to family life in the domestic sphere.[9]

This dramatic change in working conditions was worrisome and discussed at length in published journals, newsletters, and reports. Of the many critics that emerged to condemn the quickening pace of life, three major groups emerged: medical professionals, sociologists, and labor advocates. These were not the only critics, but they were among the loudest. Chief among their concerns were workplace injuries, mental breakdowns, and reduced family and leisure time- usually for smaller real wages than earned before. Speedups at work, they feared, were the cause of many of these problems and needed to be stopped.

Each group of critics witnessed the impact of Taylorism and the faster pace of work from different angles and had their own reasons for calling it harmful. Likewise, they all offered their own solutions on the best way to resist the ever-quickening tempo of their world.

Medicine

Nervous illnesses can debilitate even the hardiest of workers. When mental infirmities like hysteria, neurasthenia, and nervous breakdowns were diagnosed at an alarmingly high rate in the late 19th century physicians placed blame with a work culture obsessed with speed and efficiency. Overwork, coupled with what one medical text described as “over-strain,” and “such things as worry and uncertainty” were an epidemic in the American workplace.[10]

Hurry and worry, one doctor wrote in 1913, was the reason for many of his hospital’s new admissions. Even “comparatively little work which is accompanied by worry will speedily produce weakness and irritability.”[11] Speed and overwork was not just a physical threat to workers, mental well-being was also at risk.

Superintendent John Curwen of the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital observed surging admissions caused by overwork and stress and warned patients not to take part in the “race of life…so rapidly and so heedlessly.” He interviewed many institutionalized patients who said they were compelled to work harder and faster. “Aye, but does not that very fact imply an unhealthy condition,” Curwen responded, “and that their nervous systems have received an abnormal bent at the start, which needs to be carefully guarded and treated to prevent that bent becoming a break or a deformity?”[12] Overwork and worry were unnatural states of being, and Curwen urged all to avoid them as much as possible.

“A volatile way of living to be sure. But a volatile way of dying also.”

Decades later public health officials in Pennsylvania still warned of the dangers of overwork and the ever quickening “American tempo.” The tyranny of speed was a self-made “throne of death” one 1934 state health bulletin cautioned. “Thousands of men and women, awakened by the alarm clock, hurriedly swallow a cup of coffee, hurry along the road to work, hurry at their desks, hurry home, play until midnight or later in a hurry, and then to make a complete job of it, die in a hurry. A volatile way of living to be sure. But a volatile way of dying also.”[13]

Calling unbridled speed a “Slayer,” Pennsylvania’s Department of Health placed the blame for, and solution to, overwork with the workers themselves. “Philosophers may extol moderation and relaxation; health officials and physicians may plead against cyclonic living. But the individual alone can choose.”[14] Like other medical professionals, they assumed that workers were personally responsible for their working and living conditions, and concluded that change had to come from within. Tellingly, many of these medical self-help reports only mention business executives and other white collar workers who had the option to abandon their old overworked lifestyles. Laborers in heavy industry, manufacturing, and agriculture were absent from the medical profession’s vision of personal responsibility for stressful and overworked labor conditions.

Sociology

During an 1882 tour of the United States, British sociologist Herbert Spencer was disheartened to see the a culture of speed and overwork that he believed ruinous to one’s personal health. Startling a genteel New York audience, Spencer said there was far too much emphasis on the American ‘gospel of work’ and not enough focus on relaxation, complaining “everywhere I have been struck with the number of faces which told in strong lines of the burdens that had to be borne.”[15] For their own sakes and for the health of the country, the self-styled philosopher begged his listeners to just relax.

Spencer encouraged Americans to resist urges to work faster and tirelessly. Enjoy the bountiful surplus that their labor had already produced, he said. And this message was well-received by some- George Washington Sears actually quoted Spencer’s “gospel of relaxation” speech in his book on the great outdoors. In the decades following Spencer’s attack on overwork, other sociologists would level their own criticisms as well.

Spencer’s anecdotal observations of the increasing tempo of work were quantified by American sociologists, most notably in the 1908 Pittsburgh Survey. “Nothing else explains so much in the industrial and social situation in the Pittsburgh District” as the demand for fast and efficient labor, the survey concluded. “Everything else is keyed up to it… the general law of the region is protracted, unremitting toil.”[16] The survey identified the unrelenting 12-hour work day as the greatest threat to the city’s vitality and the health of its workers.

The survey argued the quickening pace of work was not just dangerous to workers themselves, but also to their communities. Exhausted and underpaid workers had less time to spend at home or with their families. “The psychological effect of” overwork and poor living conditions on a growing “girl or boy can not be estimated. The community at large suffers.”[17]

“The general law of the region is protracted, unremitting toil.”

The solution to this problem, as the survey writers saw, was to confront business, civic, and government leaders with the facts and persuade them to reform working practices. The oppression of speed and overwork was turning Pittsburgh’s workforce into “a mass of unfit, under-vitalized, unproductive citizens.”[18] Legal and corporate protection for all workers was needed to protect Pittsburgh’s civic health and “industrial supremacy.”[19]

In 1929 another grand sociological study of an American community was published, and like its predecessors “Middletown” singled out speed and overwork as the cause for many of society’s problems. Its authors Robert and Helen Lynd determined the cause of overwork and speed on the job was the decline of skilled craftsmanship and solidarity among workers.

New technology and scientific management made workers more machine-like and less inclined to take personal pride in their work. “The shift from a system in which length of service, craftsmanship, the authority in the shop and social prestige among one’s peers…seems to have wiped out many satisfactions that formerly accompanied the job.”[20] A weak union presence in Middletown made resistance to Taylorism impossible and pushed workers to find satisfaction outside the workplace. If there was no pride in the work, they reasoned, why did it matter if the pace was fast or slow?

The Lynds concluded organized labor, a highly skilled workforce, and social bonds between workers were key to keeping the pace of work reasonable. Without the “psychological satisfactions” these provided, workers would not resist increases in the work pace pushed by business owners.

Middletown’s analysis of working conditions was noticeably flawed- scholars have long pointed out it ignored the experiences of BIPOC communities. However, its argument that labor solidarity was the best chance for resisting fast-paced work matched the same conclusions W.E.B. DuBois and other Black sociologists had made earlier in the century. DuBois called Frederick Taylor a “crank” and criticized the impact scientific management made on the working conditions of  Black laborers. On top of crushing overwork, Black workers were usually excluded from office and skilled industrial positions by racist managers, giving them fewer opportunities and power to resist harsh work speeds.

DuBois wrote that black workers should meet oppressive working conditions and unfair wages “with organization” and that “they could do much to win standing in the industries of the cities” with skilled labor and craftsmanship.[21] Organized labor and solidarity would give workers the power to end oppressive working practices.

It should come as no surprise that union organizers and other labor advocates felt the same way.

Labor

Unions railed against speed and overwork on the shop floor at every turn. They aimed their attacks more directly at Taylorism than most physicians or sociologists did. Labor was united in its criticism, however, there was little consensus on the best way to resist these changes to the workplace.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) believed faster working speeds devalued labor and contributed to a growing productivity-pay gap. Keeping the pace of work slower would keep workers better paid and healthier. Union resistance to overwork would not just “lighten the burdens of drudgery and severe toil,” AFL president Samuel Gompers reported, it would also allow workers the time and wages to purchase consumer goods they helped produce. “The prosperity of a nation, the success of a people, the civilizing influence of our era, can always be measured by the comparative consuming power of a people” he declared in an 1893 speech.[22] By providing leisure time and discretionary income, slower work rates were good for workers and business owners alike.

“We are compelled to lower our standard of living, eat poorer food, dwell in cheaper tenements.”

Despite their rhetoric, the AFL and other conservative craft unions felt that Taylorism’s changes the workplaces were inevitable; they would happen with or without their resistance. By the early 1900s Gompers and other leaders increasingly struck, as Jackson Lears has written, “a bargain with management, ceding control over the labor process in exchange for shorter hours and higher pay.”[23] This bargain meant that workers would seek satisfaction not in their work, but in consumer spending and leisure activities outside the job. Instead of fighting speed within the workplace, the AFL turned to fight for higher pay and shorter working hours instead.

Other unions did advocate direct resistance to increases in work speed. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) thought forcing workers to work harder and faster subverted organized labor and solidarity. One 1907 IWW bulletin read: “now that we work more unsteadily, but much more intensely, producing a greater quantity of wealth while getting less for our labor time, we are compelled to lower our standard of living, eat poorer food, dwell in cheaper tenements, etc., and will continue to go lower until we do our duty by ourselves and our fellow workers.”[24] Instead of rising with increased work efficiency, the IWW noticed working men and women were sinking deeper and deeper into poverty and dangerous working conditions while industrialists lined their pockets with extra profits.

Employing the fiery rhetoric they were known for, one IWW local resolved in 1908 to resist the “ever-increasing speed of the machine of which [workingmen are] becoming a part” by uniting all unions and reform movements under a single banner “with the object of controlling industry in the interests of the producers alone.”[25] Worker control of industry would prevent future speed ups and ensure that increases in efficiency would benefit workers and not just industrialists.

Unions were divided on their tactics, but they all recognized the danger that Taylorism and overwork presented. Less gratification and professionalization, dangerous working conditions, reduced wages and compensation, and less solidarity among workers were chief among the concerns they shared. Though organized labor did win important reforms on working hours, safety regulations, and other workplace conditions, hesitation to take scientific management on directly meant it did not prevent work from speeding up steadily to this day.

Overwork and Working Fast Today

Even with all the criticism against unchecked speed in the workplace, the pace of work still increases. After Frederick Taylor’s death in 1915 his scientific management techniques were enhanced and perfected by other industrialists, pushing workers to work faster under new names like Fordism, the Bedaux Point System, and the Halsey Premium Plan.[26]

In a midcentury essay on nervousness in society, historian Philip Wiener wrote that the “tremendous pressures” of work and daily life were putting too much strain on the bodies and minds of Americans. “What can the cultural historian do but remind us of this accelerating tempo of life,” he lamented, “and ask us to consider philosophically its impact on our minds and on the kind of world we are making?”[27]

But is this really enough? Perhaps its time for historians to get more involved. And where better than within our own profession?

Historians and workers in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) need to do more than just document the rise of speed in the American workplace, or any other threats to the health, fair treatment, and quality of life of workers. The productivity of the American worker has risen dramatically for generations, yet hourly wages remain fairly stagnant and the expectations for fast work are ever-present. These historical trends inexorably tie our work to the present.

Rather than passively accept the acceleration of work and life, we can apply the lessons learned from earlier critics to our 21st century world. We can accept that overwork and unbridled speed are real threats to our physical health, our families and communities, and our professions. We can take time to relax and take time to resist new demands to pick up the pace on the job and at home. We can organize and let employers know when increased productivity’s price is too high for us. We can watch out for the most vulnerable workers and make sure that workplace gains are inclusive and equitable for everyone. We can and must hold ourselves and our institutions accountable.

“What can the cultural historian do but remind us of this accelerating tempo of life?”

As historians and other GLAM workers we need to understand that our own profession is full of pressures to pick up the pace of work. Those of us in academia often feel compelled to “publish or perish.” In the past 15 years most archives have adopted a “more product, less process” (MPLP) approach that led scholars Marika Cifor and Jamie Lee to recently write “under MPLP archivists become workers on an assembly line aiming for standardization, ever-greater amounts of linear feet processed, and at increased speed.”[28] Burnout is so common among public historians that one observer wrote that the field “requires workers who are not burned to a crisp by a continuous marathon of overwork…that has been institutionalized into ‘business as usual’ for ‘willing slaves’ in the modern world of work.”[29]

Even something as simple as working through lunch or responding to emails on the weekend, which most of us are guilty of, are symptoms of overwork that we need to recognize and resist.

The critics of the 19th and 20th centuries were unable to stop the advance of speedups and overwork into every inch of our lives. But taking the best parts of their arguments and tactics can point us towards an effective response today. In a 1895 travel and camping guide, George Sears wrote that careful planning and preparation would always lead to “pleasant days and peaceful nights.” And he also suggested his readers “make it as smooth, as restful and pleasurable as you can.”[30] We can do the same too.

Works Cited:

[1] Henry Ford. My Life and Work. (New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923), 56.

[2] Ibid., 83.

[3] George Washington Sears. Woodcraft (New York, Forest and Stream Publishing Company, 1895), 2.

[4] Sears, 14.

[5] Robert Lynd and Helen Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, (1929) 1956), 73.

[6] Neil Borden, The Economic Effects of Advertising, (Chicago, Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1942), 224.

[7] Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds., Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, (New York, International Publishers, 1971), 302.

[8] Frederick Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, (New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1911), 12.

[9] For more on scientific management and work speedups in agriculture and domestic labor, see Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture, (Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1997) and Christine Frederick, The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management, (New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913).

[10] Edwin Ash, The Nursing of Nervous Patients, (London, The Scientific Press Limited, 1913), 16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Annual Report of the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital,” 1878, Box 1, Records of the Department of Public Welfare: Harrisburg State Hospital Annual and Biennial Reports 1851-1971, Pennsylvania State Archives.

[13] Clarence Funk, “Speed, the Slayer,” Pennsylvania’s Health, March-April 1934, 12.

[14] Ibid., 15.

[15] “A Scientific Coincidence,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases 8, no. 2(1883): 320.

[16] Paul Kellogg, ed., The Pittsburgh Survey: Findings in Six Volumes, (New York, Survey Associates, Inc., 1913), 4.

[17] Kellog, 104.

[18] Kellogg, 40.

[19] Ibid., 41.

[20] Lynd and Lynd, 75-76.

[21] W.E.B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, (New York, Schocken Books, 1899), 130-131.

[22] Samuel Gompers, What Does Labor Want? A Paper Read Before the International Labor Congress, (New York, 1893)

[23] Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America 1877-1920, (New York, HarperCollins Books, 2009), 262.

[24] “What’s to Be Done,” The Industrial Union Bulletin, March 2, 1907

[25] “Resolutions Adopted by Industrial Workers,” The Industrial Union Bulletin, April 18, 1908

[26] Elizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990), 169.

[27] Philip Wiener, “G.M. Beard and Freud on ‘American Nervousness,’” Journal of the History of Ideas 17, no. 2 (April 1956): 274.

[28] Marika Cifor and Jamie Lee, “Towards an Archival Critique: Opening Possibilities for Addressing Neoliberalism in the Archival Field,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1, no. 1 (2017): 12.

[29] Paul C. Thistle, “Does Public History Work Itself Require Repair?” History@Work, (February 20, 2019).

[30] Sears, 15.

3 thoughts on “In the Fast Lane: Speed and Overwork in the American Workplace

Add yours

  1. More balance is definitely needed in the workplace. “For everything there is an appointed time, even a time for every affair under the heavens.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Making time for rest, time for family and time to relax is very important for our overall well-being. Thank you for this reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

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