In July 2022, Zaid Khan posted a TikTok video1 that quickly went viral.2 In the video, he explains that he “recently learned about [the] term . . . ‘quiet quitting,’” which refers to “not outright quitting your job, but . . . quitting the idea of going above and beyond.”3 “[Y]our worth as a person is not defined by your labor,” he concludes.4 The video struck a chord, prompting a flurry of media coverage analyzing the phenomenon of quiet quitting and what it says about work culture and Generation Z.5
But quiet quitting is nothing new. On the contrary, as one commentator put it, “[w]hat the kids are now calling ‘quiet quitting’ was, in previous and simpler decades, simply known as ‘having a job.’”6 Still, it was the newest in a series of viral work-related trends that have dominated the public discourse since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before quiet quitting, there was also antiwork,7 the Great Resignation,8 a resurgence of union organizing,9 and a lasting discussion of the challenges faced by workers with caretaking responsibilities.10
These trends are nebulous and multidimensional. Unlike an organized movement, the precise contours, complaints, or goals of viral messages are difficult to pin down, even when they coalesce around similar themes. But one common thread that runs throughout all five trends suggests a heightened interest in restructuring American employment laws to achieve better work-life balance. Scholars and activists have repeatedly called for reforms with this objective in mind, yet the basic work-life framework in America has remained relatively constant — and effectively nonexistent — for nearly a century, despite dramatic social and technological changes during that period.11 In recent years, some state and local policymakers have successfully passed laws that better support work-life balance.12 The viral trends during the pandemic indicate that this effort is welcome and suggest that federal policymakers, too, should take seriously the call for baseline structures that empower workers to lead well-rounded lives.
This Chapter will explore the pandemic-era trends and some recent work-life policy developments. To that end, section A will provide background on what we might think of as the current work-life baseline at the federal level, as well as some of the critiques it has inspired. Section B will describe each of the recent trends and how they reflect a need to revise the basic work-life framework. Finally, section C will consider how state and local legislatures have responded to calls for better balance and will touch upon where we should go from here.
A. Foundations of Work-Life Balance
“Work-life balance” is not a legal phenomenon. It is more aptly characterized as a cultural, sociological, economic, and psychological issue. In general, work-life balance is “the relationship between work and non-working time.”13 But it is difficult to define exactly how that balance is to be understood and measured.14 For example, “good work-life balance” could be assessed subjectively (in terms of the individual worker’s impressions of their work-life balance) or absolutely (in terms of whether the worker’s time is balanced equally between work and nonwork activities).15 Typically, though, the phrase is intended in the subjective sense, referring to individuals’ impressions of satisfaction, conflict, and/or autonomy regarding their work and nonwork roles,16 which can be “linked” in a variety of ways.17
The subjective experience of work-life balance is heavily affected by nonlegal factors, like identity or market features. For example, parents are particularly likely to feel dissatisfied with their work-life balance,18 people of different genders may experience work-life balance differently,19 and younger generations of American workers value work-life balance more highly than older generations.20 In the United States, race- and gender-based biases,21 the precarity of work,22 an insufficient social safety net,23 and the relative lack of economic mobility24 all motivate overworking in an attempt to achieve economic security — a drive that is perhaps enhanced by the famous “Protestant work ethic,” which holds that hard work is a moral good.25
Whether measured subjectively or objectively, poor work-life balance carries personal and collective risks. For example, studies suggest that there are both mental26 and physical27 health hazards that accompany overwork. Likewise, researchers have found that productivity suffers when employees work excessively long hours28 — and that productivity is not necessarily lost when employers experiment with compressed or flexible schedules.29 Overworked employees can also become prone to mistakes,30 and researchers have shown that family31 and community32 life suffers when work-life balance is poor.
Responding to these concerns, many countries have sought to address work overload and work-life conflict through policy. Relative to those in the United States, workers in Europe spend fewer hours working33 and enjoy greater paid leave.34 Denmark, for example, touts the fact that Danish workers are entitled to five weeks of paid vacation each year and generally conduct their work within the confines of the official workweek, which is thirty-seven hours.35 Other countries have experimented with policy interventions such as limiting work-related correspondence outside of working hours36 and creating maximum hour caps for workweeks.37 Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, workers in many of these countries enjoy better work-life balance than U.S. workers.38
This Chapter is not a comparative legal analysis, but these other countries’ successes illustrate how the law can help establish better work-life balance by defining baseline norms.39 Labor and employment law may not be able to fully address all of the features that bear upon workers’ subjective experiences of balance, but it serves an important signaling or expressive function,40 which can gradually effect social change.41 Thus, revising federal law to give workers more autonomy over their time could move the country toward better work-life balance.
1. America’s (Austere) Work-Life Legal Framework? — Two U.S. federal laws stand out as prime candidates for reform: the Fair Labor Standards Act of 193842 (FLSA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 199343 (FMLA). Layered on top of these laws are numerous regulations as well as state, local, and private policies, but these two laws provide a useful entry point into what might be considered the baseline national expectations around working and nonworking time.
The FLSA is the federal wage-and-hour law. It sets the federal hourly minimum wage (originally $0.2544 and currently $7.2545) and regulates overtime work for covered employees.46 Once an employee covered by the Act — a nonexempt worker — hits forty hours of work within the designated one-week period, they must be compensated at a rate of pay that is at least 1.5 times their regular rate.47 Importantly, the FLSA does not set minimum or maximum total working hours,48 and it carves out a variety of exceptions for agricultural workers, executive and professional workers, and others.49 These exempt workers do not benefit from the FLSA’s time-and-one-half pay provisions.
Alongside the FLSA’s basic wage-and-hour framework, the FMLA establishes a job-protected leave program.50 Generally, the FMLA provides qualifying workers with up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave a year for purposes of caring for a newborn, foster, or adopted child, or for caring for themselves or a family member with a “serious health condition.”51 To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked for their employer for at least twelve months and at least 1,250 hours during the prior twelve-month period;52 the Act applies only to employers of a certain size.53
Both the FMLA and the FLSA were motivated at least in part by work-life balance concerns. The FLSA was signed into law on June 25, 193854 following decades of labor organizing related to minimum-wage and maximum-hour paradigms. Throughout the 1800s, workers had advocated to shorten the standard workday from ten or more hours to eight.55 The year 1886, in particular, saw over a thousand strikes and lockouts — involving hundreds of thousands of workers — directed toward that end.56 The eight-hour movement professed the slogan “[e]ight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will,”57 reflecting an “enduring and cherished dream of the American labor movement”58 to endow workers with more time off for leisure, family, and community activities.59 After gradually adopting eight-hour day policies for federal employees and then for various industries,60 Congress eventually passed the FLSA at the tail end of the Great Depression.61 The law aimed to address unemployment by spreading work over a greater number of workers, while also better protecting employees’ access to leisure time.62
The FMLA was adopted over fifty years after the FLSA in an effort to ensure that American workers would “no longer have to choose between the job they need and the family they love.”63 The Women’s Legal Defense Fund, now the National Partnership for Women and Families, drafted the legislation that would eventually become the FMLA in 1984, and spent the next nine years advocating for its passage.64 As “the first time that the United States federal government acknowledged and attempted to promote ‘work-family policy’ through legislation,”65 the law sought to alleviate work-family conflict,66 which had become particularly visible following rapid increases in workforce participation by women.67
Combined, the two laws set a starkly limited baseline regarding working time and time off from work. Under the FLSA, there is ultimately neither a cap nor a minimum on the number of hours that an employer may require, nor are there substantial limitations on how employers can manage employees’ schedules. This lack of regulation has led to a proliferation of “just-in-time” scheduling practices that impose unpredictability and other burdens on workers.68 Furthermore, a significant fraction of the workforce is exempt from FLSA coverage.69 And because the FMLA guarantees only unpaid leave — and guarantees it only for qualifying health and caretaking purposes — there is no presumption of compensated leave time. In short, to the extent that the United States has a vision for work-life balance at all, it is quite spartan.
2. Existing Critiques and Changing Times. — Commentators have long identified assumptions embedded in this rather minimalist work-life structure that are based on outdated patterns of workforce participation and family structure. These entrenched patterns systematically disadvantage certain categories of workers — including women, single parents, individuals with disabilities, and low-wage workers — and make it difficult for today’s workforce to participate in non-market-work activities like caretaking or civic and community engagement.
One recurring critique is that American workplaces assume a certain “ideal worker.” For much of the twentieth century, most families were structured such that a man could work for pay while his wife provided hours of unpaid homemaking labor, which served to preserve her husband’s time for work.70 A gendered “ideal worker” assumption resulted in the emergence of what Professor Michelle Travis has called the “full-time face-time norm,” meaning a “judicial presumption that work itself is defined by very long hours, rigid schedules, and uninterrupted, in-person performance at a centralized workspace.”71 The norm historically disadvantaged women and people with disabilities, whose needs and socially defined responsibilities may make it difficult to be present in a centralized workplace for long hours.72
This expectation is at odds with the realities of today’s workforce. Starting with the economic boom after the Second World War and continuing through social movements promoting equal opportunity, labor force participation among women increased dramatically73 and the typical household structure shifted. In 1940, two years after the passage of the FLSA, over seventy-five percent of households were structured around a married couple, compared to only forty-eight percent in 2010.74 The percentage of single-parent households has more than doubled, and the percentage of single-person households has more than tripled.75 High rates of single-parent and single-person households mean that many more workers today are simultaneously responsible for household and caretaking duties that historically might have been handled by a “homemaker” partner.
In addition, despite the FLSA’s introduction of a “standard” workweek, the decades since its passage have witnessed a bifurcation in working hours. In the United States, the proportion of workers in professional, managerial, and service occupations has risen, with a simultaneous drop-off in the proportion of laborers.76 For “exempt” white-collar professionals, working hours have increased,77 giving rise to complaints of “[o]verwhelming workloads.”78 These employees “tend to have especially long hours” because those “[e]xtra hours are essentially free to the employer.”79 Exempt employees’ workloads have also been exacerbated by the advent of technology like email and smartphones, which have contributed to the evolution of an “always on” culture.80
For nonexempt workers, the opposite problem increasingly exists: many people are unable to obtain the number of hours of work (and the concomitant income) that they desire.81 The number of part-time workers — a group dominated by women — has been increasing for years,82 and these workers experience a dual penalty of lower wages and fewer benefits when compared to equivalent full-time employees.83 Involuntary part-time work is imposed particularly frequently on people of color,84 who are also disproportionately subject to unpredictable work schedules85 that make planning for non-paid-work activities surpassingly difficult.86 Finally, technological advancement means that many workers face some amount of threat of displacement via automation.87
Taking time away from work has also become more difficult. Since the 1970s, employers have decreased paid leave benefits.88 At the same time, the minimum wage has fallen increasingly out of step with rising inflation and cost of living. Real wages of those at the bottom of the income distribution have been stagnant for the last forty years, even while those at the top have seen notable gains.89 Among low-wage employees, Black and Latino workers as well as women are overrepresented relative to their respective shares of the total workforce.90
The inadequacy of the minimum wage and the lack of a “minimum hour guarantee” mean that many lower-income workers cannot take advantage of the leave time established by the FMLA, which is unpaid.91 Further, the FMLA’s qualifying factors serve to exclude many poor women and women of color, who are more likely to work for smaller employers or to experience work disruptions that might disqualify them from coverage.92 For those who do qualify, the FMLA is a constrained benefit that typically does not extend to the everyday challenges of caretaking.93
In sum, Congress adopted what we might think of as our foundational law related to work-life balance in 1938, and little has changed about the basic structure of that law. Yet in the nearly ninety years that have passed since then, the American workforce and economic landscape have changed dramatically. Accordingly, scholars and advocates have raised recurring concerns about excessive,94 insufficient,95 and unpredictable96 working hours and lack of access to leave time.97 These issues make it difficult for many workers today to accommodate nonwork civic, community, and caretaking responsibilities, leaving one to wonder whether there is a larger role for law to play in supporting work-life balance.
B. Trends of the Pandemic Era
Against this backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic motivated extensive discussion of American work-life norms. Though by no means an exhaustive survey of employment- and labor-related topics of conversation during the pandemic, this section identifies five trends that stand out for the impressions they made in popular media. Concerns about work-life balance seem to animate all five trends.
1. Caregiving. — Over the past three years, there has been widespread reporting on the stresses of caregiving for children during the pandemic.98 When pandemic shutdowns commenced in March 2020, students were sent home from school en masse and childcare options contracted.99 Even once they reopened, schools and childcare services were prone to frequent disruptions as various COVID-19 surges required closures and shifts to remote formats.100 And COVID-19 vaccinations for young children were slow to become available, requiring families with small kids to exercise special caution for longer than those without small kids.101
By the end of the first two years of the pandemic, two-thirds of working parents had “parental burnout,” meaning that their ability to function had been reduced by chronic stress and exhaustion.102 In fact, by January 2022, parents were at least as stressed as they had been at the beginning of the pandemic.103 Thanks to the many challenges of pandemic parenting — “exhaustion from the competing pressures of working from home and juggling childcare responsibilities, struggles with returning to the office but not finding consistent childcare, and reevaluating their overall work-life balance” — parents were also more likely than nonparents to quit their jobs.104 Such negative effects were widespread, as parents of children under the age of eighteen make up one-third of the American workforce.105
These stringent childcare burdens disproportionately impacted certain demographic groups.106 Women and people of color head most single-parent households,107 so they experience the unique challenge of single-handedly providing both financial support and daily care to children more frequently than white men. In two-parent households where both parents worked, mothers in heterosexual relationships tended to take on more childcare responsibilities throughout the pandemic.108 And when schools reopened in September 2020, a much higher number of women than men dropped out of the workforce.109 Though these patterns in caretaking have long existed,110 the pandemic threw them once again into sharp relief.
2. The Great Resignation. — A little over a year into the pandemic, a second major work-related trend hit the headlines. Coined in May 2021 by Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School,111 the term “Great Resignation” refers to the uncommonly high rates of workers quitting their jobs observed beginning in early 2021.112 Over the course of that year, more than 40 million people left their jobs,113 with the number of quits in a month hitting a twenty-year high of 4.5 million during November 2021.114 Though some of these workers did not return to the workforce — for example, due to retirement — many simply switched jobs, often in response to offers of higher pay or better benefits.115 Resignations were particularly high in the hospitality, professional services, and retail industries.116
To be fair, these resignation trends were not entirely new. Even before the pandemic began, there had been increasing rates of quitting and retirement.117 But Klotz believes that the pandemic brought about significant and fundamental changes in people’s expectations about work.118 The proliferation of remote work as well as experimentation with flexible working hours and four-day workweeks gave workers “more flexibility and control over [their] lives, and more autonomy and freedom.”119 Experiencing these freedoms may have made workers hesitant to return to more restricted and traditional work environments.
3. Antiwork. — Concurrent with the Great Resignation, there was also widespread discussion of the concept of “antiwork.” Prior to the pandemic lockdowns, the r/antiwork subreddit — a topic page on the social media platform Reddit — had approximately 100,000 followers.120 Today, the subreddit has over 2.4 million subscribers; the majority subscribed during a period of rapid growth in engagement and coverage in 2021.121 Some of these subscribers may have been attracted to the forum as a source of solidarity and support in dealing with abusive employers: the subreddit famously features posts of screenshotted conversations between employees and their bosses in which the supervisors make aggressive and insensitive demands of their employees.122
But the subreddit is more than an opportunity to complain about poor treatment in the workplace. Created in 2013, the subreddit describes itself as being for “for those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles.”123 With a tagline of “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!,” the subreddit is also a gathering place for discussion of socialist and anarchist critiques of capitalism.124 Its library lists Bob Black’s The Abolition of Work, David Graeber’s On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, and Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness as “Essential Reads,”125 indicating the community’s interest in a more fundamental restructuring of work.126
4. Union Boom. — In 2019, only about one in ten employed Americans was a member of a union.127 But on the eve of the 2020 election, then-candidate Joe Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”128 Although his Administration has since struggled to deliver on union-related legislation,129 the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have driven a resurgence in union organizing. High-profile union battles at Starbucks, Amazon, and Google have made headlines, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has received an influx of union representation petitions and unfair labor practice complaints.130
At the same time, the Biden Administration has tried to facilitate an environment that is supportive of labor organizing. The President installed a new, more progressive General Counsel at the NLRB and has made a point of meeting with labor leaders throughout his time in office.131 These actions created a “clear opportunity for labor,” according to Professor Ariel Avgar.132 The combined factors have brought about the highest popular opinion rating regarding unions in half a century: over seventy percent of Americans approve of labor unions.133
5. Quiet Quitting. — In contrast to the literal quitting of the Great Resignation, “quiet quitting” is something of a misnomer. Rather than involving actual resignation, quiet quitting is the “newly coined term for when workers only do the job that they’re being paid to do, without taking on any extra duties, or participating in extracurriculars at work.”134 The term began circulating last summer, leading to a spate of quiet-quitting-related articles throughout the fall.135
The contrasting responses to the trend were striking. On one hand, some evaluations expressed concern that the quiet-quitting rate was high — at least fifty percent, according to Gallup136 — and could get worse. Those responses equated quiet quitting with disengagement, noting that the rate of disengaged workers is rising and the rate of workplace satisfaction is decreasing.137 But quiet-quitting proponents point out that the name makes the phenomenon seem more concerning than it actually is: they explain that quiet quitting simply means doing the job that you are paid for, rather than conducting extra work for free.138 On that view, quiet quitting is about “shift[ing] away from ‘hustle-culture mentality’ and toward clearer boundaries between work and life.”139
* * *
Far more could be said about the preceding trends. Each one unquestionably contains numerous dimensions, demands, and cultural signals. Importantly, though, longstanding critiques about work-life balance in the United States stand out as particularly visible in the data and trends observed during the pandemic.
For example, coverage of the caretaking struggles for single parents and working parents who shoulder a disproportionate share of the caregiving responsibilities once again illustrated how “[r]igid mandatory work hours and the expectation of continuous, uninterrupted employment combine with the length of the work week to squeeze out caregiving and family time.”140 During the pandemic, many parents struggled to obtain flexibility and leave time to address caretaking responsibilities.141 The incompatible time demands resulted in their performance of both caregiving and paid work duties suffering, and some parents left the workforce entirely142 — an option realistic only for those parents able to rely on savings or an alternate source of income.
Long, rigid work hours can also “diminish civic and community involvement,”143 perhaps helping to explain why there were many people whose work-related frustrations during the pandemic were motivated by a desire for more flexibility and free time. In surveys that asked about priorities in the search for a new job, for example, approximately two-thirds of Great Resignation workers cited “work-life balance.”144 Anecdotal evidence supports the suggestion that what these workers sought was greater free time for life activities besides work: in an interview with NPR during the emergence of the Great Resignation, software developer Jonathan Caballero explained the pandemic “changed [his] mindset,” giving him a greater appreciation for free time.145 He went on to look for a new job that offered more flexibility.146
Likewise, the recent union boom seems at least partly motivated by a desire for greater flexibility and balance. Former NLRB Chairman and current Georgetown Law Professor Mark Pearce characterizes the pandemic as a “catalyst” for workers to think critically about “the relationship between employers with workers” and ask themselves: “[I]s there another way to work and live?”147 That questioning motivated many workers to engage in union organizing to address the imbalance of power between employers and employees, which currently enables employers to establish conditions that force personal, familial, and community needs to yield to work tasks. Unionized workers are demanding “better working conditions, more sick pay and more flexible schedules”148 to facilitate increased autonomy and balance in their lives.
Quiet quitting similarly seems tied in part to a desire to have more space for nonwork activities. As some quiet quitters have observed, the “trend” is really more of a countertrend against employers taking advantage of workers by failing to hire enough employees or piling new tasks on existing employees.149 (Contrary to the arguments of those who think quiet quitting is “being content with mediocrity” or the path to nonadvancement,150 extra tasks do not necessarily help advance the careers of those who perform them.151) By refusing to take on extra work, quiet quitters are taking a stand against employers’ attempts to increase corporate profits at the expense of employees’ lives outside of work.
Finally, commentators have speculated that the r/antiwork forum’s dramatic rise in popularity during the second year of the pandemic related to a shift in popular mentality about work. People seem to be wondering whether the United States is “entirely too obsessed with work” and whether employment should be restructured to ensure that workers have more time for other meaningful endeavors.152 Sociologist David Frayne ties these questions to the pandemic, explaining that traumatic events can encourage people to reevaluate values and goals.153
At bottom, the American baseline for work-life balance seems to fall far short of supporting a fulfilling and well-rounded life for many workers. But this result is not foreordained. The pandemic also underscored how various basic benefits could go a long way toward supporting better work-life balance.
C. Work-Life Developments and the Future
The viral trends of the pandemic both echo and encourage recent legislative efforts to better support work-life balance. Starting prior to the pandemic and accelerating with the increased attention on work-life balance during the past three years, state and local governments have passed paid leave and fair workweek laws.154 These statutory developments represent important progress toward a future in which workers experience greater balance, and similar action at the federal level is long overdue. Yet such changes need not be the ceiling for innovation. Congress should enshrine paid leave and schedule predictability, but it should also finally deliver a modern vision for work-life balance.
Expanded access to paid leave is a crucial cornerstone of improving work-life balance in the United States,155 since so many workers currently lack realistic access to time off for personal and family needs.156 Recently, Congress came close to implementing a federal paid leave program: the House of Representatives “passed four weeks of paid family and medical leave that would have covered all workers in the country”157 as part of the Build Back Better Act.158 Unfortunately, those provisions were not included in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022,159 which replaced the Build Back Better Act after negotiations over the earlier bill stalled in the Senate.160 Congress did include paid sick and family leave in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act,161 but that law was passed as a pandemic measure and has since expired.162
Other proposals for sick and family leave will likely continue to be considered,163 but the timeline for federal action on permanent paid leave remains murky. In the meantime, some state and local governments have tried to fill the gap for their constituents. While several states already had paid sick164 and family165 leave policies in place prior to the pandemic, there was a fresh surge of legislative activity around the issue of paid leave soon after the pandemic started.166 Some of these laws aimed at short-term leave to address illnesses or emergencies,167 while others targeted longer-term leave for purposes of caretaking or extended medical conditions.168 These kinds of laws have measurable effects on family income,169 public health,170 and workforce participation.171
Similarly, state and local governments have acted to stabilize workers’ schedules through “fair workweek” laws,172 which supplement the FLSA’s laissez-faire approach to the regulation of scheduling. As Professors Charlotte Alexander, Anna Haley-Lock, and Nantiya Ruan explain, “inadequate, variable, and unpredictable”173 schedules create a wealth of problems for workers — from threatening access to employment and public benefits, to imposing substantial last-minute transportation and childcare costs, to interfering with education and secondary employment.174 These challenges can be partially alleviated by “call-in” and “send-home” pay policies, which guarantee some minimum payment for workers who are called in to work on short notice or excused from work before the end of a scheduled shift.175 Other policy interventions related to schedule stabilization include “right-to-request” rules prohibiting retaliation against employees requesting a change in schedule or a flexible schedule176 and mandating advance notice of schedules that provide workers with enough time to create a plan for managing competing obligations.177
“Predictive scheduling” or “fair workweek” laws began to proliferate in the last decade,178 corresponding to the data-driven emergence of just-in-time scheduling.179 But widespread discussion of the primacy of work over other dimensions of people’s lives during the pandemic has facilitated continued momentum behind the movement for schedule stabilization. New fair workweek ordinances have been adopted in major cities in recent months,180 and New York City took an enforcement action under its Fair Workweek Law that resulted in a $20 million settlement by Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. last year.181
Schedule stability and paid time off both support balance by enabling workers to better organize their lives and respond to health and caretaking concerns. But a patchwork of state laws is insufficient to set a more reasonable national baseline around work-life balance, so federal action is still needed.182 And Congress should not stop there. Rather, the federal legislature should take the reckoning brought about by the pandemic as an opportunity to consider other legal updates that would facilitate work-life balance.
For one, scholars and activists have repeatedly critiqued the FLSA’s “white-collar” exemption.183 In adopting the FLSA, lawmakers had hoped to eliminate “unnecessarily long hours which wear out part of the working population while they keep the rest from having work to do.”184 But because managerial and professional positions were exempted, the work-spreading function of the FLSA has failed to extend to these roles.185 Subsequent occupational developments and regulatory actions have both expanded the number of workers who fall into the white-collar exemption186 and permitted employers to pile more hours onto their existing workforces.187 Those patterns help to explain why trends like quiet quitting and antiwork resonated with a large number of workers and why many workers sought out new jobs with better hours during the pandemic.
Recent updates to the white-collar exemptions have been limited in scope. The Department of Labor raised the salary minimum to qualify for the exemption in 2019,188 and the Department is currently working on another update.189 While raising the salary minimum is a necessary step to cut back overuse of the exemption, many highly paid managers and professionals will remain exempt. As a result, overwork and inequitable access in fields like technology, medicine, and law are likely to remain pervasive issues.190 Yet commentators point out that many managerial and professional workers’ tasks are amenable to the same work-spreading function that animated the FLSA’s nonexempt rules,191 so it should be possible to cap total working hours or impose overtime rules for all but the most senior “key personnel.”192
Recent scholarship and activism also revive the call for a shorter workweek.193 Prior to the adoption of the FLSA, then-Senator Hugo Black introduced a thirty-hour workweek bill backed by the American Federation of Labor.194 Two years before that, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that technological advancement would eventually permit adoption of a fifteen-hour workweek.195 Echoing those earlier suggestions, the viral trends of the pandemic invite policymakers to reconsider the proportion of their lives that workers should dedicate to paid labor.
Apropos of its title, the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act196 takes up the invitation, suggesting shortening the standard week by eight hours so that overtime pay provisions kick in after thirty-two hours rather than forty.197 Similar legislation was introduced last year in California.198 Although working out the details of implementing such a change remains a formidable barrier to passage, a shorter workweek could facilitate more equitable sharing of caretaking and housework responsibilities between dual-earning partners.199 For single-parent households, it could help alleviate strain around finding childcare when school activities fall below forty hours a week.200 And for all workers, a shorter workweek would increase availability of time for leisure201 and civic202 activities.
Finally, revitalizing federal labor law could result in better work-life balance. Historical patterns indicate that the progress toward a shorter workweek achieved during the twentieth century was correlated with higher levels of labor organizing.203 When organizing related to working hours stagnated toward the end of the century as a result of waning labor power, worktime began creeping up again.204 Given these observed trends, updating labor laws to facilitate greater union participation205 seems likely to improve work-life balance, which is a recognized goal for organizers.206 Stronger labor unions have another benefit as well: they provide important opportunities for workers to participate in political dialogue and civic activities, thus strengthening the democratic system.207
These various changes cannot fully solve the American work-life balance problem, which has emerged from a complex combination of factors.208 But setting the baseline expectation that workers should have paid time off, predictable scheduling, a shorter workweek, and ready access to labor organizing would go a long way toward enabling workers to plan for and enjoy important life activities outside of work. Equally importantly, it would be an investment in the collective and the political system. At a moment when the country is facing a crisis of democracy,209 members of the American public need time to genuinely engage in community and democratic discussion. In the wake of the pandemic, policymakers should not miss the opportunity to think critically about how to set a new work-life balance baseline that will serve these crucial interests.
The past three years have been marked by widespread discussion about the role of work in employees’ lives. As the various trends during the pandemic reveal, many American workers are discontent with the balance their lives currently permit. Whether for family, community, or civic reasons, people desire more flexibility and more time away from work. Recently, some state and local governments have taken it upon themselves to help stabilize workers’ schedules and provide access to paid time off. Federal policymakers should follow suit — and in the process, Congress should deliver a vision of work-life balance for the modern economy.