Shah: Halfway Down the Stairs

Working hours in America and at Dartmouth are too long.

by Rachna Shah | 10/10/17 12:45am

Earlier this term, a floormate told me how guilty she felt for watching YouTube videos unrelated to coursework, something she had never felt in high school. While Dartmouth students have a reputation of being laid-back, even as a first-year I have seen how deeply imbued students are in the corporate recruiting world. As week five approaches and the term reaches its halfway mark, this balancing act becomes a juggling one. We manage academic and athletic schedules, friendships and relationships, healthy eating and declining DBA. This seems logical — most of us are Dartmouth students because we are wired to take advantage of every opportunity we can. But despite the extent to which our classmates pretend to have it all, not everything is possible. Unless we consciously change it, America’s emphasis on stress and corporate culture begins during our four years at college.

The notoriously stringent Japanese work environment, often considered one of the strictest in the world, is based around values of hard work and loyalty, where seniority and harmony are expectations and priorities. However, a recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the average Japanese workweek is less than that of the average American workweek by 1.35 hours. Closer to the bottom of the OECD’s list are Norway, the Netherlands and Germany, all with less than 28-hour workweeks. The European Union’s Working Time Directive also asserts that workers cannot work more than 48 hours per week. But there are also differences in business culture — Europeans tend to view time as more fluid and lenient than their American counterparts do.

It is not surprising that certain countries and corporations offer an opt-out option to the EU’s Working Time Directive, allowing workers to work more than 48 hours per week. Even if Dartmouth limited the number of hours we spent in class, it may simply be in our nature to challenge ourselves and to work. Work is an activity — any activity — that involves mental and physical labor to bring about a result. While the real world has more second chances and less sweatpants than college does, our time here is the closest model to the workplace we have until we actually enter the workforce. Dartmouth’s work environment involves, on average, 10 credit hours spent in class per week, 30 additional academic hours spent out of class time (if the 1:3 ratio holds true), not including athletics, jobs, extracurriculars or research. In addition, the notion of summer break is increasingly mythical as we fill up the time between terms with seasonal jobs and internships.

The standard answer to the question of why we work so hard is that we are preparing ourselves for the future. We enter fields ranging from business to medicine with the understanding that we will be working harder than our lives than ever before — but by this point, it has become a familiar refrain. We work hard because of societal norms that surround the notions of what is “wrong” and what is “right.” We work hard because it’s what we know to do, it’s what we’re socially programmed to do. This is not the way that the world has always been, or how the rest of the world is. One only has to look at European countries for proof that shorter workdays can be effective economically and socially.

As students, we may find ourselves drawn into “the machine.” Yet we have the choice to find meaning outside of work. We can choose to relax when we feel that we need to. With hundreds of unopened blitzes in our inboxes and midterms lined up around the corner, it may seem like there’s no time to waste. Yet doing nothing is the best way to combat the wear and tear of our daily lives and to refresh our neural networks. Doing nothing is not the same as accomplishing nothing, which happens when you mindlessly scroll through your social media feeds and emails or fill out Buzzfeed personality quizzes. Doing nothing rather is closing your eyes; taking a walk around Occom Pond; waiting for a meeting without checking your phone; hiking on a nearby trail; canoeing in the Connecticut River. Doing nothing reminds you of the meaning in life.

It takes one time to retrain one’s brain to consider breaks as time well spent instead of time wasted. American and Dartmouth’s student body productivity is nothing to scoff at, but gross domestic product and GPA are not the only measures of success. In the United Nation’s World Happiness Report, happiness is measured with six indicators, one of which is social support networks. Another is the freedom to make life choices — the ability to choose between consumption and leisure without feeling as though one lacks a choice between the two. Dartmouth’s academic schedule can be frustratingly fast-paced at times, especially when our initial goals and expectations of a term are not met. Our high expectations inside or outside of the classroom enhances this feeling. When each term is 10 weeks, every goal we have may seem short-term, but we cannot lose sight of the greater path ahead. Beyond doing well financially, we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to our health.

As college-age citizens, we cannot recondition the American workplace, but we can improve our campus culture and prevent stress from enervating our community. The Muppets are known for their hilarity as much as they are known for their wisdom (as Dartmouth’s admissions essays have recognized). In one of the show’s iconic songs, Robin the Frog sings, “I’m not at the bottom, I’m not at the top,” as he sits halfway down the stairs. How you choose to read the Dartmouth community and your position within it is all a matter of perspective. As week five progresses, consider this: You are also halfway up the stairs. What’s at the top?