Lucy and the 30-hour work week
NEW YORK—For most New Yorkers and Filipinos, Sunday is a time of reflection, rest and recreation. People are at their best. It may be that in order to build a more just and prosperous world, we need more days off. We may need a 3-day work week. Here’s what happened one Sunday in New York. The account aims to show how we can benefit from free days.
Sunday morning in New York, people walk their dogs, jog, or just sit quietly in the many small parks that dot the city. No one rushes to work. Traffic moves quietly. I was standing outside the CVS pharmacy waiting for my wife and daughter who were inside shopping, when a woman of 30 or so came up to me with two tiny terriers in Kelly green dog sweaters. “Will you mind my dogs?” she said. Why not? I thought and took the leashes. “I have to use the ATM inside. I’ll be right back,” she told me as she disappeared inside the store.
I was now a person of interest. Children came over and asked me the dogs’ names. I told them I didn’t know, and they looked at me strangely. I heard them tell their mother, “He doesn’t even know their names…” The woman who left the dogs didn’t come back right away, and I began to feel as if I were in a “Seinfeld” episode where nothing happens, but life gets very complicated. It was trusting of her to leave the dogs with a stranger; not many women in New York would do that. But then I thought, maybe she has left them for good. Maybe she had fled out the back door of the store. Then I remembered it was Sunday. People don’t abandon their dogs on Sunday.
People are better than that.
Before I became too worried, she was back. “I forgot my ATM card,” she said. “I have to go home.” She took the leashes, thanked me, and went away. The two dogs were happy to see her.
In the afternoon we went to the Museum of Natural History where I saw Lucy in a diorama just inside the doors to the Origins of Human Life Hall. She was striding in the African sunlight across a prairie-like landscape with mountains in the background. There was a male with her, but she didn’t pay any attention to him. She looked to be about 13. The sun turned the hair of her body into a faint red mist. She looked around for safety’s sake; she was confident and happy.
I first read of Lucy in the National Geographic nearly 10 years ago. Her bones, discovered in the Ethopian Highlands, were at that time the only evidence that her tribe of hominids had lived three million years ago. She was estimated to have been three years old when she died. Her simple name was endearing, and even now she had a young girl’s innocence. I read about her in other articles and textbooks over the years, and now here she was in New York. I felt as if she were my niece, or a neighbor’s child I know well. I was able to meet her because it was Sunday and we had the day off.
We visited the dinosaurs on the fourth floor. I found the great head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex that is shown in a separate display. I have visited it for many times over the years. People stare at the vicious 10-inch teeth, but there is something sad also: Its eye sockets are filled with cement. It has been dead for 60 million years. For all the years the dinosaurs ruled the earth, God had seen no need of human beings.
We sat by the lake in Central Park after we left the museum. The sun was in the trees. It came over the tops of the skyscrapers at the southern end of the park. We watched the young men in boats row their wives and girlfriends back and forth. It was clear who the winners were: The men were happy but they were working hard, while the women sat decorously in the back of the boat, enjoying the breeze and the lovely trees.
All this happened on Sunday, our day of rest. There was time to wait outside the pharmacy and mind the dogs. The dogs’ owner probably wouldn’t have entrusted her pets to a stranger if it hadn’t been a tranquil Sunday.
People are nicer to one another on Sunday because, it seems, they are free of the pressures of their jobs. We had time to see Lucy and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. We could have gone to the opera or picked apples in upstate New York or done a hundred different things that would have enriched our lives because it was Sunday. Weekday holidays would serve as well.
A theory offered by some economists is that we should work only three days a week for 10 hours a day. The other days we can spend studying, touring, helping others, playing games, caring for our children and our elderly. We should make a wage for the three days of work that can support a family. If a person wants to work longer for more income, he or she can, but a worker doesn’t have to work more than 30 hours. There are limits to how many goods need to be produced at any time, and a 30-hour week with our modern efficiencies may suffice to produce these goods and allow us to spread out this work in a way that cares for everyone.
As a result, people will be smarter, healthier, more concerned about others, more sensitive, prayerful and compassionate.
When we got up from our benches by the park lake we realized that New York still hadn’t changed even on Sunday. There were no “C” trams going downtown and there were no taxis going anywhere. We had to take the uptown “C” to 125th Street, then take the “D” downtown to 47-50 Street to catch the train home. Nothing is perfect.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor