years ago, economists predicted that the U.S. workforce was heading
into a crisis of leisure - that people would soon have so much free
time they wouldn't know what to do with it. As the impact of technology
made more and more human labor redundant, it was widely assumed
that a four-hour workday, or a three-day week, or even a six-month
year would eventually be the norm.
forecasts couldn't have been more wrong. The amount of time Americans
spend at work has increased relentlessly over the last two or three
decades. Harvard economist Juliet B. Schor, in her book The Overworked
American, writes that "The average employed person is now on
the job an additional 163 hours, or the equivalent of one month
a year," compared to figures for 1969. Schor estimated that U.S.
manufacturing employees alone work 320 hours more than their French
or German counterparts. That's two whole months per year.
visitors from overseas, the American work ethic appears a little
odd. "It's as though the country never closes for business," says
Jacopo de Bertoldi, an Italian filmmaker here on a temporary work
visa. "Supermarkets, drug stores, gas stations - everything is open
all hours. In no other country is it possible to buy a stereo system
at four in the morning! In Italy, and many other European countries,
big metropolitan cities shut down for two to three hours on weekday
afternoons. We never expect to buy anything on a Sunday; everybody
takes the day off - oh, and the month of August too."
are putting in long hours
According to the International Labor Organization, Americans put
in the most work hours than any other people in the world. A recent
study by the National Sleep Foundation shows that 38 percent of
all full-time workers spend 50 or more hours on the job each week.
These findings are attributed to more workers in managerial and
professional positions where the extra hours are considered just
part of the job.
some degree, it's not the employers who demand such long hours of
work, but an ever-present culture of excess. As long as there are
workaholics, they will set the standards that force others to keep
B. works at a Southern California production company. "There's this
one woman who is at the office no matter what time I get there or
what time I leave," she said. "I'm an extremely hard worker, and
I'm already putting in over 50 hours a week, but I choose to set
limits. The downside is that she gets better assignments, maybe
even more money. But frankly, I want to have a life - she obviously
it's cheaper to pay overtime
There are logical explanations for the overlong hours rampant among
America's employees, and, contrary to popular belief, it's not necessarily
the fault of employers. If you're a full-time employee with benefits,
the free market system profits best when you work the longest day,
even if you're earning overtime rates. Why? Because fringe benefits
in the form of pensions, health insurance, life insurance, and paid
vacations are a huge expense which employers have to pay on a per-person
basis in addition to basic earnings.
to the annual benefits survey conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,
the cost of benefits accounted for about 42 percent of the cost
of an employee in 2003. In some firms, this cost can be as much
as 60 percent. So it's far more profitable to hire a smaller number
of people for longer hours than to extend those hours over more
workers who would expect paid benefits.
N., owner of a chemical plant in the Northeast, employs more than
100 workers. He says, "I'm hurt too by on-the-job training, which
I have to pay for in addition to everything else. I can only hope
that this newly trained worker will put in good hours so I can see
some returns on my investment."
a good job leads to more work for those on salary
Ironically, pressure to work long hours may be worse among salaried
employees, people who earn a set annual wage that doesn't change
no matter how long a day they put in. It is estimated that almost
40 percent of all U.S. employees fall into this category and, according
to Harvard economist Schor's findings, they invariably work far
longer days than workers paid by the hour, particularly salaried
workers who fall into the 'managerial and professional specialty'
group. Medical residents, investment bankers, corporate lawyers,
and many other professionals can end up subject to elastic hours,
working more than 70 per week, not including the paperwork they
while those in the upper echelons of these professions are usually
paid well for their trouble, those in the lower echelons, who usually
put in as many hours as their bosses, are not. Melody H., a junior
sales executive at a media corporation, knows this paradox all too
well. "Last year was intense. I left the house at 6:30 a.m. and
rarely got home before 8. I'd go in Saturdays hoping for a half
day, but usually ended up putting in eight hours. We made 40 percent
over our sales target, and everyone got a nice bonus at the holiday
dinner. But when the boss made his toast, my heart sank. After gloating
over the bumper figures, he said it proved we could do twice as
well next year. I felt like I'd dug my own grave."
we never produce ourselves out of a job...
Between the impact of technology and the majority of employees working
longer days, it's no surprise that productivity in the United States
has more than doubled since 1948 (according to an Economic Report
of the President). Why then has this productivity dividend not been
used to reduce the number of work hours?
answer lies in the heart of the famous, infamous American market.
It's a consumer's dream - of cars, electronics, clothes, computers,
and more. Even walking into a local supermarket is a culture shock
for those raised in countries with markets of limited choice.
America, we don't just buy an apple. We choose between a Fuji, a
Macintosh, a Gala, and so on. Advertisers spend billions to make
kids think they can't live without a certain kind of scooter, or
Pokemon, or Nike shoes. Teenage girls don't just want a wristwatch
- they want that special, colored Baby G Shock that costs 80 percent
more than the competition.
America's favorite activity outside work is shopping. Cross-country
comparisons show us spending more time working and shopping than
anyone else. We also spend a higher percentage of what we earn,
and, with the explosion of consumer debt, a higher fraction of what
we haven't earned.
we hardly get time to enjoy what we've produced
The average income in America is about the same as the average income
of 65 other countries combined, which is partly why Americans have
been on a shopping spree for the last 50 years. Consequently, we've
got the highest standard of living on the planet. Our homes are
bigger and comfier than those of any other nation. We own a host
of time-saving machines and gadgets, such as dishwashers, washer-dryers,
breadmakers, blenders, motorbikes, computers, and home theater systems.
has become an obstacle in the path of a more relaxed and leisured
way of life. And for all the toys we buy, it's not too often we
get to play with them, especially when compared with people in other
countries. Swedish workers get 5 to 8 weeks of paid vacation per
year; German, French and British workers average 6 weeks' paid vacation
a recent user poll conducted by Salary.com, 35 percent of respondents
said they receive 10 or fewer paid vacation days per year; 28 percent
said they get 11 to 15; 16 percent said they get 16 to 20; and 14
percent said they get 21 or more. There are even those workers who
genuinely don't want much time off. Bob Polutchko, an aerospace
engineer at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts,
says, "I get four weeks off a year, and I'm sometimes hard pressed
to know what to do with myself. I even miss work."
you look at the time!
Given a choice between $5,000 and two weeks off work, which would
you choose? Chances are, you'd take the money. Those who would choose
the free time do so not because they want to own less, but because
they try to keep their wanting low to ensure a different kind of
satisfaction. It may leave them materially poor by contemporary
standards, but in at least one dimension - time - they're better
Audrey Arkins, Salary.com contributor- Modified 11-12-2004.