Time Off: Whatever Happened to Leisure Time?

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: January 18, 2012

Forty 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.

Those 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.

To 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."

Workers 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.

To 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 up.

Anna 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 doesn't."

Sometimes 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.

According 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.

Charlie 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."

Doing 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 bring home.

But 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."

Somehow 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?

The 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.

In 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.

Apparently, 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.

...Yet 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.

Work-and-spend 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 per year.

In 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."

Would 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 off.