As night descends upon this glorious Labor Day, I can imagine people all across the United States getting that terrible feeling of dread as they realize that tomorrow they have to get up and go back to work.
Americans’ unhealthy preoccupation with working their lives away is one of my favorite topics. I always find it amusing when people equate working longer hours with stronger overall economy. Greece, for example, has the second longest work week in the world, second only to South Korea. But because of their recent economic catastrophe, people imagine Greeks sitting around in plazas indulging themselves with fine Feta while more industrious Europeans, like the Germans, are hard at work.
This is extra amusing because Germans have a much shorter work week than most of the developed world, with the average worker clocking around 25-30 hours per week and enjoying about 34 paid holidays a year. Scandinavian countries Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have the shortest work weeks (around 25) and yet their economies are robust and their standard of living among the best in the world.
“BUT” people then respond, “you cannot compare the United States with these much smaller countries.” Okay, well how about Canada then; their average citizen works several hours less than the average American, yet their average individual net worth recently surpassed ours.
Overall economy and average standard of living has more to do with how efficiently the government is run and where they are putting their taxpayers’ dollars than how many hours the average citizen is putting in. In other words, work smarter, not harder.
But there is a whole psychology behind Americans’ need to get up extra early, stay extra late, and put in overtime on the weekends. They equate working harder to being better. Back in the day, the ruling elite (the aristocratic one percent) had the opposite mindset — instead of toiling all day like a slave, they were able to spend their time in productive, enlightened pursuits.
Industry and productivity is indeed a virtue, but working efficiently and effectively is more often accomplished when not chained to a desk. Flexibility, creativity, innovation and a healthy work/life balance are more progressive workplace ideals than the need to spend all day long on the job, a trend that only came about during the industrial revolution.
“Since the 1960s, the consensus among anthropologists, historians, and sociologists has been that early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure time than is permitted by capitalist and agrarian societies; For instance, one camp of !Kung Bushmen was estimated to work two-and-a-half days per week, at around 6 hours a day. Aggregated comparisons show that on average the working day was less than five hours.“
“The New Economics Foundation has recommended moving to a 21 hour standard work week to address problems with unemployment, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, overworking, family care, and the general lack of free time. Actual work week lengths have been falling in the developed world.”
“In the United States, the working time for upper-income professionals has increased compared to 1965, while total annual working time for low-skill, low-income workers has decreased. This effect is sometimes called the ‘leisure gap’.”
Read more here.
More depressing facts:
- The U.S. is the ONLY country in the Americas without a national paid parental leave benefit. The average is over 12 weeks of paid leave anywhere other than Europe and over 20 weeks in Europe.
- Zero industrialized nations are without a mandatory option for new parents to take parental leave. That is, except for the United States.
- At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S. does not.
- In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.
- According to the ILO, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”
- Using data by the U.S. BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.
- There is not a federal law requiring paid sick days in the United States.
- The U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave.
- In every country included except Canada and Japan (and the U.S., which averages 13 days/per year), workers get at least 20 paid vacation days. In France and Finland, they get 30 – an entire month off, paid, every year.
- The average worker in Germany and the Netherlands puts in 20% fewer hours in a year than the average worker in the United States.
Working smarter, not harder, would boost productivity and progress as well as overall health and happiness. Working smarter could mean flexible hours and location as well as more progressive workplace processes and hierarchies. The ideal situation, in my opinion, is self-employment and entrepreneurship. Then you can work as long and hard as you want to with the aim of actualizing your dream, not someone else’s.
But shortening the work week won’t just make peoples’ lives better. It might also boost the national economy and reduce unemployment, as a recent Guardian article entitled “Why Americans should work less, the way Germans do” opined. So the next time you start feeling that ethnocentric, Puritan superiority complex taking over all logical thought, you might want to re-consider what really constitutes an ideal society and a high standard of living. Yes, we all need to work to live, but I myself wouldn’t mind doing it a little more like the Samoans or the Italians — drinking wine, enjoying the sunset, and getting called lazy by all the miserable workaholics. And don’t forget, the more hours you sit a day, the sooner you will die!