Tag Archives: work

Working less, living more

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;[5][6] For instance, one camp of !Kung Bushmen was estimated to work two-and-a-half days per week, at around 6 hours a day.[7] Aggregated comparisons show that on average the working day was less than five hours.[5]

“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.[1][2][3] Actual work week lengths have been falling in the developed world.[4]” 

“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.[32] 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.

Sources: http://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/http://www.deanstalk.net/deanstalk/2008/04/putting-in-the.html

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!

Workinghours_2

American paid vacations

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One-way ticket to Rome

Yep, that’s right. Today I bought a one-way ticket to Rome. I’ve been thinking about going for some time, but something has kept me back; and it still haunts and threatens me.

No, I’m not talking about money. This is something intangible. I’m referring to my conditioning.

Those who know me well have heard me bring up this topic time and time again. They are either sick of it or are too conditioned themselves to acknowledge it. Most people respond with any critical comment of America with, “This is the greatest country in the world.”

I am by no means a black-and-white thinker. I understand that every situation, person and place has its good and bad. I am grateful to be an American and to enjoy the rights that I do; I love my job and my life. But none of that negates my point: Americans, in general, work too much.

And I’m not just BSing. Numerous objective studies consistently place the States far down the list of the best countries to work in. Here are the top 10, as reported by the Huffington Post: Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, France.

This was based on work-life balance (how much paid time off is afforded, how many hours worked a week, how much paid leave for parents, etc.)

It is a well-known fact that most countries in Europe mandate a 5-6 week PAID vacation. Of course, Americans get about 2 weeks if they are lucky. 21 days is considered phenomenal. The problem is that most workplaces discourage people from taking off more than a week at once, even if it is unpaid. Therefore, most people are not able to take extended vacations.

Everything is relative. Some people have it far worse and I know I am lucky. But to many, travel is not considered a self-indulgent luxury, but one of life’s greatest and most fulfilling, educational experiences. In fact, one of elderly people’s frequent greatest regrets is that they did not travel more when they were younger (another is wishing they had worked less).

Trips — and not of the weekend resort/Disneyland variety, although those are nice too — are often the highlights and hallmarks of a lifetime. Who wants to do the same thing, in the same place, every day for years upon years? Who doesn’t yearn to admire our planet’s great natural and manmade wonders, to immerse completely in the utter foreignness of other lands, to interface with our brothers and sisters across the seas?

This article, by the Atlantic, goes more in-depth on the subject. It details the top 23 countries to work, with the States dead last. I also encourage you to read the top comments, comments like this:

“Americans work longer days and get less vacation then our European counterparts. Did you know that more German made cars are sold than American made cars? Yet German auto workers make twice what American auto workers make and , get better benefits and more vacation? I’m sure thats all just stacked against the good ol USA.  Wake up, look around. Instead of believing the old BS learn about the reality you are living in.”

and

“I work in the Netherlands. I get 8 weeks paid holiday, a very reasonably priced health insurance plan and I work for a company that has flex hours. We have public transportation that is clean, efficient and plentiful. The Netherlands is an extremely integrated society. There are people from all walks of life living in Holland. And oddly enough, they have almost none of the social problems that the US has.

Are you kidding me? It’s a fantastic life and one I thoroughly love. I’m privileged to be able to work there and live there. And yes, all of these countries are in Europe. That should tell you something. ”

Just to give you some perspective. CNN also featured an article entitled “Why is America the no-vacation nation?” I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you read this article. It discusses the fact that not only do Americans get barely any vacation opportunities, but they are CONDITIONED to think that they SHOULD NOT BE taking the vacation — my original premise. They (I) feel guilty; I should instead be working diligently, impressing my superiors, climbing the ladder, stacking the cash and saving for the future. Taking a vacation is impractical, self-indulgent, immature and reckless. These are the thoughts nagging me (while the other me is saying go enjoy life and have adventures while you still can).

I doubt that Europeans feel guilty while they are out enjoying life and not chained to their desks. And I’m rather perturbed by the commentary I get in response to these statements — one, people are under the impression that their current economic crisis is a direct result of working less hours. How does this make sense when the U.S. is the one that set off the global recession; when you observe that Europe prospered for years and that people who work hard and long in sweatshops, for example, have little to no effect on their country’s GDP, let alone their own personal well-being. Any cursory survey of world history will prove the correlation of more hours worked to national financial health to be a fallacy. The real culprits are corruption and mismanagement in the upper echelons.

The other response I often get is something along the lines of, “everyone in the world wants to come here; at least you can say what you want without getting shot.” There is truth to this. There are many opportunities in this land of plenty and people, for the most part, are allowed to voice their opinion. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve or learn anything from others.

Plus, taking vacations is supposed to improve health, relieve stress, and improve cognition and creativity — all things which contribute to a higher quality of productive output.

Taking it from the man

There is a lot of corporate loathing out there right now, for several reasons. Corporations are too involved in politics, can be very detrimental to the environment and rake in huge profits while laying off or outsourcing employees (or denying them benefits, a livable wage, vacation time, etc.) They perpetuate selfish greed and the ‘more more more’ mantra of American life. They gobble up rainforests to produce throwaway barbie doll packaging. They buy the system, getting legislators to reduce laws intended to protect the environment, and, in direct correlation, our health and well-being (and that of our co-inhabitants, plants and animals species).

Well I could go on. But this post is talking about what it’s like to actually work at one of these corporations day in and day out, and if that experience is also in need of reform. The 5 day, inflexible, 40-hour workweek was arbitrarily created in the early 20th century. Why is it a hard and fast rule? Why do Americans get so little vacation time in comparison to European countries (6 weeks, paid) and why do so little of them take the 2 weeks or less that they have?

Our culture teaches us to be a slave to the man. And I have to say, it can feel very demeaning to be a corporate lackey. You are a SUBORDINATE. You must, to some extent or another, suck it up, kiss ass, refrain from voicing your opinion, blindly obey ridiculous and often inefficient protocols, renounce your freedom, beg for time off, and always be obsequious to your ‘superiors.’

There are — very few — companies who dare to think more progressively. They have flexible work schedules, no hierarchy, open brainstorming sessions, respect and equality, an environment conducive to innovation, expression and creativity and unlimited time off (which, for the record, actually leads to extremely low turnover, high levels of productivity and really sharp work).

Most people are just happy to have a job. And admittedly, the average desk job isn’t all so bad. Especially in comparison to the sweatshop factories, the hard labor, the conditions in many other countries. But to me, a self-sufficient lifestyle is vastly preferable, simply because you are allowed independence and self-respect. I have to say that it can be a very frustrating and demeaning experience to work for a company unless, of course, you are the boss.

Oh, and it is very unhealthy to sit on your ass all day, and stifling to your soul and need for creative self-expression.