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April 24, 1997
"The World of Work"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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AMERICANS, along with the Japanese, have staked their claim as the workaholics of the world. The numbers tell the story. The first column is the ratio of employment to population: take the total number of employed people in each country and divide by the number of working age (15-64) adults. Employment in the United States is equal to 74 percent of the working age population, while employment in Italy is only 52 percent. The second column is calculated by taking the number of hours worked by an average employee in a year and dividing by 2080, which would be the hours worked by someone who puts in a 40-hour week for 52 weeks a year. The average U.S. worker is on the job for 94 percent of 2080 full-time hours each year, which works out to 1950 hours.

By contrast, an average worker in Sweden, Germany, or France is on the job for about 75 percent of 2080, or 1560 hours. This 390-hour gap is almost 10 full weeks less worked per year for workers in these countries compared to their U.S. counterparts. The total possible work effort for a society, assuming 40-hour weeks as the maximum, would occur if all working age adults spent 2080 hours on the job each year. Multiplying the first two columns together shows what percentage of each nation's potential work hours are actually worked.

The differences revealed by this calculation are remarkable. Americans and Japanese work more than two-thirds of the potential hours. The Germans, Italians and French work less than half of the potential hours. America's hard-working habits are good news in many ways.

In part, the difference reflects that U.S. unemployment rates, which have been hovering around 5.5 percent for several years, are about half those that have prevailed across Europe for the last decade. Another factor is that America is relatively encouraging to women who wish to pursue careers, as compared to countries where the place of a married or older woman is still strongly presumed to be in the home.

In Italy, 36 percent of working-age women are employed; in the United States, it's 66 percent. Finally, a higher proportion of Americans work because, for all the griping one hears about job opportunities, average American jobs still pay quite well by world standards, which can make them more attractive than non-market ways of spending one's time.

Although America's work hours swell the size of the economy as measured by the gross domestic product, these other countries also offer a First World standard of living. Further, one has to wonder at the broader effect of American work habits on our quality of life. American life moves at a whirlwind pace. We often give up on quantity time with loved ones, and hope for quality time instead. The two-paragraph e-mail has replaced a letter or a visit. Meals are snatched on the run. Vacations happen in the blur of a stolen weekend. Arranging for child care, and then for backup child care, can dominate the lives of parents.

Meanwhile, the pace of work grinds on, devouring time. But while Americans often groan about the impositions of work, I believe the complaining is often slightly hypocritical. Most middle-class and above Americans could live on less income. But it would require a lifestyle downsizing: a smaller residence; living in a different neighborhood or region; cheaper furnishings; a small used car; giving up pricey vacations; preparing cheaper food to eat at home; cleaning your own home; perhaps a less exciting job; and many similar choices.

Faced with such choices, a critical mass of Americans would rather have more spending money than extra time. American employers always have plenty of candidates who are willing to sacrifice their personal lives for a job.

In such a social climate, the idea of a European-style six weeks of vacation per year seems utterly implausible. America does offer the freedom to choose less work stress and lower income, but making that choice requires swimming against the tide of our competitive, acquisitive society.

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