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
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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