We Americans are suckers for work. We put in more hours at our jobs than any people in the industrialized world, except Koreans. We take far fewer days of vacation than Europeans. In the last several years, many among us have seen our workload double while our incomes have stayed flat. And some of us have fallen into criticizing fellow workers who want a lighter load and more time with their families.
And speaking of families, we give endless lip service to family values, but, in most workplaces, families are not valued. Young women who are thinking about having children keep it a secret at work for fear that bosses and co-workers will brand them as slackers. Unlike the rest of the advanced countries, the United States has no paid parental-leave policy and just 9% of companies offer fully paid maternity leave benefits.
With the 40-hour workweek and the eight-hour workday becoming the exception rather than the rule and overtime pay disappearing in many jobs, American workers are having their lives commandeered by employers who demand more of their time without offering additional compensation. And, with the near extinction of unions, workers have little power to say no when the boss expects more and more.
For the millennial generation, the situation is especially bad. Way too many people in their 20s and early 30s are coming out of college with heavy student loan debt (the obscene cost of college is another way our society shows just how little we really care about our children). With dismal prospects for making enough money to buy a house and raise a family, they are entering an economy in which jobs remain tough to find. As a result, millennials may not be inclined to complain when they land positions that pay inadequately for 60, 70 or 80 hours a week.
There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but there’s something very wrong when work is forced to be the lone priority in people’s lives. Among other things, it is a stupid way to operate a business. Overwork is, in fact, a business liability. Numerous studies have indicated that people who put in too many hours at their jobs, either by choice or by requirement, become inefficient. With rare exceptions, they burn out and lose their creative edge.
In a 2014 survey, American workers ranked third in productivity in the world. Does that mean all that extra work is paying off? Not really. German workers are No. 1 in productivity even though their government has a policy encouraging shorter working hours so that work can be spread around to more people. Those who get a kick out of dissing the French will be shocked to learn that the No. 2 country in productivity is France, where workers enjoy long annual vacations and plenty of off hours to enjoy life’s less laborious pleasures.
If the French and Germans can be so productive working far fewer hours than Americans, it is clearly time to reassess America’s out-of-whack work ethic. After all, the United States can hardly claim to be the land of the free if fewer and fewer of us have any free time.