Perhaps no other nation has identified more with a strong work ethic than the United States of America. Settled first by Puritans who believed in the morality of hard work — the Puritan Work Ethic — our nation has been built on strong backs and a commitment to getting the job done. Generations of Americans have believed that one can get anywhere they want in life if they work hard enough. While the average American does not do the amount of physical labor of workers of previous generations, work is something that is still highly valued. For example, most of us are highly critical of people who are lazy or are slackers. In fact, many of us are resentful of people that do not work, though that is a topic for another day.
As I write this, according to recent statistics, our state has reached the point where everyone looking for a job has a job. In fact, in many parts of our state’s economy, there are simply not enough workers. That said, the point that I want to make is that while this is a good thing, in the bigger perspective, is it good for us as individuals? Is it good for us in our social and family life? Is it good in terms of productivity and the economy? Let’s take a look.
Americans work 137 hours more per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours a year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers, according to data gathered by the International Labour Organization. In addition, workers in the United States do not have any federal laws that require paid sick days, annual leave or parental leave, thus adding more working hours compared to workers in other parts of the world.
In 1930, famed pro-capitalism economist John Maynard Keynes proposed that the workaholic culture of that era would eventually give way to a more efficient work economy with a very high standard of living in which Americans would be working as few as 15 hours a week. That has not been the case, contrary to his belief that technological advances in the work place would allow people to work less and produce more. In fact, the opposite has occurred.
Boston University professor Erin Reid has produced research that shows that the longer people work, their level of productivity drops. Working longer hours does not result in increased productivity, and it actually decreases after 50 hours of work a week. In fact, Reid found that a person who works 70 hours in a week actually produces the same amount as an individual who works 55 hours. The law of diminishing returns kicks in and employers are actually paying for nothing at that point.
There is no question that Americans value their weekends and other free time. Some pack as much into that time as possible, with the leisure market in our country a very profitable industry. And, there is some early data that the millennial workforce that values a balance between work and play are forcing employers to look at different options in terms of work schedules to attract the best and the brightest. Flexibility in the workplace is much more common as the young labor force is not prepared to sacrifice their personal life for work.
When one looks at the modern American family, it is not too much of a reach to suggest that in some families parents are too busy working to spend time with this kids. It is a simple argument to suggest that some of society’s problems could be lessened if people were working less and giving more time to supporting their children and serving their communities. Europeans in the middle class tend to take full advantage of holidays (vacations) experiencing the world and spending time with family. When it comes to starting families, other developed nations provide significant paid time to both mothers and fathers after the birth of a child. Is it possible that our American work ethic has turned around and bit us in the tail? While we have been out there working to make a good living, we have lost site of other important things.
Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate work in our country. What is important is that the work gets done, and from what we know, it is getting done. There is no doubt that many businesses are responding to worker’s desires for more flexibility, and perhaps it will not be long before Americans are taking care of themselves and the stresses they have because of work. It would seem that the rest of the world is doing just fine working less and maybe it is time we do the same.