Americans Work Too Much for their Own Good

Much of the great American work ethic has its roots in the grim and guilt-inducing religious creeds of seventeenth  and eighteenth century Protestant sects that found refuge and riches in the New World.

Essentially, they believed that idle hands do the devil’s bidding; a profane mind is Satan’s playground; and there is no rest for the wicked.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, believed that an advanced civilization required that mankind’s copious sexual energies  be directed and transmuted to higher cultural purposes. This could include soaring high rise buildings, medical research, great dams and bridges, and orchestral music.

On a crasser and more contemporary note, the suave and savage  Gordon Gekko character in the movie “Wall Street” lived the mantra that “Greed is Good!”

Ironically, most Americans are working longer and harder hours than ever but making less real inflation-adjusted dollars than they (or their parents) were 30 or 40 years ago.

It is a crazy situation — especially for creative workers who need free time to incubate ideas, dally with dreams, and play with ideas.

From my point of view, the Dutch seem to have achieved a better and more productive balance between work and leisure, and career and community. I have a wonderfully musical cousin who married a delightful Dutchman over ten years ago.  Their lives in Holland seem much less stressful than what my wife and I lead.

This perception is congruent with a recent article in Bloomberg View online. Here is a web link:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-03/americans-work-too-much-for-their-own-good-de-graaf-and-batker.html

Here is a summary of article provided by The Atlantic online:

John de Graaf and David Batker on Americans working too hard—

In 1985, a Senate subcommittee predicted the computer revolution would have American working 20 hour weeks by the year 2000, “while taking seven weeks or more of vacation a year.” Instead, our average workdays have only gotten longer, write John de Graaf and David Batker in Bloomberg View.

Nor has technology made our increased work-days “energy free.” “As it happens, workers are required to get much more done and more quickly. Working hours are more draining, while the hyper-competition of today’s workplace makes them even more stressful.” It’s the reverse of a trend that saw work hours decline significantly in the 100 years after the Civil War.

After WWII, “interest in shorter work time waned, even as a buffer against unemployment,” as our consumer-driven society led us to strive for more expensive goods.

Europeans, conversely, used gains in productivity to increase their leisure time. “Today, the Netherlands, Norway and Germany have the world’s shortest working hours.” The Dutch are still productive with low unemployment. In 1982, the Dutch accepted lower wage increases in exchange for fewer working hours.

“The pact ended inflationary pressures and led to an economic turnaround that came to be called ‘the Dutch miracle.'” In 2000, they passed a law that makes it illegal for companies to deny a full-time worker the move to part-time so long as it doesn’t materially hurt the company.

“The law means a lot to working parents who wish to reduce the stresses of working and caring for children. A 2007 Unicef study ranked children’s welfare in the Netherlands as the highest in the world. The U.S. was 20th of 21 wealthy countries studied.” Europeans also take almost four times as much vacation as Americans.

When Rep. Alan Grayson introduced a bill to mandate paid vacation for larger companies, “conservative bloggers excoriated it as wildly radical. The bill was left to die.” Some worry Americans would only use their leisure time to watch more television, but we tend to watch TV when we’re too tired to do much else, so more leisure time might actually lead us to use it more productively. Nor would we become less competitive, studies show, since countries with more leisure time seem to be as competitive as we are.

Studies also show on an individual level that less over-worked employees tend report higher satisfaction and more productive output. “Many exhausted American workers might find these results refreshing.”

Are you working too hard for too little? What do you think?


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