Categorized | Life

The Overworked American

Posted on 05 November 2008

According to a United Nations study, American workers put in the longest hours in the industrialized world. We spend more time on the job than the Japanese and Koreans. The French tend to work 1,656 hours per year; Germans come in at 1,560 hours. Yet even with these findings, the rate of productivity is not rising as much in the United States as it is in other countries. The reasons for these long hours seem to be rooted in our spirit of drive and determination–and our ubiquitous search for the American Dream. But are we truly overworked? There are as many people fighting today to reclaim their lost leisure time as there are those who believe that our working hours haven’t expanded at all.

The Numbers Don’t Lie
First to cry “Overworked!” was Harvard-based economist Juliet Schor in her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. There she discusses how a promise made 30 years prior–that new computer technology would allow workers more free time–was broken. Schor found government survey data that proved Americans worked an average of 163 hours more in 1987 than in 1969–nearly a full work-month longer. Causes for the increase can be linked to the decline of unions, which often fought for a reduction in hours and fewer workdays, and the rise of a consumer-based society that drove individuals to work more and more to pay for their material lifestyles. Downsizing increases the workload left for remaining employees after cost-cutting, and employers prefer to pay overtime to full-time workers rather than hiring additional help.

The rise of a consumer-based society drove individuals to work more and more to pay for their material lifestyles.

Still, there are those who have proof to the contrary and reject the method by which Schor analyzed her findings. John P. Robinson, sociology professor and Director of the “American’s Use of Time” project at the University of Maryland, and Geoffrey Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Penn State University, co-authored Time for Life: the Surprising Way Americans Use their Time. Based on the results of Robinson’s project research, the book rejects the idea that Americans are working more and instead proves that workers have gained five extra hours of free time per week since 1965.

So, why do workers feel so overworked and pressed for time? Robinson and Godbey believe that there is a clear distinction between pace and duration of work. Speaking as a panel member on PBS’s NewsHour, Godbey offered an explanation: “The pace of life and the pace of work seem to have clearly sped up for large segments of the population. What we find is perhaps that people who are working faster believe that they’re working longer and, on average, we feel that that’s not the case.” What’s more, Americans tend to feel time-stressed when, in reality, we enjoy more leisure time than our parents did because free time comes when it is least useful. We also tend to spend extra time on repetitive activities, such as television viewing, that offer little real enjoyment or fulfillment.

A Little History
The 40-hour workweek was officially established under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Societal changes have altered this standard so much that it now seems to be more of a rough guide. A basic shift began after World War II, when only two-income families were able to live the American Dream. Additionally, the sheer number of activities that Americans now cram into their daily routine (recycling, regular workouts, driving kids to and from day care) would shock our forefathers. Clearly we are accomplishing more in much less time. The bottom line in the overworked/not overworked debate lies in the fact that workers can choose how to spend whatever free time they have. Individuals still decide whether to spend time with the family, perform community service, go on a nature hike, or sit in front of the almighty television.

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