Why do Americans work so hard ?

Oscar Wilde said that work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do. If so, Americans are now among the world's saddest refugees. Factory workers in the United States are working longer hours than at any time in the past half-century. America once led the rich world in cutting the average working week from 70 hours in 1850 to less than forty hours by the 1950s.

It seemed natural that as people grew richer they would trade extra earnings for more leisure. Since the 1970s, however, the hours clocked up by American workers have risen to an average of 42 this year in manufacturing.

Several studies suggest that something similar is happening outside manufacturing. Americans are spending more time at work than they did 20 years ago. Executives and lawyers boast of 80-hour weeks.

Yet working time in Europe and Japan continues to fall. In Germany's engineering industry, the working week is to be trimmed from 36 to 35 hours next year. Most Germans get six weeks' paid annual holiday. Even the Japanese now take three weeks. Americans still make do with just two.

The puzzle is why America, the world's richest country, sees things differently. It is a puzzle with sinister social implications. Parents spend less time with their children, who may be left at home alone for longer. Is it just a coincidence that juvenile crime is on the rise ?

Some explanations for America's time at work fail to stand up to scrutiny. One blames weak trade unions that leave workers open to exploitation. It is cheaper for a firm to employ a small workforce for longer hours than a big one for shorter hours. The average American manufacturing worker now does five hours of overtime a week. Are workers being forced by cost-cutting firms to toil harder just to keep their jobs ? A recent study by two American economists, Richard Freeman and Linda Bell, suggests not. When asked, Americans actually want to work longer hours.

Why do Americans want to work harder ? One reason may be that the real earnings of many Americans have been stagnant or falling during the past two decades. People work longer merely to maintain their living standards. Taxes may have something to do with it. Shopping is already one of America's most popular pastimes. But it requires money - hence more work and less leisure. Or try this: the television is not very good. Perhaps Wilde was right. Maybe Americans have nothing better to do.

The Economist, November 1999

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