Work much lately? As we celebrated the American labor movement with Labor Day, a sad fact that we must face is that U.S. workers work more than their counterparts in other wealthy countries, and it doesn’t benefit us much.
The average U.S. workweek is 41 hours, compared with Britain’s 38 hours, Germany’s 37 hours and France’s 36 hours. More than 30 percent of American workers work 45 or more hours, compared with 18 percent in Germany and 4 percent in France. The U.K. is the same as we are. Over a year, the average employee puts in 1,800 hours, which is more than any other wealthy country, even Japan. What’s remarkable is the change during the past three decades: In 1979 we looked little different from these other countries. They’ve begun to take it easy, or to enjoy their riches, but we Americans have not.
The picture is even bleaker than these numbers suggest. Not only do we work more, we do much more work at undesirable times. Twenty-seven percent of U.S. employees perform some work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., many more than in other rich countries; 30 percent work on weekends, again a lot more than elsewhere.
Our long and unusual work hours add to material living standards. But these other countries are hardly poor, with average incomes that are at least 75 percent of ours. We have driven ourselves to the point where we work more and get less and less for it. Basic economics says that the more you work, the greater the pain of the last bit of work; and the more you consume, the less pleasure you get from the last thing consumed. As a society, we’ve painted ourselves into a workaholic corner of diminishing returns from what we produce and rapidly rising pain of additional work and work at strange times.
How did this happen? Like so much during the past 30 years here, this is due to the sharp rise in pay and benefits for the very well-off. That rise gave high-income earners an incentive to work more. In fact, the increase in very long hours has been disproportionate among very high earners. Their lengthened workweeks spill over to those of their employees, their lower-level co-workers and even their spouses. In other words, the increased workaholic behavior of the well-off is contagious.
We should not accept these changes as natural they are no more natural than their absence in other rich countries. So what should we do? First, all the evidence suggests that if we tax higher incomes more heavily, workaholic managers will work less and be less likely to impose long hours on their co-workers. But with “tax” a dirty word in Washington, this will not happen any time soon. Putting a cap on CEOs’ earnings would be a good substitute but is also unlikely in this Congress.
There are other partial solutions. President Barack Obama’s extremely modest proposal to raise the earnings ceiling below which workers receive time-and-a-half overtime pay to its inflation-adjusted level would reduce work hours a bit. We could go further, like many European countries, and enact penalty pay for work performed at nights and/or on weekends. This would especially benefit the lower-income workers who are most likely to work then. We sneer at the “blue laws” of old, but they kept work hours down and gave workers a chance to spend more time at leisure and with their families and friends. Perhaps we need them again.
In the end, we’re probably going to have to rely on natural developments to move us to a more sensible mix of work and leisure. There is some hope. In both June 2014 and June 1994, the national unemployment rate was 6.1 percent. In June 1994, 66.4 percent of the population was employed or seeking work; now it is only 62.8 percent. Nearly nine million Americans who might have been expected to be at work or looking are not. Perhaps they’ve decided to relax a bit. We should applaud them: The purpose of life is not to make money, but to enjoy the time spending it.
Daniel S. Hamermesh is a professor in economics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the Sue Killam Professor in the Foundation of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin.