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Americans Work, Why Doesn’t America?

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When two opposing viewpoints about American workers were emailed me in the same day this week, I had to wonder: If Americans are working so hard, why isn’t America working?

According to an article titled The Vanishing American Vacation published on popular web site Alternet,  compared to people in other developed countries, Americans don’t ask for more vacation time, don’t take all the vacation time their employers give them and continue to work while they are on vacation. It’s common knowledge to most American workers that they receive far less vacation time—in weeks not days—than their foreign counterparts. With the average American receiving two weeks vacation time, not taking it all seems incomprehensible. Unless of course, you’re doing what you love so much that it doesn’t seem like work and therefore you don’t need “vacation”, in which case you’re probably self-employed and the whole concept is mute. (If that’s you, welcome to my world. There’s much to be said for the self-directed integrated work/leisure existence! But that’s a topic for another day.)

Simultaneously, Fortune (and countless other American business publications) tells us American workers can’t compete globally unless they work harder. According to the article Are Americans Too Lazy?, “The surprising report of our relative sloth arrives in new research from the United Nation’s International Labor Organization (UNILO) , which looks at working hours around the world. When it comes to what we might call hard work, meaning the proportion of workers who put in more than 48 hours a week, America is near the bottom of the heap. About 18% of our employed people work that much. That’s a higher proportion than in a few other developed countries like Norway, the Netherlands, and even Japan. But it’s actually lower than in Switzerland and Britain, and way lower than in developing countries like Mexico and Thailand. It’s drastically lower than in what may be the world’s two hardest-working countries, South Korea and Peru, where the proportions are about 50%.”

So with the average Brit worker receiving 20 or more days off a year (in France it’s a government-mandated 30), are they really working more in total, or simply just logging more hours per week? Yes, an obvious disconnect here may be that vacation stats are mostly reported for salaried (white collar) workers while the other UNILO data is from among all workers, a huge proportion of which are hourly (blue collar). But I suspect there’s more to it.

As my Mexican in-laws would corroborate, Americans have forgotten how to work to live. Instead, we’ve been conditioned to live to work. This breeds an entire society valuing material acquisitions and accomplishments over quality of life, direct experience, and relationships. This imbalance has clearly, and successfully, fueled the capitalist juggernaut that is America. Yet we may not only have sold our souls for a bigger house and the latest fashion, we’ve also become inefficient. In short, the fruits of our labors don’t carry the impact they should.

The principle I remember best from a time management class early in my career is proving true in America, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. With more Americans working overtime than ever before it’s clear we’ve lost our efficiency. We work more because we can, but do we work better? It’s no longer a matter of working harder; it’s one of working smarter.

The Vanishing Vacation article sums up the facts well, “Our mythology claims the work ethic makes America great, but does it? We have the highest productivity in the world because we work more overtime—40 percent of Americans work 50 hours a week and some workweeks typically run 60 to 70 hours. Workers in France, Ireland, Norway and Holland are more productive than American workers; Germany and Britain lag slightly behind, and all of them have more vacation time than we do.”

Personally, I’d like to see the whole lexicon of work, even the word itself, kicked to the curb. The truth is when a person, a culture, or even a country is passionate and inspired about what it does, it’s not “work” at all, it’s doing what you love and believe in. It’s doing what is necessary and required without wastefully efforting in ways that don’t add value to the overall objective. It’s balancing periods of intense activity with periods of relaxation and replenishment, which make intensity of purpose possible. Most of all it is being mindful and intentional of the big picture, which is to live first, then work. None of which seems to have taken root in the modern American psyche.

In America, particularly in the corporate environment, there is so much “make-work”; a rule, regulations and bureaucracy that it’s a wonder a job with any potential for passion exists at all. Even white-collar executives are held hostage by large corporations under the promise of a lucrative bonus package or early retirement plan, a reward for years of loyalty. Those not nearly as high on the totem pole are conditioned to produce or perish, fear of economic hardship or ruin keeps them playing by the rules. Until we the people, the workers, learn to reclaim a perspective of what really matters, the gap in this country’s work/productivity ratio will continue to grow.

The American federal government—at least the current regime—does not care about your quality of life. Corporations and companies trying to compete for global survival do not care about your quality of life. The investors and backers of those organizations also do not care about your quality of life. I could argue that they—all of them—should care, and that doing so would ultimately be to their benefit, and I could probably be proven right. But the here and now is this: No one cares about your quality of life more than you. So start caring. If not you, who? If not now, when?


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