Sunday, April 24, 2011

Do We Work Too Much?

     I saw a recent reference to the movie God Grew Tired of Us, an award winner at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie follows three boys who escape from Sudan and settle in the United States, and observes: "Sudanese people live in unspeakable poverty, yet they come to the United States and remark on how miserable Americans' lives are. All we do is work. No time for family, friends, or social gatherings."

     Do you really think we work too hard? One of my favorite quotes comes from John Bogle, founder of the investment company Vanguard, who evidently was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In an obvious dig at his fellow Wall Streeters, many of whom came from well-heeled families, he remarked, "I grew up with the priceless advantage of having to work for what I got."

     A hear a lot of Americans make fun of the French -- and by extension other Europeans -- saying all they do is sit around and not work, and then take the entire month of August for vacation. And yet others probably envy the French, their relaxed lifestyle and superior attitude.

     The following chart shows how long people work in different countries, and interestingly enough, includes unpaid work in the figures. Unpaid work includes cooking, housework, child care and volunteer work. (The survey did not include Sudan or any other African countries.)

     What I see from the graph is that Americans definitely work more than Europeans. But they engage in less "paid work or study" than Asians, including people in India and Korea, who do less housework but more paid work. Also ... who knew? Those Mexicans are industrious people!

     So what would those three Sudanese boys think if they'd gone to China or Japan, rather than the U.S.? Or Mexico? They'd really be flabbergasted!

     As far as unpaid work goes, I'm with the Koreans. The less you do, the better. Or, as B's pillow --  displayed prominently on the couch in our living room -- says: "My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance."

     Although there is one kind of unpaid work I heartily endorse, something the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) says Americans are good at -- "the United States leads the OECD in citizens volunteering time, giving money, and helping strangers." Some 60 percent of Americans regularly engage in charitable activities, compared to an OECD average of 40 percent.

     But do we labor too much at the office? I think back on my own working days, when I spent 8 - 10 hours a day in the office, and put in more hours on weekends. I'm sure I neglected my wife and family at times, trying to get ahead (like most Americans) while logging extra hours at work, putting myself at the beck and call of my boss. But I wanted to support my family and also achieve a certain level of success -- recognition, prestige, the respect of my colleagues. I did fine in supporting my family. I fell a little short, at least in my own mind, in achieving the success and recognition I wanted. Maybe, in that sense, I didn't work hard enough? I guess I'll never know.

     One thing I do know, however. I never resented the work I did -- paid or unpaid -- when I thought I was achieving something worthwhile, something I valued -- when I was working for what I wanted, rather than working, often reluctantly, to pursue someone else's agenda with no regard for my own interests.

     So maybe the real question is not how much we work. But why we work. Not when we get out of work, but what we get out of work
     One other interesting note: Those of us working from the 1960s through the 1990s did not work any harder or longer than our kids are working now. The average work week, according to the Bureau of Economic Research, has not measurably declined since 1950. However, the "tails of the hours distribution" reveal an interesting footnote. Today, workers with the least amount of schooling do work fewer hours than they did 40 years ago, while well-educated workers have increased their hours. To me this says, if you have interesting and fulfilling work, if you genuinely love what you do and are doing it for the right reasons, then you won't be watching the clock to go home, you'll be working more -- and be glad of it.


Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

A very thought-provoking post! I agree with your conclusion in general. In my own case, I worked long hours as a writer, but loved the work, for the first 22 years of my career. When things began to shift in my industry and I wasn't doing well financially, I trained for another profession, working two jobs while in school, one to pay tuition and one to pay the bills. And the new profession, psychotherapy, is very hit or miss financially with insurance these days. So for the last 20 years of my working life, I worked one full-time job and two to three part-time jobs to make ends meet and save for retirement. The part-time jobs were things I loved -- writing, private practice, college admissions -- while the full-time jobs, in two instances out of three, were tedious but necessary, with benefits I needed and steady income. So I was both happy and unhappy in my work and worked way too many hours. I'm delighted to be retired from everything but writing. I agree with you that when you're doing work you love, you don't watch the clock. But with a job you dislike, it's a whole different matter.

rosaria said...

Oh my! I worked way too many hours, because we needed my income, because to get ahead I had to be more productive. A vicious circle. said...

I am for sweeping the room with a glance or bribing someone else to do it. Dianne

Kay Dennison said...

Good question!!! Something I suspected but never really understood until the last few years I worked was the importance of job satisfaction. My last job was my favorite job. It wasn't about money -- I got paid minimum wage because that's all they could pay. It was about a great boss, nice clients, and interesting and meaningful work. It's sad that most people don't really like their jobs.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I always thought that if I was patient, my "dream job", one I could do with passion, would come along. It never did and I retired early.

I was lucky, I always had employment that paid decently, had benefits, and I never had to work weekends or evenings. Not much more of that expected any more.

Dick Klade said...

In the adult working world (my first job was shining shoes at age 10), I worked extra hours without pay in every job. It wasn't necessarily that I loved the work that much. I thought the extra effort was necessary to do a first-class job. And I thought doing a first-class job was necessary to maintain the security needed to provide for my family.