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Should America be France?
Do Americans work too much? Some social critics say yes -- and point to Europe as a labor model.
October 9, 2003: 9:21 AM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money Contributing Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - John De Graaf is busy, trying to make you less so.

A Seattle-based writer and documentary producer, De Graaf is one of the leaders of a loosely connected group of social activists who believe Americans work too much. To dramatize the point, De Graaf and others are organizing an Oct. 24 event called "Take Back Your Time Day."

Using Earth Day as a model, the organizers are planning a nationwide series of educational events, demonstrations, and grass-roots promotion. The central thesis of their manifesto: that an "epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment."

According to De Graaf, people are organizing events -- teach-ins, discussion groups and the like -- in every state, at churches, community centers, and on more than 170 college campuses.

"The first Earth Day in 1970 drew attention to the problems of pollution," said De Graaf. "Within three years, most of the major environmental legislation had passed and was signed by Nixon."

Do Europeans live better?

Labor discussions are notoriously loaded with ideology. For every argument that people are working too hard, there's another bemoaning a lack of productivity.

Working Class Heroes
Annual average hours worked in 2002, selected countries.
CountryAvg. hours
South Korea2,447
United States1,815
Source:International Labor Org. (UN)

Pulling from government statistics, Time Day proponents say that Americans, on average, work 350 hours more each year than Europeans. That's 9 weeks of labor.

"Europeans have made a tradeoff between quality of life and hours worked," said De Graaf. "We Americans have chosen to trade all our increases in productivity for more stuff. And to pay for it, we need to work even more."

In France, for example, national law guarantees workers 11 public holidays, a minimum of five weeks paid vacation, and a 35-hour work week.

Americans do celebrate 10 public holidays. Still, many companies don't honor all national holidays, and U.S. firms are the stingiest in the developed world when it comes to vacations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an American in his or her first year on the job gets 8.1 days of paid vacation on average. (The average doesn't rise above 10 days until year three.)

Boston College economist Juliet Schor's 1993 best seller, "The Overworked American," argued that the United States "is the world's standout workaholic nation." Now, she is something of a high priestess to the movement, attracting both praise and criticism.

Drawing on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Shor has demonstrated that average working hours in the United States rose nearly 12 percent between 1973 and 2000.

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The Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank, interpreted the data differently. It says the problem isn't that most Americans are working demonstrably longer hours than before.

"Something else is happening," according to EPF economist Ron Bird. "People feel more overworked than in the past, mainly because other areas of their life are taking up more time."

A longer commute, for example, doesn't constitute additional "hours worked." Still, it's time spent in order to hold a job. Moreover, the rise of the two-income family means that collectively, Americans are putting in more time on the clock.

"With more dual-earner families and working mothers in the workforce," Bird said, "total family hours at work have increased, which means less time at home."

Distribution of income

Like many social critics, De Graaf points to unequal income distribution as a problem. To his credit, he doesn't dismiss the complexity of the issue.

"From World War II to the early 1970s, the United States was getting relatively more equal in the distribution of wealth," he noted. "That changed, and the gap has grown. In most western European countries the income inequality has declined."

Public Holidays
United States

In the 1970s, the United States ranked in the middle of the pack among developed nations for hours worked. Now, it vies with Japan for number one, far ahead of most of western Europe. It may be no coincidence that the Japanese and American economies are the world's biggest.

De Graaf concedes that supply side economic theorists were right about this much: tax breaks do encourage people to work more, especially at the top of the ladder. But as people on the bottom become relatively less rich, they work longer, too.

"I would never try to pretend that our system doesn't cause us to have the highest production in the world," said De Graaf. "But it's also created a lot of very stressed out, unhappy people.

"Do we also care about having enough leisure time to enjoy some of that production?"  Top of page

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