Do Americans Work Too Much?

A new campaign to give Americans more free time takes off

| September-October 2000

The economy may have boomed in recent years, but most Americans are ready to bust. You don’t hear much about that, with the national PR machine breathlessly trumpeting the longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history. But behind the doors of the apartments, ranch houses, and brownstones of the real folks who fuel this economy, there is a different story, one of contraction—lives and family and free time swallowed whole by work without end. Ask most working Americans how things are really going and you’ll hear stories of burnout and quiet desperation, of 50- and 60-hour weeks with no letup in sight. The United States has now passed Japan as the industrialized world’s most overworked land. In total hours, Americans work two weeks longer than the Japanese each year, two whole months longer than the Germans. On top of that, while Europeans and Australians are able to relieve the grind with four to six weeks of paid vacation each year guaranteed by law, Americans average a paltry nine days off after the first year on the job (and that’s totally dependent on the whims of employers). If you need some time to tend to an illness in the family or paint the house, your vacation time is pretty much shot. Forget about Tuscany, Yosemite, or even a few days at a nearby state park.

In the spring, Escape, the travel magazine I edit, launched a campaign to try to roll back the new Industrial Revolution time clock and open a national debate on America’s biggest sacred cow: work. Mind you, as an entrepreneur and business owner myself, I’ve got nothing against the work ethic. It’s the crazed, psychotic overwork ethic that needs a pink slip. We here at Escape have formed a committee called Work to Live, whose goal is to increase vacation time in the United States—to three weeks by law after the first year on the job, and four weeks after three years.

I expected to hear a lot of snickers and name-calling from the overwork and anti-law zealots—you know, “slacker, socialist, utopianist.” But I heard far more shouts of approval. I soon found myself in Time magazine, on the Today Show, and on NBC’s Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. Support for the campaign has poured in from across the country, as workers by the thousands have logged on to the Escape Web site (www.escapemag. com) to sign our petition to Congress for more vacation time (see page 55). Workers and travelers of America, Unite. We have nothing to lose but our stress.

As a longtime traveler, I first became aware that the United States wasn’t number one in everything after encountering far too many Germans, Brits, and Danes gallivanting the globe for five and six weeks a year. (In Denmark two years ago, unions staged a nationwide general strike for a sixth week of vacation and settled for two extra days a year, plus three additional personal days for workers with young children.) We eke out 9.6 days at large U.S. companies after one year, 16 after 10 years; at small business operations (where the vast majority of us work these days) it’s 8 days after a year, 16 after 25 years! But that’s only part of the story. There’s the drowning number of hours—according to the Families and Work Institute, 49 hours is the weekly average for men (and 42 for women), which adds up to an extra three months on the job each year beyond the alleged 40-hour week.

“The gap between Europe and America seems to be growing,” says a baffled Orvar Löfgren, a professor at Lund University in Sweden and author of an excellent history of vacations, On Holiday (University of California, 1999). “I’m a bit amazed at this, because Americans love having fun.”

So where did we go wrong?

3/28/2008 12:00:00 AM

Have the current presidential candidates address this issue???

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