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Americans working more, relaxing less than their peers

Tom Schaller says that despite increased productivity, U.S. workers have not enjoyed higher pay or more vacation time

Thomas F. Schaller

1:26 PM EDT, August 20, 2013

EASTHAM, Mass

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Americans are a bunch of lazy layabouts who don't want to work and would rather live off the taxes generated by the toil of their countrymen. I hear some version of this rant repeatedly from people who believe that the American work ethic disappeared at some point in the past generation.

Here on gorgeous Cape Cod, where I vacation, I've been thinking about the state of American work and workers. So let's clear up a few matters.

First, American worker productivity is high and continues to rise.

In fact, according to a cross-national study released earlier this year by the International Labor Organization, American workers are the most productive in the world. Based on the most recent data available for each country, workers in the United States on average produce $63,885 of wealth annually; compared to other industrialized countries of Europe, only Norway's workers produce more wealth per hour ($37.99 in U.S. dollars) than do American workers ($35.63.)

Second, Americans work a lot.

Although workers in third-world countries put in roughly 2,200 hours per year, compared with other industrialized nations U.S. workers rank first, averaging about 1,800 hours annually. That's 400 more hours than the Norwegians and 330 more hours than the French.

So we work plenty and produce a lot. How else could a nation with only 4.5 percent of the world's population produce more than a fifth of the world's wealth?

Obviously, technology has boosted productivity. But technological advances also make work more pervasive and inescapable: Saleswomen today can call clients from the car or email them while in midair; middle managers can do paperwork on their laptops at night and on weekends. All of which means Americans today often work in places and at times that their parents and grandparents simply could not.

Although earlier generations of American workers surely would have done the same had cellphones and the Internet existed then, it doesn't change the fact that today's workers can work longer hours and perhaps never fully "leave" the office. (One benefit of technology is that it permits telecommuting and greater job flexibility, which is invaluable to working parents and many adults with physical limitations.)

So if Americans are working hard, they must be playing hard, too, right?

Sorry, it's just the opposite: The same country that ranks first among industrialized nations in total wealth productivity per year and second in wealth productivity per hour ranks dead last in terms of vacation time taken, especially paid vacation.

Of the 21 advanced economies examined in a study published earlier this summer by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States is the only nation that doesn't guarantee every worker a certain number of days of paid vacation. Although we have 10 official federal holidays, none are guaranteed paid vacation days — a commonplace legal right in most other industrialized nations.

Many Americans do, of course, receive and take paid vacation days from either their public-sector or private-sector employers. But almost a quarter of all Americans (23 percent, according to the CEPR study) get no paid vacation time whatsoever.

And this may shock those who think we've become a country of loafers: Almost 3 in 5 American workers in 2011 ended the year with unused vacation time. In a typical year, the estimated number of unused vacation days nationwide is 175 million. Divide that by a standard, 250-day work year, and that equates to 700,000 worker "years" of unused vacation annually.

Surely all the extra work and higher productivity have translated into better pay, yes?

Wrong again: The shameful reality is that worker productivity rose 80 percent from 1973 to 2011, yet median hourly compensation during the same period grew only about 10 percent. Since 2000, productivity is up 23 percent, but inflation-adjusted hourly pay has flat-lined.

Increasingly, the reward for hard work in America is, well, more work — at the same or lower compensation and with less time for play. Tell that to your blowhard uncle at this year's Labor Day picnic when he starts bellyaching about how nobody in this country works anymore.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.