Maybe you saw it too, on a recent television news show: A Japanese business executive explaining to an American newsman that increasingly, in Japan, Americans are perceived as falling behind economically because of "laziness" and a decline of the work ethic.

Actually, it's a popular theory here in America as well -- the assumption that American workers have become "lazy" and are no longer willing to put in the hard work and long hours necessary for economic success.

A popular assumption but, as it turns out, a wrong one.

The truth is that millions of working Americans -- those lucky enough to have a job in these recessionary times -- are spending more hours at their jobs than ever before. In fact, over the last 20 years the amount of time spent on the job has risen by an average of nine hours per year.

Which means that we now work about a month more than we did in 1972!

Yes, just when you thought it might be true that American workers have become soft and self-indulgent, along comes Harvard economist Juliet Schor with evidence to the contrary.

In her new book, "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure," Schor's research reveals that while Americans work fewer hours than the Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese, we nonetheless work many more hours than almost anyone else in the world.

And the trend toward more work hours, claims Schor, is not confined to selective groups but affects the vast majority of working Americans. "Hours have risen for men as well as women, for those in the working class as well as professionals," she writes.

So what are Americans doing with all the extra money earned from the extra work? Surprise. There isn't any. In fact, Schor calculates that "just to reach their 1970 standard of living, [Americans] must work 245 more hours, or six-plus extra weeks a year." And about 24 percent of the 88 million Americans with full-time jobs are now approaching the 50-hour workweek.

With schedules like that, it seems fair to say, you can forget about the concept of spending "quality time" with the family. After factoring in housework and child care, says Schor, the average American is left with only 16 1/2 hours of leisure time per week. That's about two hours a day. And more than likely, those two hours fall at the end of a very, very long day.

Is it any wonder then that everyone seems tired?

And while we are not yet faced with the American equivalent of the Japanese phenomenon called "karoshi" -- literally "death by overwork" -- there is no doubt that the frenetic work pace is having a negative effect on family life in America.

A recent newspaper article headlined "Sign of the '90s: Overworked Parents" pointed up some of the problems facing parents -- in both single-parent and two-parent families -- who work. The parents feel exhausted and guilty. The children, said one mother, were "needy" and "clingy" and "didn't have the resilience I thought they should have."

Said one child researcher: "What kids want from their parents is more time, and what they really want is their parents not to come home from work so wired."

Reading that, I remembered the days when my own children were young. I remembered how often they got the short end of the stick when I came home from work, tired and preoccupied. And I thought about the chaos that could occur around such normal events as a snowstorm that closed school or a baby sitter who didn't show up. Now, looking back, I see I said "Hurry up!" too many times -- and "Tell me what's happening to you" too few times.

But it was not only my children who lost something because of my frenetic pace. I was a loser, too.

Of course, one of the big ironies accompanying the phenomenon of the "overworked American" is the view that all this extra work -- which leaves us so little time for family and self -- is not benefiting our economy. "Working longer and harder is not the same as working smarter," is the way Jerome M. Rossow, president of the Work in America Institute, put it in a newspaper article on the growing workweek.

There is another irony, too: In America, through some combination of economic, societal and personal circumstances, we now seem either to work too hard or not work at all.

What we need, of course, is a work life that falls somewhere between no work at all and "karoshi."

What we need, at the very least, is to bring back the 40-hour workweek.

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