Are you a slacker for working 40 hours a week?
Do you feel guilty for eating in the breakroom instead of at your desk?
Has the laziness of the American worker contributed to our current economic problems?
Politicians from both sides of the aisle in Washington have basically answered “yes” to that last question.
President Barack Obama recently said he thought Americans had “gotten a little soft.” GOP prodigy and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan claims the people of the United States have “no work ethic.”
But are we really as lazy as everyone thinks? It depends on who you ask…
Newsweek columnist Paul Begala wrote an article responding to political allegations that we’re a bunch of good-for-nothing sloths citing data from The State of Working America, which was published by the Economic Policy Institute.
Some of this will surprise you:
- Americans work more weeks per year than any industrialized nation other than Japan
In the U.S. we work an average of 46.7 weeks each year. Compare that to 44.8 weeks in Canada, 43.3 weeks in Great Britain and 41.7 weeks in Germany.
That also means people in just about every modernized country get more vacation time than you do. Brits are guaranteed at least four weeks of paid vacation, and the Japanese have a mandatory two-week minimum. Even though a full-time job in the U.S. will most likely offer about 10-days to most employees, there’s no minimum set by federal law.
- Americans work more hours than any other Western nation
The average American spends 1,804 hours a year at work. Germans? They only spend 1,436 hours on the job each year. Huh? That’s strange. I’ve always heard Germans were the ones with unbelievable work ethic.
- The productivity of American workers is second to none
Begala points out that the annual gross domestic product (the market value of all final goods and services produced within a country) in the U.S. is still most impressive.
“The Japanese gross domestic product per hour worked—one measure of productivity—is only 71 percent of the U.S. rate. Canada comes in at 81 percent and the United Kingdom at just 89 percent.”
So American workers could actually boast about the most productivity per person than any other developed nation.
In an article that claims Americans are the most overworked nation, GE Miller of 20-Something Finance cites numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistic indicating the productivity of workers in the U.S. has increased by 400% since 1950.
“One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.”
Earlier this month, President Obama gave an economic speech with a similar sentiment:
“For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success.”
In a post analysing that speech, economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich further explained the “basic bargain” as an unspoken guarantee that productivity should be linked to pay gains for the American worker. But that has not happened in recent history.
Middle class incomes have been going nowhere long before the s0-called Great Recession hit.
According the the 2010 U.S. census, the median combined household income fell 7% from the year 2000 to $49,445.
According to the IRS, the average income of a U.S taxpayer in 1988 was $33,400. 20 years later, in 2008, it was still just $33,000. Yet, according to CNNMoney.com the richest 1% of Americans saw their pay increase by 33% in the same time span.
At first, I sort of agreed with people who scoffed at the Occupy protests as a waste of time and a bunch of lazy degenerates with nothing better to do than complain. But when you look at the numbers, it’s hard to deny the fact there is a definite income inequality issue in the United States.
Perhaps more Americans would believe in the Republican concept of trickle-down economics if they could see evidence that it actually works.
The Global Economy Argument
The biggest critics of people who complain about income inequality in America point to globalization and advancements in technology as the reasons.
New technology has made it easier for American employees to do more work in less time. That means fewer workers are needed, and many times that means there is less work to go around.
Meantime – it’s just way cheaper to hire workers in places like China and India to answer phones and sit on assembly lines. Now incomes in those nations are on the rise. Some economists say that’s the global market becoming more of an even playing field.
Whatever the case may be, we’re not just competing for jobs with people in our city, we’re competing for work around the world.
Back in 2007, Geoff Colvin of Fortune magazine wrote an article that had the complete opposite spin from Begala’s more recent column.
Colvin cited research by the UN’s International Labor Organization, which indicated only 18% of American workers actually spend more than 48 hours per week at work. You could compare that to countries such as South Korea and Peru where the number of workers who spend that much time on the job is around 50%.
I don’t know about you, but a work environment that looks like South Korea does not sound so great. I really hope my kids don’t end up working in sweat shops just so that America can remain competitive in a global economy.
President Obama thinks that we’ve lost the “competitive edge we need.” He’s also said, “The first step to winning the future is encouraging American innovation.”
I think that’s true, and most Republicans would also agree.
But it’s not laziness causing us to struggle to compete in a global economy.
Sure, there are people who need to get off their butts and get to work. There are people who leach off of unemployment and any other government assistance they can get for as long as they can.
But there are also millions and millions of hard-working Americans who are looking for ways to get by, and are ready and willing to do whatever it takes.
You are not lazy. Now the fat thing…that’s another story.
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+Kasey Steinbrinck writes regularly on personal finances and the U.S. economy for Check Advantage. Visit them today and view find out how you can save money when you order checks online. Check Advantage offers a wide selection of Cool Checks as well as Quicken Checks for small business or personal use.