A National Addiction to Work

Steve’s up in Toronto this week working at the home base for his company. He has been ordered to return home with a suitcase of Coffee Crisps. I think he’s enjoying the quiet time in the hotel after work. He may not return home. We may have to consciously uncouple.

In addition to the discovery of poutine, Steve was amazed that his Canadian counterparts left the office at 5:00. Here in New York City, the same workers stay at their desk for another couple of hours.

Working 12-hour days for many New York City professionals is do-able, because many have simply decided to not have children and, therefore, don’t have to relocate to far-off suburbs. They live a short distance from work and don’t have a second shift at home. If you combine your income with a spouse’s full time income, you can afford a very nice lifestyle with dinners in the West Village and two-week vacations to Brasil.

Rebecca Rosen has a nice piece in the Atlantic about over-worked Americans. I love a good compare and contrast of international public policies:

Other countries limit work hours by law (the European Union’s Working Time Directive, for instance) to both keep workers from being exploited, burned out or, in the case of Germany in particular, to keep unemployment low by spreading out work hours among more workers. Other countries also value refreshed workers and family and leisure time, and have paid leave policies when children are born, fostered, or adopted, in addition to sick time. They have paid vacation policies of as much as 30 days. In Denmark, every parent gets two “nurture days” per child until the child is eight, in order to make it to parent-teacher conferences, the school play, etc.—things that in this country, many white collar workers guiltily slink out under the radar to rush to, and working class people risk getting fired to do. In the UK, within the first year that they implemented a “Right to Request” flexible work hours (which give employees the right to put together a plan for how to get their work done in a flexible way and employers could only turn them down if they could show it would hurt the business bottom line) more than one million families requested such schedules and business kept humming right along.

In the United States, we have no such policies. We value work. We work among the most extreme hours, behind only Japan and South Korea. Our divided political system has yet to figure out what the proper role of government should even be, and we hate taxes. Ironically, the OECD has done studies that have found that the U.S. spends about as much as Sweden on health and welfare—it’s just that they pool their money to pay for everyone, and in the U.S., it all comes out of private pockets.


36 thoughts on “A National Addiction to Work

      1. Why don’t we throw in a pied a terre in Paris and a beach house in Malibu while we’re at it?

    1. Why don’t we throw in a pied a terre in Paris and a beach house in Malibu while we’re at it?

      Well, why not? Dreams are free, after all. But I’d suggest a house on a cliff or bluff, properly set back so that it’s not in danger of falling into the sea (this is a dream, after all) in Malibu, so that you have a great view of the sunset, and a private stairway that goes down to the beach from there. That would be nice, especially if we’re dreaming that the 1 is free of traffic, so that I can drive my somehow perfectly working Triumph Spitfire(*) convertible in a really pleasing way.

      (*) I briefly owned a Triumph Spitfire convertible so know that having one that works perfectly would clearly be the sign of being in a dream.

  1. I have a friend who works for a Dutch engineering company in the US. His boss is Dutch. They get 4-5 weeks paid vacation, and leave the office at 5. He is one of the happiest employed people I know in the US.

    1. I think I’m up to five weeks paid vacation if you count the holidays scattered around the year. I also leave at 5:00 mostly.

  2. Ask Steve to pick up some Kit-Kats too, if you like them. Canadian Kit-Kats are different from American ones and I like them better. Skip the Smarties. They are inferior to M&Ms.

  3. I have 4 weeks plus 11 holidays and am out of here by 5:00 most days. Most of my jobs have been similar. I think this is a coastal thing.

  4. I live & work in Toronto and while I think we do work less than Americans, it’s also possible that those workers are plugging in at night after the kids are in bed. I think as a very vague general rule Canadians are slightly less concerned with “face time.” Our industries are a bit different too so if he’s in finance he may be running up against “bankers’ hours”. Banking in Canada in general is supposed to be a bit boring and not all excitement after hours (that’s for the people who defect to NYC.) Wealth in Canada buys you boredom, not excitement.

    1. I just came back because I looked up the data I think she is referring to – Canada worked more until 2010 (when it is the same.). I looked for the data because I thought this idea that the US works more/harder had been debunked a while ago along with the idea that Greeks don’t work hard and thus Germany shouldn’t have to subsidize etc. (That was the context I remember for the discussion.) My chart should be here:

  5. Ok sorry last post. This is not a ‘nice piece’ – this totally pinged my BS meter. We work more, the article says, than everyone but Japan and South Korea. Based on the data I could find (and I found it very easily) not remotely true. We work less than Canada, New Zealand, Greece, etc. Laura, you’re smart. Why do you completely lack a bs meter and swallow every stupid article that comes out?

    1. You’re not a real Canadian because they’re not assholes.

      Anyway, national level data for everybody doesn’t capture what that article is getting at. Especially not national level data that is per employed person and not per adult when you’ve got a group of countries where the labor force participation of women variables.

  6. Here’s another source for data: https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=ANHRS (I love data). It shows the US as 11th out of the 33 OECD states listed, at 1790 hours/year; Canada at 1710, about 80 hours/week less.

    Looking at the OECD data, I think there’s something about the FRED statistics that isn’t capturing what we’re talking about at a personal level. Maybe it’s the hours worked in professional jobs? or maybe in the white collar labor force? or for companies? In the OECD data, the countries that have higher number of hours worked than the US are more likely to be agricultural and are generally less developed (Greece, Mexico, Chile). Or maybe there are differences in how leave/vacation time is calculated?

  7. I do wish that articles that compare countries would start with numbers, rather than assumptions. There is nothing in the Atlantic article that contrasts the work done in different countries before mentioning policies that could explain differences (though it is to be noted that the countries she mentions, Denmark, UK, and Germany) all work fewer hours than the US, according to the OECD data (244, 393, and 135 hours/year less). Neither Greece nor Hong Kong are mentioned in the comparison.

  8. As I often mention in these discussions, my German in-law who is a consultant for a major US company scoffs at American working hours. He thinks that Americans have a tendency to come in for long hours but to goof off a lot while at work. The German in-law prefers to come in and get things done and then go home to relax…at his second, third, fourth and fifth jobs. (Not an exaggeration, by the way.) He doesn’t want to go full-time with his American corporation, as it would nuke his vacation time.

    After having read a bit on this and also lived within an entrepreneurial family, I suspect that part of the problem is that people get cookies (i.e. attaboys and attagirls) on the job, while at home, nobody is handing out cookies. Paid work is much more reinforcing and home is where the work is. Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote a book on this called “The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work.”

    1. What about all the research that shows that mothers spend more time interacting with their children now than 40 years ago when they were less likely to be working outside the home? Could that contribute to the burnout the middle class is complaining about? I wonder if the UMC and MC parenting pressures play a role.

      1. Having been raised by a SAHM/WOHD in the 70s, it doesn’t sound fishy to me at all. I don’t remember my parents checking my homework much, and our spheres were very, very separate. We did do some family holidays but otherwise I was out playing or in the basement or in my room and my parents were off doing adult things. My parents didn’t sign me up for any sports where they would have to attend practice, although they did take me to ballet class for a few terms (I walked myself to swimming and the girl guide equivalent). They didn’t really play with us except maybe a round of Parchessi over a holiday or something like that. I took myself to school & back, which was a 20-min walk or a streetcar + bus ride, beginning mid-kindergarten.

        For many kids in my cohort, the period of grade 3-8 was also the grand era of chores strikes/consciousness-raising/divorce (late 70s/early 80s) where it was actually weird if your dad had not relocated to a crummy high rise apartment to appear for ice cream on alternate weekends and/or your mom had a new job or was going to school to better herself. That’s where all the latchkey kids came in.

      2. Shandra said:

        “Having been raised by a SAHM/WOHD in the 70s, it doesn’t sound fishy to me at all. I don’t remember my parents checking my homework much, and our spheres were very, very separate.”

        For smaller families, I agree it does sound more or less plausible, but I can’t imagine that my grandmother who had five widely spaced kids or my great grandma who had eight (including a set of twins) spent less time dealing with their kids than I did when I had two, even if I did spend way more time looking at homework. I think you really have to add in the caveat, “for families of the same size.”

        You can’t just shove a 2-year-old out the door and tell him to go play, as feasible as that might be for school age kids.

      3. Shandra, your experience was the same as mine (until early adolescence when my mother and i headed for the hills, where we kept horses, on the weekend.) And families of 5, much less 8, are vanishingly rare (at least here in Australia, if you aren’t FLDS or something.) In addition to that, in former generations where traffic was less crazy and parenting was more free range, in widely spaced large families the older kids would be expected to contribute to looking after the younger ones.

      4. “You can’t just shove a 2-year-old out the door and tell him to go play, ”

        Yes you could, back in the day, according to my mom. When you have a family of 8 kids, it is perfectly reasonable for the toddler to be outside with the older siblings. Of course, some of the stories she tells of her childhood would terrify modern parents. (Like the time she and her next oldest brother painted all of their siblings with lead house-paint.) More siblings means more non-parents to watch the little ones.

        And I myself remember a lot of time spent at age 6 and 7 outside by myself taking care of my little sister who was 1 and 2 at the time. And when I was little I spent a lot of time hanging out with multi-aged roving bands of neighborhood kids. No adults. I can’t let my kids do that, even though they’re the same ages because there are no roving bands of neighborhood kids to look out after each other and someone would call CPS on us if they saw my 7 year old and 2 year old out alone.

      5. nicoleandmaggie said:

        “Yes you could, back in the day, according to my mom. When you have a family of 8 kids, it is perfectly reasonable for the toddler to be outside with the older siblings.”

        I’ve seen how my 11-year-old handles her 17-month-old sister. She adores her baby sister and is fine in a pinch (like when I’m taking a quick shower), but her judgment about safety is definitely still a little off. She’s coming along (and I’m hoping to send her to a YMCA babysitting course this summer), but she’s not there yet.

        Remember, the rate of accidental death of little kids has fallen radically ever since we got fussier about supervision (in addition to carseat safety, of course).

        “Of course, some of the stories she tells of her childhood would terrify modern parents. (Like the time she and her next oldest brother painted all of their siblings with lead house-paint.) More siblings means more non-parents to watch the little ones.”

        My great-grandparents left their kids alone a lot to manage the farm (both great-grandparents had jobs off the farm). On one occasion, the kids got into a stash of dynamite (not kidding–they used to keep that stuff around for blasting stumps). Hilarity ensued. No casualties, fortunately.

      6. @AmyP
        Whether or not it was more dangerous then than the level of adult supervision these days is irrelevant to whether or not mothers are spending a different amount of time interacting with their kids now than 40+ years ago, regardless of family size. It’s also irrelevant to whether or not people pushed their 2 year olds out to play with the older kids back in the day. People did then, people don’t now. What exactly are you arguing?

        p.s. We get information on time use from time use surveys that have been normed to get consistent information. There’s a huge area of research on the topic. Nothing fishy about it. You can play with the data yourself from here: http://www.timeuse.org/mtus/surveys

  9. I am interested in the trend over time. It seems to say that over 40-50 years, hours worked are down about 200 per worker. I wonder, is the rise of the two income household the real reason everyone is so stressed? If one person goes down from 1900 to 1700, but another goes from 0 to 1700 (paid work – the housework still needs to be done, hence the stress) it sure sounds more stressful to me! Even a low hour part time job would be a considerable increase in hours worked per household.

    On the other hand, a lot of single income households consist of a single full-time-employed person, so maybe that’s making it non-comparable?

    1. There’s also the question of how many jobs per person. I remember once getting used to a schedule in which I was at 3 different places in the course of a single day (and occasionally 4) and initially, my stress level was off the charts.

  10. The Onion has addressed work schedules: http://www.theonion.com/articles/single-mother-hogging-2-jobs,35604/

    This administration has created incentives for employers of adjuncts, for municipalities, and for employers of fast food workers to keep their hours/week under 30, and when the CBO said 2.3 million jobs would be lost because of Obamacare, Nancy Pelosi said it was swell that so many people would be enabled to be poets and artists. http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dc/pelosi-cbo-report-shows-obamacare-americans-freedom-follow-passion-blog-entry-1.1706082

  11. Tell Steve to NOT attempt to bring back Kinder Eggs. Those’ll get confiscated at the border as dangerous in the US and he might be threatened with worse: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/illegal-kinder-eggs-get-u-s-men-border-detention-1.1213291

    As for leaving work at 5 in Toronto, you’d better if you’re commuting as long and slow a trek as some people in the GTA tackle. I know people who commute on the train from/to Kitchener – a 100k commute which can sometimes take two hours one way.

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