Americans and Work

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I got a call the other day from a company trying to drum up business. She was polite but our associate wasn’t in to take the call. Holiday weeks ensure the amount of time spent at the office will be cut short by employees taking vacation days. My eager caller had to work, so naturally felt everyone else should to “We have too many days off.” She noted. By “we” she meant the United States. I agreed with her to be friendly but in my mind I wasn’t so sure.

How much is too much when it comes to time off? Compared to European countries we are positively workaholics. The European Union mandates 4 weeks of paid time off for all members. The U.S. doesn’t have any such law. Federal employees are guaranteed 10 holidays in addition to however much they accrue throughout the year. The private sector doesn’t have anywhere near that much. In most companies the number of promised holidays is 2, Christmas and Thanksgiving. Even those aren’t ensured for everyone. Restaurants and retailers are often open on even those days. Christmas is still mostly observed.

Like most things in life the trade-offs are implicit in the structure. As a country the United States government doesn’t require paid time off so companies compete on benefits and hours. The benefits to the country as a whole show up in figures like GDP and wages. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is just a yearly total of the value of everything produced in the country. In 2016 Americans totaled over 18 trillion dollars while the Chinese added just over 11 trillion to their economy. China’s size and development almost ensure a high number every year.

Wages in the U.S. are high too. That may sound surprising, a lot of us haven’t had a genuine raise or a promotion in years. Think of wages as a measure of how much you make versus what things cost, economists call it Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).  Living costs are basically as steady as wages.  Longer hours spent at work mean more potential for expanding companies to earn better rates of return for their investment dollars. The reason should be obvious. We put money where it brings the best value. More average working hours means more potential to grow the investment.

That may be small comfort for workers who desperately want more time off, but being a top destination for investments means consumers see other intangible payoffs. Loans are easy to get, gas is affordable, travel is accessible and family relocation is in reach for most people. Not everything is perfect in the U.S. Some cities (San Francisco, New York) are highly restrictive on new construction making it tough for residents to afford rent. Health care costs continue to rise including insurance to cover it, but most sectors are strong.

Those who enjoy taking time off are advised to start their own business and set up a schedule conducive to free time. Of course a growing business will demand additional hours during certain times. Landscapers work much longer during the spring and summer months and accountants during the tax season. Still, owners are free to set their own times if vacation is their main motivation. They might discover the difficulties inherent in missing work, but the choice is up to them.

Not many outside the country would accuse American workers of taking too much time off. As much as we all love free time and down time, most wouldn’t trade it for expensive living. I could be wrong but I don’t think the character of Americans has changed that much. Cultural attitudes change toward things like labor every generation or so. I don’t think we are there yet.

So take a day for yourself, collect your thoughts and realize we have it pretty good. Done? now get back to work.

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