Why Americans work more than anyone else.
Americans work too much.
This is not a matter of opinion so much as a factual point of international comparison. The U.S. worker labors more hours than her counterparts in just about every similarly rich country, including Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom. If the average American worked as much as the typical German, she’d have about 30 extra days off per year. That’s a free six-week vacation in exchange for embracing the famously leisurely work habits of … Germany.
The reasons behind America’s overwork are the subject of exhaustive study and theorizing—including on this site. Some observers focus above all on public policy: The U.S. has been steadily eroding labor rights since the Cold War, and there is no federal guarantee for vacation or parental leave, pushing Americans toward longer workweeks than those of their more unionized brethren in similar countries. Others look to the character of “greedy” American industries, such as consulting and banking, which demand long hours and undivided loyalty from their employees so they can thrive in a competitive global economy. Still others, including me, point out that in the past few decades, the dogged pursuit of meaning at work has become a kind of secular religion—workism.
But these explanations may be overlooking an obvious modern force: the digital revolution.
In a new working paper, the economists Edward E. Leamer, of UCLA, and J. Rodrigo Fuentes, of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, studied data about working hours from the American Community Survey. They found that hours worked since 1980 increased nearly 10 percent for Americans with bachelor’s and advanced degrees. Leamer told me that he believes this is because computing has shifted much of the economy from manufacturing to neurofacturing, Leamer’s term for intellectually intensive white-collar labor that is often connected to the internet, such as software programming, marketing, advertising, consulting, and publishing.
Neurofacturing jobs lend themselves to long hours for several reasons, Leamer said. They’re less physically arduous, as it’s easier to sit and type than to assemble engine parts. What’s more, the internet makes every hour of the day a potential working hour.
If the operating equipment of the 21st century is a portable device, this means the modern factory is not a place at all. It is the day itself. The computer age has liberated the tools of productivity from the office. Most knowledge workers, whose laptops and smartphones are portable all-purpose media-making machines, can theoretically be as productive at 2 p.m. in the main office as at 2 a.m. in a Tokyo WeWork or at midnight on the couch.