Lazy, He Calls Us

TRB

January 30, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — Lazy? Hey buster, are you calling American workers lazy?? Japanese officials portray this remark by Yoshio Sakurauchi, speaker of Japan's parliament, as the maundering of a senile non-entity. But it apparently reflects the views of the Japanese public.

Whatever ails the American economy, though, it cannot be blamed on laziness. Americans work astonishingly hard, compared with both our own recent past and most of our trade competitors. Juliet B. Schor, an associate professor of economics at Harvard, dishes the grim figures in her new book, ''The Overworked American.''

The average working American puts in 163 more hours a year than 20 years ago. That's the equivalent of an extra month of work. The pattern is consistent across various occupations and income levels. More women are working. More teen-agers are working (53.7 percent).

Commuting time is up, too -- by an average 23 hours a year. Paid vacation time is down by 3.5 days a year. Despite the huge increase in working wives, time spent on household chores has not declined.

From their peak in the pits of the industrial revolution, working hours declined steadily until the 1940s. Everyone assumed this would continue. During the Depression, the Senate actually passed a bill mandating a 30-hour work week to relieve unemployment.

As late as the 1950s, sociologists heartached over what Americans would do with all their leisure time. But the ''leisure crisis'' has turned out to be the exact opposite: people and society are frazzling from the stress of overwork.

Ms. Schor's take on all this is a bit odd. She sees the essential villain as consumerism, spurred by the capitalist system's ever-receding mirage of material bliss.

We are on a treadmill, ''imprisoned in capitalism's squirrel cage,'' ''caught in an 'insidious cycle of work and spend'.'' She notes that ''There are numerous examples of societies in which things have played a highly circumscribed role.''

Professor Schor's solution? A conscious social decision -- implemented by government policies -- to accept a lower standard of living.

Make of this what you will -- and I don't dismiss it out of hand -- you needn't agree about the evils of materialism in order to explain the increase in American working hours. As a new study by the congressional Joint Economic Committee (''Families on a Treadmill'') points out, even in strictly material terms Americans are running ever-faster just to stay in the same place.

The study compares two-parent families with children in 1979 and 1989. For most, the wife's real hourly pay rose only slightly and the husband's actually declined. Except for the top fifth, any increase in total family income came from working longer hours, not better pay.

Working harder is not the answer for the American economy. We are already working harder and it's getting us nowhere. Yes, the Japanese still put in more hours a year than we do, on average. Professor Schor figures they outwork us by six weeks a year.

(West Germans, on the other hand, work an average of eight weeks a year less than we do.) But longer hours cannot explain Japan's economic performance.

Since 1975, Japan's output per-person has increased by almost half while America's has increased by a mere 12 percent. This Japanese achievement is not the result of working longer hours -- Japanese work fewer hours than they did in 1975. It is mainly the result of Japan's high rates of savings and investment -- including the social investment in education.

Thus Juliet Schor may be right for the wrong reason. America's desire for immediate and unending consumer gratification may or may not be leading us to work too hard, but it is leading us to save and invest too little. Unless we curb our appetites, we won't see the gains in productivity that could allow us to have more things and more time as well in the future.

Meanwhile, don't call us lazy.

TRB wrote this commentary for The New Republic.

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