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The Underworked American

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The Underworked American
08-14-2007 | Link to Original Article @ The Boston Globe


IF YOU'RE WORKING next week -- a time designed by nature for fleeing office parks and sweltering, odoriferous cities -- you could be forgiven for feeling a touch of self-pity: poor, overworked American.

Read about labor trends and you'd feel even more beleaguered. In May, a report titled "No-Vacation Nation," from a Washington, D.C., think tank, rubbed our noses in the fact that we get comically brief vacations compared with Europeans. Then there was the recent Harvard Business Review article decrying the rise of the "extreme job": More and more high achievers are forced to choose between a 70-hour workweek or lifetime "Team B" career status.

Working beneath the radar, however, some sociologists and economists have been gathering provocative data that suggest that Americans are not nearly as workaholic as we think we are. True, we don't evacuate our cities in August, like the French. But today, these scholars say, we spend far less time on work than Americans did four decades ago. From 1965 to 2003, according to one study published this month, the average American gained the equivalent of seven weeks of vacation -- in the form of extra leisure time spread throughout the year.

Much of the time-savings comes from a source few people think about when they whine (or brag) about their workweeks: cleaning and cooking. We do much less of it than we used to, thanks to vacuum cleaners, takeout food, and other innovations. And the time-savings there more than offsets the extra time women now spend in offices, according to the study, which appears in the latest issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

"The amount of stuff that my wife and I do around the house, compared to what my mom and father did around the house, is lower by an order of magnitude of 30 or 40 percent than what they did," says Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago who coauthored the study. His parents didn't have a dishwasher. "We have takeout food twice a week from a variety of healthy opportunities; they didn't."

The new study is part of a quiet revolution offering an arguably more accurate, and certainly surprising, portrait of how we spend our time. Hurst, along with coauthor Mark Aguiar, a University of Rochester economist, is among a growing number of scholars who champion the use of so-called time-diary surveys, which ask people to recount in detail how they spent a specific recent day. The technique has been used for decades but is gaining in popularity as economists realize the importance of pinning down the time spent on small, forgettable tasks (like mopping a floor). And it discourages exaggeration, its advocates say, because the time estimates for a given day can't add up to more than 24 hours.

That's important, because when it comes to working hours in our macho office culture, "the greater the estimate, the greater the overestimate," says John P. Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who draws on time-diary data in his own work. "People who estimate 70 hours are more likely to put in 55." That highballing contributes to the sense that we are all overworked.

In their analysis, Aguiar and Hurst break the day into numerous subcategories: "core market work" (time at your desk, or tightening rivets), "total market work" (add the commute), "core nonmarket work" (housework), "obtaining goods and services," and childcare. And they offer four alternative definitions of leisure -- a slippery concept, to be sure. The one that may best match the common-sense view includes playing sports, watching TV, pet care, hobbies, sleeping, and eating. (This definition treats childcare as 100 percent work, though, ignoring the fun parts.)

For men, much of the gain in free time comes from a decrease in on-the-job hours. Their core market work has dropped from 42 to 36 hours weekly, the economists say. Men do about four more hours of housework and shopping a week than they did in 1965. On balance, their leisure time, using the above definition, is up 6.2 hours a week.

The average "core" time women spend on the job has climbed a bit, from 19 to 23 hours, but their total nonmarket work has plummeted -- from 33 to 23 hours. (The data in the study are corrected for demographic shifts.) Leisure has expanded even though both men and women spend about two hours more each week on childcare than in 1965. Overall, women's free time is up by five hours a week, the study finds.

A depressing finding is what we do with our alleged extra time: mostly, watch TV. Hobbies are flat while reading and socializing are both down. And there is also a striking socioeconomic split in the allocation of free time, according to the new study: Men and women with college degrees have seen no change in leisure time, but the lower you go on the educational scale, the more your free time has grown.

This finding raises a red flag for skeptics of the study -- of whom there are many. John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in D.C., and coauthor of the "No-Vacation Nation" report, points out that Aguiar and Hurst's account -- though an admirable technical accomplishment -- makes the mistake of lumping together voluntary and involuntary leisure. In their study, an executive's round of golf equals a downsized call-center operator's lounging around the house, depressed because he can't get a job.

This touches on a central concern of labor economists, the shrinking options for men in the bottom half of the income scale, Schmitt explains. "It strikes me as a bit of a stretch to say, after all these years of studying the issue, 'Oh, my gosh, what these low-income men decided to do was take more leisure time.'" (Hurst counters that fully half of the increase in leisure time comes from the part of the sample that is employed full-time.)

Other critics point out that by focusing on the increase in average leisure time, it's easy to miss all the people who are seeing less. The sociologist Jerry Jacobs rattles off categories of people whose ranks have grown markedly since 1965: Men who work more than 50 hours a week, women who do so, couples who work more than 100 hours weekly. Sixty percent of married couples today include both a male and female earner, he points out -- and on average those couples work 82 hours a week. Those figures were simply unheard of in 1965.

"Time-diary studies are useful in some ways, but one thing that drives me crazy about them is that people who use them tend to look for national averages," says Jacobs, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of "The Time Divide."

But, as you trudge to work on Monday, forget that academics are warring over just how overworked you are. (Forget, too, that an extra half-hour here and there is just not the same as a month on the Riviera.) Think, instead, lovingly, of those seven extra weeks of vacation that two economists have just announced that you have.
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^ seconded

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Give me 4 weeks of vacation like the rest of the world and shaddup.

With the 3-working-day bonus I get if I don't miss work during the year, I get a total of 25 working days. That's 5 Monday-through-Friday work weeks! :P

I believe that in the US one usually get a 2 week vacation, with additional days as you stay with the company.

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With the 3-working-day bonus I get if I don't miss work during the year, I get a total of 25 working days. That's 5 Monday-through-Friday work weeks! :P

I believe that in the US one usually get a 2 week vacation, with additional days as you stay with the company.

I get 20 paid days off, so I'm not to far behind you.
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i can't remember when i had a real vacation, or more than 3 days off from work in a row. take out sick time for the kid and time you need to take off for doctor appts for the kid etc......

when i started at my company i had to be on contract. no vacay for six months. nada.

so i get hired and i negotiate 3 wks of vacation plus 1 wk sick time. yes, they say.

two months later the HR staff rewrites the PTO policy to lump sick time in with other vacation and in one fell swoop i lost my extra week of vacation. couple that with having a new born eating away all your PTO and bam.....where's the vacation?

one guy i work with had agreement for 4 weeks vacay + one week sick time. when they did the PTO change, he was under 5 years, so they put him back down to 120 hours total. essentially 2 weeks plus 1 week sick.

dude lost 2 weeks.

it is true, if you want a premier job, you have to bend over and work all the time and travel a lot and kiss ass. But the perks are there. Fewer and fewer get these jobs but become more and more elite.

if you can't swing that (because its not family friendly at all) you are indeed stuck with a tier B job, and you still have to work way too much considering you can't do a one wage earner family off it. Marginal pay, stingy benefits. Lack of flexibility in working arrangement and no time off. All for the 3.5-4.4% raise. when everything else in the GWB era goes up 10-20% or more per year.

No wonder people are pissed off.

Edited by regfootball
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I get 20 paid days off, so I'm not to far behind you.

yep, it's good when you can take them all at once and spend a whole month doing nothing :lol:
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Since I'm paid as a contractor I can, with enough advanced notice, take all the time off I want... I just don't get a dime for the time off. This has lead me to not taking more than two days off in over three years.

My dad had a rough work schedule as an attorney for a quite a while. When he became a senior partner when I was 4 he had much better hours and he, as part owner of the firm, could take any resonable amount of time off as long as it didn't affect an ongoing case.

Now my Dad is a prof/ legal counsil at Yale and my older brother is a dean there and they get 3 weeks paid vacaction a year, plus a long school wide vacation during Chrsitmas, and during the summer months they both get fridays off.

Those bastards...

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I'm still working...

... you know, those summer things us teachers get? Not true. It just means we don't see kids (unless we teach summer school), but I'm still working...

June 2000. That was my last vacation. It was a good one. I'm hoping for one June 2008, but since I need to buy a car, I think that is going to get trashed. Oh, and work will surely find some way to screw me out of my summer vacation again.

On the other hand, I do know many who have the luxury of a lot of free time. And they make 3 times what I make getting it ;)

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My last job had 20 paid days vacation plus 10 company holidays.. but after almost 5 years there, I was bored out of my mind. I usually took 2 weeks off together in the summer, or 1 in spring and 1 in summer, plus the other 2 weeks scattered around here and there--4 day weekends, time around Thanksgiving and Xmas. At one point at that job, I was working 60-75 hr weeks. But the last year, I was working strictly 40.

Now I'm a contractor again, working hourly, no paid vacation. But I have a good hourly rate and good benefits, so I plan to take off a month next year plus the usual holidays and some 4 day weekends (Labour Day, Memorial Day).

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With the 3-working-day bonus I get if I don't miss work during the year, I get a total of 25 working days. That's 5 Monday-through-Friday work weeks! :P

I believe that in the US one usually get a 2 week vacation, with additional days as you stay with the company.

Yes, my company (and most like it) start you with 2 weeks (10 days), earning an extra day per year with the company up to 4 weeks total (after 10 years).

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Yes, my company (and most like it) start you with 2 weeks (10 days), earning an extra day per year with the company up to 4 weeks total (after 10 years).

My last company (big fortune 500 company) was like that...they had to change their policy in my division to match that of the small company I worked for that they acquired..that company started out new employees at 3 weeks, and added one per day per year until you hit 4 weeks (at 5 years).

2 weeks is pretty stingy these days, a lot of companies around here have gone to 3 weeks minimum, at least in the software industry.

Edited by moltar
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2 weeks is pretty stingy these days, a lot of companies around here have gone to 3 weeks minimum, at least in the software industry.

Well... I know a guy who just started at Union Gas who's getting 7 days/year.

Also knew a girl working at a competing software company in Toronto where they got two weeks... but essentially if you didn't earn all that with unpaid overtime, they'd find a reason to fire you.

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