Workaholic nation takes a day off |

Workaholic nation takes a day off

As Nevada County residents enjoyed their Labor Day ìholiday, word came from the federal government that the U.S. economy has returned to a moderate economic expansion of about 3 percent. But at that pace, it’s not creating large numbers of jobs.

With the economy, along with Iraq, taking center stage in the months leading to the November election, this is good news both for President Bush – who can show that things are improving – and for challenger John Kerry, who can argue that they are not improving enough.

Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman gave retirees and baby boomers a wake-up call by saying a “recalibration” of benefits or taxes will be necessary if the Social Security system is to survive in the coming years.

What does all this mean for the average working stiffs, barbecuing hot dogs in the back yard on their three-day holiday?

Two professors in the Program on Worklife at American University, in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, said Americans make the mistake of confusing their high productivity with hard work. In fact, wrote Joan Williams and Ariana Hegewisch, our productivity lead disappears when measured as gross domestic product per hour worked rather than per worker.

In other words, Americans work more hours than workers in any other industrialized country in the world except South Korea. Europeans take an average of six to seven weeks of paid annual vacation, compared to just 12 days in the U.S. In two out of three American families with small children where both parents work, the couples work more than 80 hours a week – also more than double the European rate.

Is this, the professors ask, something to brag about?

The conventional view is that Americans work so hard because they want the extra money, but study after study has shown that many U.S. employees would willingly give up 25 percent of their salaries for more family time or leisure. Problem is, in the United States, workers only have two choices: A good 50-hour-plus position with health insurance or a dead-end job at 20-25 hours a week with low wages and no benefits.

People in Nevada County are familiar with this trade-off. Many of our newcomers have been willing to give up high-paying, rat-race jobs in the Bay Area and work here for lower pay – maybe from two or three part-time jobs – to have the family time and quality of life they couldn’t find elsewhere.

Meanwhile, as Business Week recently pointed out, the average CEO of a major U.S. firm makes more than 400 times that paid to the average employee in their company. (Britain, with the most inequality in Europe, has a 45-to-1 ratio.)

What’s wrong with this picture? Maybe, as Williams and Hegewisch propose, “a new and more promising way to fuel economic growth would be to offer good jobs with working hours that enable fathers as well as mothers to maintain an active involvement with family life as well as an active career.”

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