Does it feel like you work very hard almost all the time? Are your vacations short, infrequent, and unpaid? Do you fear falling into poverty immediately if you lose your job? Do you consider "retirement" a fantasy and imagine having to live like this year after year until you get sick and can't work any more, at which point you will likely fall further into debt and despondency? Congratulations, you might be an American—a proud member of the most overworked rich nation in the world.
Unflattering comparisons between the U.S. and other developed countries in Europe and Asia are fairly common by now. For instance, everyone knows that the American healthcare system is more expensive and produces worse outcomes than European systems. But a new report by left-wing writer Ryan Cooper published by the People's Policy Project lays out how the United States' labor policies needlessly burden its workers, leaving them with far less leisure time or financial stability than their counterparts in other nations.
According to the report, the average American workers spent 1,739 hours on the job in 2017, more than workers in many European countries as well as Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. That's a lot of hours, but it also breaks a trend. "Across almost all countries, the richer a nation is, the less time its workers spend on the job," Cooper writes. "Intuitively, this makes sense: the more output a nation’s economy is producing per unit of labor, the more free time workers can have." But as the U.S. has gotten wealthier as a country, benefits have not trickled down to workers. "The U.S. works 269 more hours [per worker] than its enormously wealthy economy would predict—making it by this measure the second-most overworked country in the world, just slightly behind Iceland," Cooper writes.
One explanation for this state of affairs is that the U.S. government guarantees very few benefits for workers, chaining them to their jobs. There is no federal law providing sick or vacation days or paid parental leave, and certainly no subsidy for daycare, unlike some other countries. And even blue states and cities lag well behind most European countries—if New York Mayor Bill de Blasio successfully institutes a policy of giving all employees two weeks of paid vacation, NYC will become the first major U.S. city to have such a policy. Aside from vacations, many workers can't afford to take time off, even if they have literally just had a baby. The Family Medical Leave Act gives most employees the ability to take 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn or other family member—but it's unpaid leave, and so little help to those living paycheck to paycheck.
But wait, it gets worse: The U.S. also provides less assistance to laid-off workers than any other comparable country. Anyone who loses a job must immediately start searching for a new one. And retirement is often just another mode of semi-employment for the sizable chunk of Americans who don't have enough savings to live on Social Security alone. (One recent survey found that 42 percent of Americans had no retirement savings at all.) The government is of little help here, either—unlike many countries, Cooper writes, "the Social Security old-age pension in the U.S. has no minimum benefit, so seniors with low or no earnings history receive no benefits." It's no wonder that the U.S. has the third-highest labor force participation for people 65 and older among comparable countries, behind only New Zealand and Japan. If you can't afford vacations, you likely can't afford retirement either.
This isn't a portrait of life for all Americans, of course. Maybe you have sought-after skills and are in a field where parental leave, paid time off, and other perks are the norm. Maybe you even work at a company that provides some form of on-site childcare. Maybe you have benefits because you belong to a union that negotiated a contract with your employer—though that isn't particularly likely after decades of right-wing assaults on organized labor.
Without the same kind of governmental guarantee offered by other countries, though, average workers—particularly those in service industries and other fields where employees are widely regarded as replaceable—are stuck on the equivalent of an accelerating treadmill, forced to labor desperately just to avoid disaster.
And as Cooper's report points out, maddeningly, there's no reason it has to be this way. U.S. lawmakers could decide to extend paid leave, enhance unemployment and retirement benefits, and parental benefits to all workers just as European nations have. It would cost money, of course, and employers might even pass the costs on to consumers—but it's hard to argue that the massive, countrywide gain in leisure time wouldn't be worth those theoretical tradeoffs.
What's missing is political will. The ruling class, in particular the right-wingers currently in power, have refused to even raise the minimum wage, let alone take on more ambitious reforms.
"Copy-pasting proven models from wiser nations, and learning from America’s own history, is mostly all that is needed," concludes Cooper. "With just a few such reforms, the American worker could be living a life of near-incomprehensible luxury."
But first, they'll need to change their government.
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