Give Me a Break

Do Americans work too hard? This might seem like a strange question to ask at a time when so many US citizens are suffering from the hardships of unemployment, but the answer may surprise you. According to the International Labor Organization, Americans currently work on average 1,978 hours annually, as reported by The New York Times. This is 350 hours, or about nine full weeks, more than the amount of time Western Europeans work. Furthermore, the number of hours that Americans spend on the job continues to increase. Sadly, the overly intense nature of American life is detrimental not only to the individual, but also to American society as a whole. On April 6, 1933, during the Depression, the US Senate unanimously approved a bill that defined the average work week to be a maximum of 30 hours. The Senate agreed that any more required hours would harm the fabric of society. Passed as an attempt to bring down a national unemployment rate that at the time stood at 25 percent, the bill drew support from industrial and religious leaders who declared that the working class deserved time for family, education, and leisure. However, despite the ostensible public mandate for the bill, the measure did not pass in the House of Representatives. Instead, five years later, the House passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which created a 40-hour workweek. Currently, when American production has increased significantly since the pre-Second World War era when the bill appeared on the floor of Congress, most Americans have difficulty completing all their work in 40 hours. Many people are working obligatory overtime shifts, putting in many more hours and working considerably longer than they would prefer. However, at the same time, millions of Americans are unemployed. Doesn’t this lead to the inevitable conclusion that Americans who are employed should work fewer hours? The consequences of “punching in” too many hours are too significant to ignore. Stress is a primary instigator of heart disease and destabilized immune systems. Continuous intake of fast foods and decline of exercise, both products of decreased leisure time, have triggered a plague of obesity and diabetes in America. Furthermore, workers protest that they want to spend more time with their families, pursue leisure activities, and participate more actively in their communities. Lastly, when workers are forced to toil for long periods of time, their products will likely suffer. For the past 30 years, Europeans have worked significantly less and statistically lead more stable lives, worked fewer hours, and enjoyed more leisure time. The average Norwegian, for example, works 29 percent less than the average American, but his/her average income is only 16 percent less than that of similarly situated Americans. In addition, Western Europeans typically have five to six weeks of paid vacation a year, while Americans usually have two. The work-driven nature of American society is paralleled in Andover’s community. Saturday classes add to the normal five days of classes, just as 10 extra hours of weekly work were tacked on to the bill passed by the House. Though in themselves these additions do not seem harmful, PA students already have hectic schedules. Weekends exist to give students a chance to wind down from the hectic week and enjoy leisure activities, but when more classes follow five full days of classes, students lose this time in a defeat reminiscent of the American workers’ exasperation at the expansion of the 30-hour week. During weekends, students participate in team sports and spend time with friends while trying to complete all of their homework assignments. There is not much room for more classes and inevitably more work. If Andover is a preparatory school not for college but for life, should it not start students off with a challenging, but manageable, work and class load? If students are enveloped in a culture of work overload while they are young, they are more likely to continue the pattern of overwork when they are older. This will only further contribute to the generally exhausted nature of America. Therefore, if the country would be wise to rethink the issues surrounding overwork, should not Andover, as a stepping-stone for the “real world,” do so as well? Rather than complain about this topic, I simply want the community to reconsider this important issue in light of the recent attention the overworked nature of American life, particularly as compared to conditions in Western Europe, has attracted. Hard work and determination are not bad in and of themselves, but when one loses sight of equally important values in order to focus too closely on work, the true essence of life vanishes in the myopia-inducing haze of success.