When Jeb Bush claimed earlier this month that the United States could grow the economy by getting people to work more hours, Democrats could barely conceal their glee. It didn’t matter that he later claimed he was referring to people who held part-time jobs but wanted full-time ones. Hillary Clinton condemned the remarks immediately—and then came back for seconds, mentioning it again in an economic policy speech last week in New York. “He must not have met very many American workers,” she sniffed. Didn’t he know Americans already work plenty hard—harder, in fact—than people in any comparable nation? This issue had to be a winner for the left.
If only. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that quite of few of us might well agree with Jeb Bush. Even as the hours we work, and for what pay, and under what conditions, are shaping up to form one of the defining issues of the last year and a half of Obama’s presidency and the 2016 presidential election, it seems we’re not convinced that there’s actually a problem with our work, beyond that we don’t do enough of it.
The United States is famously a nation of people who think they should be on the job—and be on the job and be on the job. We work more hours than the Japanese. We work more than the Germans. We’re the only first-world nation that does not mandate vacation time or sick days. And let’s not even discuss our maternity leave policies.
Yet we don’t seem to be aware of how second-tier our standards are compared to other nations. According to a poll released by Rasmussen last week, an astonishing 48 percent of us think Americans either work as hard as those in other countries or, even worse, put less hours in on the job.
Sure, we know that we, ourselves, are working exorbitant hours. A recent Gallup survey found the average American working a full-time job claimed to be putting in not 40 but 47 hours a week. Almost 1 in 5 said he or she spent more than 60 hours a week on the job.
But we’re not the issue. For all too many of us, the issue is everyone else. If you don’t
take part in this orgy of work and more work? Something must be wrong with you— and that’s you, specifically. A survey conducted last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that just under a quarter of Americans are convinced the main cause of income inequality is that “some work harder than others.” In fact, the survey also found that 73 percent of Americans say working hard is vital to “getting ahead in life,” a sentiment that less than half the Germans or Japanese share.
It’s easy to see how Americans arrive at this belief. On Wall Street, 100-hour workweeks are so considered par for the course that Goldman Sachs recently instituted a rule that interns must leave the office between midnight and 7 a.m. This decision came shortly after a young analyst for the bank committed suicide while under intense work pressure, and a few years after a 21-year-old intern at a rival bank died after pulling a succession of all-nighters. The situation is little better in Silicon Valley, where Mark Zuckerberg claimed in a chat on Facebook earlier this year that he works “no more than 50-60 hours a week,” and Sheryl Sandberg admits that while she leaves work at 5:30 p.m., that doesn’t prevent her from logging on to catch up after dinner with her children. All of this is presented as reasonable, not excessive.
No one asks if the work hours in these industries are responsible for their outsize profits, or if something else is responsible. Instead, we demonize the people who can’t or won’t keep up. It’s not for nothing that the welfare reform initiative President Bill Clinton signed in 1996—the one that all but forced many mothers on welfare to take low-wage jobs that would barely cover their childcare expenses—was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. As for now? When Pew surveyed Americans late last year, it discovered the most financially secure were the likeliest to agree that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
This impacts our attitude toward disability payments, too. Last year, the Washington Post ran an article containing a number of all-but-unchallenged assertions that many veterans claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder were doing quite well indeed and simply looking for an easy paycheck. “It’s an open secret that a large chunk of patients are flat-out malingering,” went one illustrative quote from the piece, offered by a psychologist with more than a decade of experience treating PTSD.
The language that people seeking to live on government checks alone are lazy good-for-nothings has impacted our post-work lives, as well. Once upon a time, way back before the Great Recession, books promoting retirement were a popular item. There was The Joy of Not Working: A Book for the Retired, Unemployed and Overworked and Things to Do Now That You’re Retired and 101 Secrets for a Great Retirement.
But then the stock market crashed in 2008, just as the first of the 401(k) generation was ready to retire. Today, we say the financially challenged—or just bored—elderly can somehow triumph over everything from age discrimination to ill health and enjoy rewarding new careers, a genre I like to call retirement porn. In this world, everything from buying a franchise restaurant (something that almost always costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, by the way) to blogging is presented as easy-to-obtain, remunerative work, based little more on the say-so of various pundits promoting the practice.
Nancy Collamer, the author of a popular 2013 book, Second Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement, says it’s easy enough for the elderly to earn money. How? “While it is true that the outlook for the traditional job market continues to appear bleak, I am convinced that the future for Boomers who want to pursue flexible and entrepreneurial work options looks very promising indeed.”
This isn’t advice. This is positive thinking.
In fact, the belief that others aren’t working enough is endemic to difficult economic periods. While we today know the youthful hobos of the Great Depression who rode the rails were unemployed and often desperate, it didn’t seem that way to many at the time, as headlines like “New Generation of Lazy Youths Roaming Nation” from the Spokane, Washington’s Daily Chronicle in 1934 prove. More recently, Generation X acquired its reputation as slackers during the recession of the early 1990s, when all too many of them didn’t have much else to do besides hang around coffee shops.
So why don’t we ever get it? Here’s a thought: In an era in which decent, high-paying jobs are hard to find, and in which the workforce-participation rate is at lows not seen since the late 1970s, gainful employment turns into something of a status item. That allows us to rationalize the increasing hours we put in on the job—often done because we fear the consequences of saying no—as choice. Then we turn around and demean others who don’t work.
This isn’t Democratic or Republican. It’s American.