Bracing for a glut of leisure time

August 6, 2009

The United States has been labeled “no vacation nation.” Americans are notoriously diligent compared with citizens of other rich nations — putting in long hours and often not even using the skimpy vacations to which they are entitled.

Now more Americans are being forced to take it easy. Even for those who are keeping their jobs, many companies are cutting hours and imposing “shotgun” vacations in an effort to economize.

Government data have shown the length of the average working week plunging faster than in previous recessions. Time devoted to work has already fallen twice as much as during the slump of the early 1990s. No improvement is expected from the payrolls report on Friday.

This is likely to be a double-edged sword. Behavioral economists believe the respite from the rat race may be good news for those who are financially stable enough to enjoy more spare time. But it is further bad news for the unemployed and may delay the day when companies actually need to start hiring again.

The silver lining, though faint, is worth considering. Behavioral economists have long complained that Americans work too hard for their own good. People typically overestimate the boost to happiness from the extra consumption that longer hours permit, and understate the “hedonic” fillip from leisure time. Americans rank among the most hard-working folk in the rich world, laboring for an average of almost 1,800 hours a year. The Dutch, by comparison, put in a puny 1,400 hours, according to OECD figures — a difference that is equivalent to an extra 10 weeks of holiday for a full time employee.

“Americans who are not in chronic financial stress and can cope with the emotional blow of a lower salary, may find themselves better off for the spare time,” says Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational”, a book on behavioral economics. Obviously these are big provisos.

Take the American worker off the psychologist’s couch and the news is not so good. The figures are now indicating huge slack in the labor market. Economists are increasingly preoccupied by U6 — a broad measure of unemployment that includes those working part time because they can’t find a full time position. This is now 16.5 percent of the workforce.

The average work week has fallen to 33 hours, down from 33.8 at the start of the recession in December 2007 — outpacing even the slide in the deep recession of the early 1980s. For those with heavy debt burdens, this could be enough to push them over the edge.

Many companies seem to believe they can trim hours — and pay — still more, even though they may soon need to ramp up production, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

For the unemployed, this is particularly ominous. Job creation is usually the last component of an economic recovery to slot into place. After the end of the 2001 recession it took 21 months for the labor market to turn around, and there is a threat that this time the wait could be even longer.

As the output recession ends — hopefully about now — companies will have great latitude to squeeze extra hours out of existing employees and part timers before they need to hire.

The “no vacation nation” should brace for the greatest leisure glut in its post-war history. This makes the robust recovery in job growth so desired by America’s politicians even harder to envisage.


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Given the notorious decline in American worker productivity over the past 20 or so years, it’s no wonder that the workweek has shortened. We don’t really have a work ethic these days, as it should be. After all, with cutting salaries, layoffs, increasing medical insurance fees, higher taxes, higher cost of living, etc., there really isn’t any good reason to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, especially when the government is bailing out corporations and allowing ridiculously high bonuses to continue to be paid out. Also, the stimulous money is a complete joke, especially when we condsider that a Maine basket weaving company was awarded over $50k to help their 6-employee business. How is that helping the economy? Simple, it’s not.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

I hate people. What happened to self sufficency?

Can you give an example of a US company that is giving people more time off? This is the first time I heard about this. Is Reuters doing that?

Also, let’s not mistake long work hours with productivity/efficiency.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

We should move to 32 hour work weeks to soak up that labor pool and to improve the quality of life. It would need to be done in phases to prevent a further shock to the economy.

The sad thing is how hard most of us have worked. For what? I’m one of the lucky ones. I have no debt and have saved up money. I will probably see a reward after many years of substandard living (having to live in a crappy apartment, because I couldn’t afford the inflated price of a decent house). Others bought into the propaganda and overextended themselves. What did they get? A house and some toys, but never any time to enjoy them. Now they have nothing – they are bankrupt. What was the point?

What bothers more than the fact that I have to bail these people out is the low quality of life I had to endure because of their mania. I don’t want to hear anymore about hard work. I’ve done it, I still do it. I want to hear about how my quality of life is going to be improved and I want all these self-destructive people to be dragged kicking and screaming into a better quality of life with me.

Posted by Kirk | Report as abusive

Brother can you spare a Dime??? I have been out of High School since 1983.. I have been hearing that the last bad recession was about that same~time..I’ve decided to sit this one out… I will be back to work when accoutability is in fashion again.. Right now stupidity is flourishing…

Posted by Frankie G | Report as abusive

I’m actually glad this “phenomenon” is occurring. Why should we work our a**’s off for 30 to 40 plus years only to find our health benefits GONE, our pensions GONE, our health GONE, only to see some crooked CEO give himself a multi-million dollar raise with a golden parachute. For too long consumerism has been crammed down our throats as the way to happiness, harder, work longer, spend spend spend. Screw that !!! Go make your millions off of the sweat from some other sucker’s brow, I figured you out.

Hi, this Hodgi, I want to thank you Americans for allowing jobs to come to my country. I have improved my standard of living but you had to reduce your standard of living for this to happen. I know you out of work now, maybe you can get off prozac, spend time with family, reduce stress in your life, those good things. I know you cant by big SUV now so wife can race kids to soccer practice then go to psychiatrist office, but this good thing you’ll see. You don’t need McMansion either, smaller house not bad. Thanks again. Sincerely, Hodgi

what pity Americans

Posted by Paul.Jo | Report as abusive

Keep it up fellow Americans! Just keep it up! We are Reeeeeel goooood at blaming each other fellow workers and not realizing how badly we are really being screwed. So may jobs have been lost by ‘free trade’ policies of exporting jobs and importing consumer goods that a tipping point has been reached. Now people as they lose jobs or see their friends/neighbors/others lose theirs will slam shut their wallets. This will cause business losses in the retail sector and more job losses…and so on. We really do not make things anymore. The clunker program only benefited foreign car makers. The bailout only benefited international corporate hoodlums. The stimulus was used by American citizens to buy Chinese imports. It was all a waste. Now even the postal service wants to close offices because first class mail ‘is not selling well’! The Postal Service, like all the other purveyors of the economic ‘emperors new clothes’, refuse to see a diminishing returns situation where they have finally succeeded in driving the first class letter buyer out of the market in favor of the mail that goes essentially for free….the junk mailer that does not pay his way. Like Bill Maher said: “America used to be a country that MADE THINGS!”! Because of free trade we do not any more. We finish off free trade or free trade will finish off us. As for the Post Office: we either go back to the old way and make the junk mailers pay their fair share, and fire all the so called ‘private enterprisers’ in the postal system …and go back to the old days when the post office was a government agency and was not required to ‘make a profit’….or we can forget about a postal system. The postal system is running on fumes with postal workers collapsing under the enormous weight of junk mail supported by too few first class payers. Make the junk mailers pay first class and see how much less junk there is. Make all the imports come here on American flag ships owned by Americans. Stop all imports unless it can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in a jury trial before American citizens that on an item by item basis we Americans are not physically able to manufacture that given item no matter what the item’s so called intellectual property status is. That will stop foreigners claiming ownership of rights to manufacture consumer items like shoes in any place other than China, for instance. You politicians take notice! WE the people are watching. Finish free trade off or we the people will bury your careers at the next elections!

Posted by Joe the Worker | Report as abusive

Okay, are you off your meds, Chris? Do you have a family? I think not. No Husband/Father would ever look at a lay off that way, in reality. I have been laid off for six weeks. It’s fun for about the first week and a half, but after that the worry hits. All that time leaves you plenty of opportunity for thinking WAY too much about the log jam that the US is in, economically. You start feeling insecure about your skills and yourself, during week four. You start getting really grouchy, smoking too much and irritating your family by the end of week five. At the end of week six, I am anxious, neurotic, depressed, irritable, anything except leisured and relaxed. I spend most of my late nights checking all the job websites I can think of. I really hope you get to enjoy your own shotgun vacation, soon. You speak as though you have never been laid off. Come join the ranks of the bluecollar worker, college boy. Then, you will have something to write about.

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

Robert, have you considered going back to college? No, I don’t mean studying something where you won’t be able to find a job when your finished, I mean, for example, studying something in healthcare.

It’s either that or wait till the economy improves and find some hobbies to keep you occupied, or do like some recent college grads, start working for FREE, that was a grand idea by business. Hey, I know, come work for us so you can “maintain your resume”, but we can’t afford to pay you so you’ll have to work for…FREE!!! I wonder what those companies will do with those overpaid bean counters now that they’ve got their employees working for free? It’s very hard to put the screws on your employees when they work for FREE.

Robert, did you bother to read what was written? Sorry about your layoff, but the story is mainly about cutting back on the hours for people that are employed. This is a good thing, because American society has been worked to death. I’m taking unpaid leave next month and I welcome it. I have tried to get more time off for years and this crappy economy has finally given me that time.

Posted by Kirk | Report as abusive

The work ethic has a lot to answer for…not because of its focus on work but because it made success and happiness dependent on making money. It also demeaned leisure as being a useless waste of production time when in fact it opens up the chance to pursue passionate interests without the ties of a boss.

True quality of life is about 1) maximising one’s unique set of skills and talents and 2) getting a harmonious mix of work and personal life passions.

The right mix enables people to maximize their talents and abilities and bring in sufficient funds to enjoy a strong quality of life.