Bob Cropf

The new work ethic

In economics on March 2, 2009 at 4:41 PM

This blogger ponders a question that has great relevance during the current recession, namely whether there will be a change in Americans’ traditionally hard-charging work habits. He argues that

We’re giving up valuable time to earn more simply to facilitate our obsessively hard working lifestyle.

He goes on to make the following example abouta European colleague who explained the difference between America and Europe by telling the following story about academic conferences:

In America, conferences started early. You needed to wake up around 6:30 in the morning, and you would grab a donut or muffin with some coffee. Wake up, get out of bed, and get into action. Talks began at 7 and proceeded in rapid fire pace, with a single fifteen-minute break. Lunch was scheduled at 12 noon for thirty minutes. Eat a sandwich, drink something caffeinated, and get back to the conference. There was not much time to socialize. Talks would resume and continue until 6 or 7 in the evening.

In Europe, things were much different. Talks began leisurely at 9 in the morning. There would be a few talks at a relaxing pace. Lunch was served at 12 noon without a specific ending time. One beer was served. After everyone finished, there would be one or two more talks–if they decided to resume.

Now, someone will point out the American work ethic makes a difference. After all, American universities are respected worldwide. The research makes a big difference. But no one seems to ask about the cost at which the success is achieved.

One must ask if the work ethic is derived from a competitive urge to succeed or whether it’s an ingrained part of our personalities as a result of our culture and history (not that the two are mutually exclusive). I have observed something similar when I’ve traveled abroad, especially to places like Spain and Cuba. Of course, no one would ever argue that either country is particularly productive but even in dictator-led Cuba, the people I met all seemed happy despite not being well-off by our standards.

In the NY Times yesterday, one of the stories on the cover dealt with former managers who have been downsized. A constant refrain was the need many of them had to find a job–any job–or lose an important part of their sense of who they are. One of the consequences of this downturn, especially if it lasts a long time, as many predict, is the huge psychological toll who will take on the American workforce. This is a “hidden cost”, which will be both hard to quantify and likely outlast the duration of the recession. Another story is on “slowing down”. I do not believe this will happen. I think it is much more likely that once the economy starts picking up, it will be back to business as usual for the American workforce in terms of “obsessively hardworking lifestyle.”

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  1. There are a lot more “direct” costs to the “hard working life style” for example:
    (1) reliance on prepared food (frozen, prepackaged, etc.) because we don’t have time to cook — with obvious impacts on landfills and waistlines;
    (2) unwillingness to take public transit because it “takes too much time”;
    (3) equal number of car incidents caused by drowsiness as drunk driving;
    among others…

  2. […] I am trying to imagine what the impact of the system that these people apparently think is in place… and what a rude awakening it might be to “work” to get your $300K+ income under $250K only to realize that you really haven’t reduced your tax burden relative to your income that much but you have reduced your income substantially. Such a system could do a lot toward restructuring our over-worked society. […]

  3. Is it possible that recessions are a good for the two income family–a lot of people are forced to slow down a little and take stock in themselves. Also, two wage income families (with kids especially) are pushed to the limits of time management. With one person on the bench (AKA unemployed) the family is perhaps able to keep up with things better and get the family/house organized for the next round of two wage earning.

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