Why Do Americans Work So Much?

The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a society so prosperous that people would hardly have to work. But that isn’t exactly how things have played out.

How will we all keep busy when we only have to work 15 hours a week? That was the question that worried the economist John Maynard Keynes when he wrote his short essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in 1930. Over the next century, he predicted, the economy would become so productive that people would barely need to work at all.

For a while, it looked like Keynes was right: In 1930 the average workweek was 47 hours. By 1970 it had fallen to slightly less than 39.

But then something changed.

  • DMB

    In a way he was right. We now live in a society were the takers outnumber the makers. People are not working because are economy is so productive but do to the over generous welfare and other social assistance benefits as well as the outsourcing of private sector jobs over seas and the loss of manufacturing jobs. This is not progress but failure.

  • Icebow

    I retired on 37.5. It had gone up by half an hour.

  • Clink9

    Soooo, people work because they have to, or because they want to.

  • ismiselemeas

    Keynes will be right but not for the reasons he anticipated. The Leisure Age is starting and with the mainstream instantiation of AI and quantum computing a large swathe of the world’s jobs will be redundant. Just like 100 years ago humans had zero concept of processes and tools that we now take for granted so it will be in 25-50 years. It’s going to be a very exciting future.

    • dance…dancetotheradio

      Where did all the work horses go?
      A hundred years ago there were like dozens of them.

    • canminuteman

      The problem is no one will pay you to not work.

      • ismiselemeas

        There will be no work as we currently understand it (or at least very little) full stop.

    • Alain

      I suggest that a good number of the problems facing the West today is the “leisure age”. Human nature being as it is, when people have too much leisure time on their hands, any sense of morality, or right and wrong, flies out the window. We now have huge numbers living in the “leisure age” who do not work and will not work, since they are provided for regardless with other people’s money. The average working man does not turn to crime and violence, since he doesn’t have the time nor the inclination, which is why we find the highest level of crime rate among those living the “leisure life. There is an old saying in French that says the leisure is the mother of all vice.

  • canminuteman

    So Keynes was wrong about everything?

  • canminuteman

    I could probably do my job in twenty hours a week, but I have’t been able to convince my employer to keep paying me to only show up part time.

    • Justin St.Denis

      I was quite young when I realized that “offices” as we know them are highly counter-productive – especially for those involved in highly analytical work/tasks/processes. That fact informed my decision to go “independant” so to speak and self-employ. I started small – with me – and it grew over the years.

  • Cat-astrophe

    Why Do Americans Work So Much?
    We don’t have to bang our heads on the ground 5 time a day. It adds up.

  • AlanUK

    Our son works in the IT Department of an instantly recognizable company in Arizona.
    Unfortunately, he is suffering from a peculiar and debilitating health condition and has to work from home. If an IT expert can’t find a way of working effectively in the computer age, I don’t know who can.
    He finds he is far more productive in a much shorter period of time because so much time is wasted “in the office”. His line manager recognises this and has fought tooth and nail to have him allowed to work from home. He is frequently described as the Department’s most effective employee.
    It would seem that many hours are wasted “in the office”. Maybe this is put down to such things as “staff bonding” but any such gain is lost totally in the loss in work ethic. Our son learnt that from home, church, school, university and working for companies in the UK. Mind you, this was a previous generation (I’m 70, he is 40-50).

  • Joy Freiheit

    I do not know how different Australia’s workplaces are from America’s, but maybe Australians just work more than Americans, judging from my personal experience and my observations of my friends in other industries. In my last workplace, full time workers were paid for 37.8 “ordinary hours” each week but we all did unpaid, un-recorded (but essential and expected!!) overtime for NO PAY each week. (We also had rostered paid overtime, which was another hassle; it adds to the whole “over-worked” stress problem. We were typical of many Australians: See: http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/stop-donating-unpaid-overtime-20131121-2xx3t.html