We're heading into Labor Day weekend in the US, so what better time than now for a little pants-adjusting, back-slapping, "damn we work hard in the States" rhetoric? After all, no one works harder for the money (apologies to Donna Summer) than the average American worker, right?
Except when we don't. Fortune's Geoff Colvin recently explored a recent UN report analyzing working hours across the globe. Don't waive it off automatically just because it's from the UN. Take a look at following data from the report that suggests we are most definitely chilling:
"The surprising report of our relative sloth arrives in new research from the UN's International Labor Organization, which looks at working hours around the world. When it comes to what we might call hard work, meaning the proportion of workers who put in more than 48 hours a week, America is near the bottom of the heap. About 18% of our employed people work that much.
That's a higher proportion than in a few other developed countries like Norway, the Netherlands, and even Japan. But it's actually lower than in Switzerland and Britain, and way lower than in developing countries like Mexico and Thailand. It's drastically lower than in what may be the world's two hardest-working countries, South Korea and Peru, where the proportions are about 50%.
Put it all together, and the researchers figure we're getting about 117 hours of leisure per week (including sleep), vs. 110 hours in 1965. That's more than 360 additional idle hours per year. We are a couch-potato nation."
After reading that, your thoughts are probably similar to mine. We've earned more leisure time because our productivity has never been higher. Capital investments in technology to generate gains in productivity have paid off, and as a result our country can back off the grind a little bit. That's a good thing, right?
For now, yes. For the future - maybe not. One of the wacky things about this digital world is that US workers increasingly compete with workers from other countries for opportunities. That trend isn't just about NAFTA - it's increasingly about every segment of the workforce, especially those sectors that revolve around knowledge:
"The problem isn't what has happened, unless you figure we've just explained the obesity epidemic, but rather what might happen next. Every day more of us work in a global labor market, competing for jobs with people around the world. One thing markets do really well is fix disequilibriums; when anything tradable sells for different prices in different places, those differences soon disappear.
More important, in the growing number of jobs not paid by the hour, people who work harder may just produce better results. General Electric chief Jeff Immelt put it bluntly while recalling a trip to Beijing last year, when he got a big order from the Transport Ministry: "The whole ministry was working all day on a Sunday. I believe in quality of life, work-life balance, all that stuff. But that's the competition. So unless we're willing to compete ..."
So enjoy the BBQ, watch some college football and if you don't have cable, there's always the Jerry Lewis telethon (great cause, but growing up I knew the 3 channels we had were going into lockdown mode at 5pm on Sunday of Labor Day Weekend - drat!!).
While you're at it, think about the best way to prepare your kids for pitching business to someone in Asia at 2am as a normal course of business.
Somewhere patriot George Patton is rolling in his grave.... Switzerland!!