Productivity per hour is higher in France, with the U.S. at about the same level as other advanced European economies. As it turns out, the U.S. "productivity advantage" is just another way of saying that we work more hours than workers in any other industrialized country except South Korea. Is that something to brag about?
Europeans take an average of six to seven weeks of paid annual leave, compared with just 12 days in the United States. Twice as many American as European workers put in more than 48 hours per week. Particularly sobering is the fact that in two out of three American families with small children in which both parents work, the couples work more than 80 total hours per week, also more than double the European rate.
Confusing productivity with long work hours precludes a much-needed public debate about the costs and benefits of workaholism.
Conventional economic theory argues that Americans prefer the higher income gained from working extra hours, while Europeans prefer more family time and leisure. This truth may hold supreme among economists (and business reporters), but study after sociological study contradicts it. Sociologists have long documented that many Americans (men especially) want more family or leisure time and would be willing to sacrifice up to a quarter of their salaries in return. But they are prevented from working the hours they prefer for two different kinds of reasons.
Some Americans just need the money, given that the U.S. has the most unequal income distribution in the developed world. The average CEO of a major U.S. company, according to Business Week, is paid more than 400 times what the average worker is paid in the same company. In Britain — the European economy with the most inequality — that ratio is 45 to 1. Because the profits from Europe's productivity increases are shared more equitably through shorter working hours and investment in education and healthcare, European workers can work fewer hours without worrying about creating a domino effect in which they first lose their jobs and then healthcare.
Other Americans who would gladly trade time for money cannot do so because the widespread demand for more family (and life-friendly) hours has not translated into good, reduced-hours jobs. In most workplaces, a shift to family-friendly hours is the kiss of death professionally, and a refusal to work overtime is reason for dismissal.