and also, where's my jetpack?

The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure

The rise of worktime was unexpected. For nearly a hundred years, hours had been declining. When this decline abruptly ended in the late 1940s, it marked the beginning of a new era in worktime.

Since 1948, the level of productivity of the U.S. worker has more than doubled. In other words, we could now produce our 1948 standard of living (measured in terms of marketed goods and services) in less than half the time it took in that year. We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or, every worker in the United States could now be taking every other year off from work -- with pay.

How did this happen? Why has leisure been such a conspicuous casualty of prosperity?

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70 Responses:

  1. kehoea says:

    After four decades of this shopping spree, the American standard of living embodies a level of material comfort unprecedented in human history. The American home is more spacious and luxurious than the dwellings of any other nation. Food is cheap and abundant. The typical family owns a fantastic array of household and consumer appliances: we have machines to wash our clothes and dishes, mow our lawns, and blow away our snow. On a per person basis, yearly income is nearly $22,000 a year-or sixty-five times the average income of half the world's population.

    This is true; it struck me (Irish, have lived in various other places in Western Europe for big chunks of time) when visiting the US and hanging out, that people as capable as I am just had much more stuff. I don't say they were or are happier than are my peers and I as a result-indeed, they visit therapists a hell of a lot more, which is probably indicative of "no"-but in terms of material things, the standard of living over there is clearly fantastic.

    • jkow says:

      i'm not sure the people you met over there are representive for the US ;) I met both cases alot: Those who live higly above European standards and those who live far below. But I'll agree with you on that: few people live like Europeans do (thinking materially).

      • kehoea says:

        i'm not sure the people you met over there are representive for the US ;)

        Well, they're representative of the standard of living I'd have if I moved there and got a green card. So a comparison with my own life and peers makes some sense.

        What do you mean by "European standards"? I imagine it's neither the standard of living of some rake-thin prematurely-middle-aged woman begging on the Berlin U-Bahn, nor that of a small-acreage crofter in Scotland.

        • jkow says:

          I guess you're right when it comes to, what skilled, motivated people (I guess people getting a green card are just that) can earn in the US.

          Coming from Berlin actually ;) by European standards, i meant my totally subjective view on the mix of people I know and see over here. So you're right, I can hardly speak of European standards.

          And who does count as European anyways? Dunno why I felt this to be an argument, maybe I just had to say something, because I didn't agree to "all Americans stuff > all Europeans stuff", though now I'm aware you weren't even saying that.

  2. babbage says:

    How did this happen? Why has leisure been such a conspicuous casualty of prosperity?

    I'd love to be able to answer your question, but I just don't have time to think about it.

  3. pfister_ says:

    Google is worth it.

  4. Which causes me to say that perhaps the French had it right all along.

    • darkengobot says:

      Well, except for the moribund French economy.

      I work a lot, and haven't taken a vacation in a long time. My honeymoon was 3 days long. I don't see my lack of leisure time as a problem, because I enjoy doing what I do. In general, people who work massive hours do so because they want to.

      I'm fundamentally opposed to a government telling me how much I can work.

      • Good point.

        I feel that the long hours is perhaps more attributable to American Consumerism and the rise in prices. I would love to find myself in a position of more leisure which would mean a career change (I'm in Finance) but that would mean a drop in my income and with prices being so high...

        Also, people are not taking into account the European standard of a generous social welfare system. We don't have such things.

        • I think the point here is that the French tend to be happier people. Americans say, "But dude, check out their economy." And Europeans answer, "And the price of a good economy is your happiness? Hey, knock yourselves out. Literally."

          I'm with the French on this one. (Says the guy who thinks 50 hours per week is slacking, and went for 16 years in his adult life with two vacations.)

          • (Says the guy who thinks 50 hours per week is slacking, and went for 16 years in his adult life with two vacations.)

            I think you're my patron saint cause this has me written all over it. I'm weary and exhausted... and I'm only 31.

            There has to be a better way.

          • darkengobot says:

            Are the French happier? I don't imagine the unemployed are happy. I guess they get benefits, but being a charity case has never been a cheerful condition.

      • decibel45 says:

        In general, people who work massive hours do so because they want to.

        You need to get out of geek circles a bit more then. :)

        While that's usually true of geeks, there are loads of technical workers who would love to put in less time at the job. It's not that they dislike their job per-se, but that they don't love it. This is where geeks differ, a lot of us are doing jobs that we truely love, so work is less like work and more like leisure.

      • 1eyedkunt says:

        No, in general, people work massive hours because everyone else does, and it's the only way to keep your job so you can make ends meet. even if you *do* love your job, doing *anything*, even something you love, for 8-10 hours a day 5 days a week, year in year out, especially if you don't have to, is just crazy, imho. i'd love for my life to be a bit more varied than that, there're so many other things i could be out there doing. i'd love to have to opportunity to spend more time running around the city doing fun things with my friends. I'd love to travel for more than a week every couple years. and it seems that given our level of productivity, i should be able to do that, if i so choose.

        you say you don't want the government limiting how much you can work, but i likewise don't enjoy being chained to the office 40 hours per week unnecessarily. i shouldn't have to spend that much time earning my living. there's no need for you to insist on getting paid for 40 hours per week of work you love doing. if you like what you do so much, you can put in overtime for free and let the rest of us choose what we want to do with that extra time.

        • darkengobot says:

          I laugh, because the idea of me getting overtime is highly risible. Not only do I not get overtime, at times I work at less than minimum wage. Self-employment does that to you on occasion.

          Nobody's chaining you to the office 40 hours a week. You're perfectly able to go contract, or go hourly. Instead, you've traded your time for benefits and some degree of security.

          There's nothing condemning you to your life of drudgery other than you.

          • spendocrat says:


            Nobody's chaining you to the office 40 hours a week. You're perfectly able to go contract, or go hourly. Instead, you've traded your time for benefits and some degree of security.

            This might be true for a small fraction of the workforce, but it's not tenable for everyone, given the way things are now. Which is the point.

            • darkengobot says:

              The freedom of workers to choose their own employment path has not, to my knowledge, been restricted. If an employee feels trapped, it's probably because of choices they made, not because The Man is keeping them down.

              • spendocrat says:

                Please have read my comment before you reply.

                • darkengobot says:

                  I read it. It's nonsense. I explained why. While I'm sure there's some sad person out there whose situation is, indeed, a tragedy of conspiracies and misfortunes not of their own making, it's not a common occurrence. By glomming on to these exceptions you don't show greater sensitivity to others--it makes you sound a bit mawkish.

                  Now, if you could prove that most employees are trapped in their current job, as you implied, you might have something. However, you've got both low unemployment and record numbers of LLC formations going against your argument. But feel free to tell me you read your post again.

                  • spendocrat says:

                    I'm talking about the workforce in general. The 40-hour workweek *is* mandated by "The Man" (in terms of creating a maximum, since most employers would rather hire more people than pay more overtime), but it's mandated more by social convention. There's no vast conspiracy forcing the vast majority of jobs to be offered with a 40-hour work-week, yet they are. That's how social conventions work.

                    People as a whole aren't organized enough to up and say "Ok, now we're going with a 4-day work week" or 4 weeks base vaction, or whatever. In the past it's been government regulations or union action that's given us the weekend, or the 40-hour regular time work week.

                    You can make your own value judgement about this, but arguing that people have "just chosen" the 40-hour work week, as if it was some concious decision, is foolishness.

            • wsxyz says:

              Nobody's chaining you to the office 40 hours a week. You're perfectly able to go contract, or go hourly. Instead, you've traded your time for benefits and some degree of security.

              This might be true for a small fraction of the workforce, but it's not tenable for everyone, given the way things are now. Which is the point.

              That's not the point. The point is that the tradeoff is there for you to choose, but it may require the acceptance of a lower standard of living.

              • spendocrat says:

                I don't think it's hard for a small fraction of the working population to work fewer hours, but how would everyone go about doing this all at once? The general population just isn't that organized. Who sets the standard 40-hour work week? Every individual out there isn't thinking "Forty hours seems about right", they're working 40 hours because those are the jobs that are available. That's "full time".

                • mcfnord says:

                  I'm working 30 and calling it "full time".

                  • spendocrat says:

                    I've never worked anywhere where every employee could just up and switch from 40 hours a week to 30. I don't see where I've argued that people can't work less than 40 hours; I just don't see how *everyone* could work 30 hours as a standard work week, with how things are right now.

                    Personal decision to seek out a job that'll let you work 30 hours a week isn't enough, most people would have to do it in concert, or some kind of crazy coercive governing body would have to mandate it.

                  • mcfnord says:

                    I bet if everyone simply decided the 30 hour work week is a priority for them, then a lot of them would get it rather soon. I'm not really sure what you mean by "how things are right now". For me, things are as fat as a 1998 dot com startup.

                  • spendocrat says:

                    Yes, I agree that if everyone did, it would happen.

                    By "how things are right now" I mean the general state of the job market. When you go looking for work most jobs are 40 hours or more. I think there's a large gap between the number of people with which you'd run out of jobs willing to let you work less than the usual 40 hours, and the number of people needed for employers to start changing what they expect of people. Hopefully that's clear enough.

                    The obvious route to getting a shorter work week is to work for a while at the 40 hour week, and ask the company for a shorter week. Even with this approach, there's not many places I've worked (in Tech or out, though I think this is much easier in the tech industry) where this would work out for more than a small fraction of the employees. Companies base their staffing on the 5-day work week, which is part of "how things are".

                  • mcfnord says:

                    Some companies have rigid staffing models, but others don't. I know an older woman who barely keeps her life together and works as a technical editor. She works about 20 hours a week. That's what she can do. So she's made relationships with people who can pencil in a 20 hour workweek for her, and everyone gets what they need. If equally skilled people were lined up and able to work 40, employers might favor them, but they might not. I do think employers get caught in a bind when states mandate additional expenses (such as medical insurance) for "full time" employees. But I imagine one could milk the other side of that... come in just under the "full time" definition, and there's an incentive for the employer to take you on.

                    I do understand that many people want someone 40 hours per week. And if you say, "Well, I only want to work 30," this might raise issues or concerns and they might pass on you. Then again, might not. But I also understand that all of this is negotiable. Some markets favor the employer, some markets favor the employee. Perhaps that's the best conclusion to draw here.

                    The last time I was truly begged to work 40 hours per week was about a year ago. But after one year of employment there, I got 7 weeks paid time off. Not a bad deal!

                    I'm just saying that for me, at this time, I get to choose. And now that I've tasted this for a few years, I don't know how they'll yank me back on some fixed schedule. I just won't go. I maintain a very lean budget so I can pick and choose my jobs. Relatively speaking, if I get in a pinch, yes I'd sign up for the 40 game. But I don't have to. Perhaps the revolution has already begun w/ me.

          • 1eyedkunt says:

            Nobody's chaining you to the office 40 hours a week. You're perfectly able to go contract, or go hourly. Instead, you've traded your time for benefits and some degree of security.

            i *am* hourly. i still have to work 40 hours in order to bring in enough money to cover my expenses (and mine is not what you'd call a luxurious existance). if i cut my hours, i don't eat. if the choice is between the drudgery with healthcare and a decent living or the "freedom" of no healthcare and not enough money to live on, then there is no choice.

            • darkengobot says:

              Such is life. Nearly everybody in the world has been there. It's only a tragedy if you remain that way for years. One of the best ways to ensure that you aren't permanently stuck in a dead-end job is, strangely enough, working really hard and advancing yourself.

              • 1eyedkunt says:

                Such is life. Nearly everybody in the world has been there.

                but that's the point: in theory, given our productivity, nobody should have to be there.

                • darkengobot says:

                  Productivity has nothing to do with your personal economic situation as you described it. Productivity simply means you can do more, not that you'll be paid more. Unless you're arguing that because you're able to do more work than a man in 1948 was capable of, you should therefore be paid commensurately more that he was (adjusted for inflation, of course).

                  • 1eyedkunt says:

                    pretty much. if i can do the same job in half the time, i should, in theory, be paid as much for a half day as the 1948 man was for a full day, adjusted of course for inflation as well as changing living standards. it's less about me being a lazy cunt who doesn't want to work as much as i do and more about the fact that given the techological innovations of the last century, our increased energy and food production effieciency, we should, as a society, be able to sustain ourselves with much less labor. i simply wonder whether we are collectively just creating busy-work for ourselves when we could be relaxing more if we'd let go of our tendencies to see constant work as some sort of moral imperative. i have no idea whether that's actually possible, but it seems like it should be...

                • wsxyz says:

                  Wrong. The point is that, given our productivity, we should be able to live at a 1948 standard of living on half the work.

                  The median income of all U.S. families in 1948 was $19,846 (in 2001 dollars).

                  Guess what? You can earn $19,846 working half time in 2006. However nowadays we call that income level poverty for a family of four.

                  Still, the option is available to you, if you really want it.

            • wsxyz says:

              Nobody's chaining you to the office 40 hours a week. You're perfectly able to go contract, or go hourly. Instead, you've traded your time for benefits and some degree of security.

              i *am* hourly. i still have to work 40 hours in order to bring in enough money to cover my expenses (and mine is not what you'd call a luxurious existance). if i cut my hours, i don't eat.

              I don't believe you. If you said "if i cut my hours, I can't afford the obligations i have freely entered into", then I would believe you.

              if the choice is between the drudgery with healthcare and a decent living or the "freedom" of no healthcare and not enough money to live on, then there is no choice.

              In other words, you freely choose to work 40 hours per week in order to gain things that you want. What you really want however, is the same money and benefits for less work. To do that, you're going to have to stop claiming a right to publically subsidized leisure and start thinking about how to change your life to achieve your goals. Reducing your expenses is likely to be your first path on that road.

              • wilecoyote says:

                When, oh Merciful Lord, when will you beat a clue into the heads of these spoiled clueless libertarian geeks?

                (This goes not only for this last reply, but for the entire thread).

                • dojothemouse says:

                  Ayn Rand should be understood as the satanist she is. We mean that seriously, in terms of the deification of pride and the self above all things, which is the "scholarly" or serious understanding of satanism, and the gist of public various satanic churches like LaVey's and the Order of Set. When people utter Randy perversities about how, given the importance of the individual, everything that happens to you is something you chose to allow to happen, they should be treated like someone boasting about the taste of uncooked fetus blood.

                  http://realinterrobang.livejournal.com/126606.html

      • qacdefeej says:

        "In general, people who work massive hours do so because they want to."

        I think you'll find that many of those people are working that many hours because they can't afford not to.

  5. rcr203 says:

    The one thing I'd comment on is that while productivity has gone up, so has demand, in terms of real needs due to larger populations and the globalness of things, as well as created 'needs' in terms of stuff we're convinced we need, but don't really.

    So, the key thing is stating the 1948 stardard of living - though, of course, the way it is presented tries to lead the reader to think that they should be able to take half the year off and the world as it is today would be fine. Which, of course, is wholly wrong.

  6. korgmeister says:

    I don't know about you, but I think the 1948 standard of living is pretty crap compared to today.

    • decibel45 says:

      Is it? The things of value that we have today certainly don't seem to warrant working twice as long as I need to in order to have them...

      • korgmeister says:

        Then get a part time job and live frugally.

        It's a bit of a double-edged sword, in that life these days is generally geared towards being expensive. But if you have the discipline to stick to it, you get to enjoy the fruits of greater economic productivity as well, such as cheap used goods on ebay and the like.

        Just bear in mind that you are going to use a fair bit of your newfound free time going to the efforts involved in being tight with money. It's a tradeoff, economically speaking, everything is.

        • decibel45 says:

          Oh, I'm not saying I'm unhappy about how much I work (hell, here I am replying to you from my nice window office...)

          But I'm a geek, and I'm getting paid to do what I was doing for free before (PostgreSQL). I'm also not working unreasonable hours; somewhere between 35 and 50 a week, depending. And in fact I just walked away from a book deal because I didn't want to carve the time out of my schedule that it would have required. Definately a downside career-wise, but a (IMO) bigger upside sanity/life-wise.

          Had I stuck with my job at mot.com though, I'd most likely be stuck at a daily grind of 40-45 hours a week getting paid less doing something I like less putting up with more BS and with less career opportunity. And there's a ton of folks that are in exactly that position. Even amongst geeks it's somewhat rare to find the flexibility that I've got.

          • korgmeister says:

            Sounds like in your case, hard work paid off.

            And frankly, you don't need to go for the more money/more stress promotion at every opportunity. Any economist who tells you that's a rational decision needs to lay off the cocaine, I reckon.

            I grew up in a family with not much money, so I know how to live tight and thus don't mind making less money if I enjoy the work.

            Living within your means is the key to happy life, I reckon. And if most people can't budget or control their spending habits, that's their damn problem.

  7. treptoplax says:

    It sounds perverse, but in another way it's totally expected. If you increase the selling price of something, production will increase, and high productivity means the selling price of labor has increased.

    This is especially clear in the US where there are wide wage differentials; the people who work the most, IIRC, are actually the ones in about the 90th income percentile - and why not, they're the ones getting an extra $100/hour for the extra work.

    Eventually you reach diminishing returns (where the extra money just isn't buying you stuff you think is worth having), but clearly we aren't there yet - people want a a lot more healthcare than we can afford (which already is a hell of a lot more than we were getting in 1948).

  8. Or how about retirement at 30?

    • Sadly no -- most of the goods people want to consume in their retirement aren't storable (travel, recreation, healthcare, ...) so the thing that matters is the ratio of current workers to current retirees.

  9. susano_otter says:

    People like to do things. Many people would rather work on something than sit idle.

    For example, you could have invested your Netscape loot in a manner much better optimized to afford you copious amounts of free time.

    Instead, you chose to invest it in a nightclub, which may be more fulfilling, but also seems to be a huge pain in the ass and an avowed enemy of leisure.

    So you are probably perfectly positioned to answer this question yourself, out of your own direct experience.

    Why has your leisure been such a conspicuous casualty of your prosperity?

    ----------

    It occurs to me that another factor is that people have dreams, and some dreams require significant effort to be made into reality.

    Sure, we are four times more efficient now than in times past, but instead of choosing a life of four times more leisure, we've chosen a life of four times more dream-realization.

    The Egyptians mobilized their entire economy for several generations to build several pyramids. We build hundreds of skyscrapers with nary a pause in our other endeavors.

    Instead of laying about, we use our increased productivty to develop and implement the technologies necessary to put men on the moon.

    Instead of taking the day off, we create the Internet.

    Instead of retiring at 30, we open a nightclub.

    It seems to me that generally speaking, there's a minimum amount of idleness people can tolerate; they'd rather use their increased productivity to get more work done in the same time, rather than get the same work done in less time.

    And anybody who doesnt' like it can probably put a roof over their head and food in their belly working part-time at a gas station or receptionist's desk... if they don't mind living the lifestyle of someone from a hundred years ago, when things were much less efficient.

    I'm not sure there's really a problem with any of this, though.

    • cdavies says:

      You say, "...if they don't mind living the lifestyle of someone from a hundred years ago, when things were much less efficient."

      But that isn't really the point.

      Productivity in the US has doubled in the past century or so, but people are choosing to work longer. In theory at least, you could work half the time and get the same standard of living as a century ago, or you could work the same amount of time and acheive a lifestyle twice as opulent (Though I suspect the multiplier is more than 2x, as the relationship isn't really that simple or direct.) Yet, for some reason people work longer hours for a yet richer lifestyle.

      I suspect (and the article sort of confirms this) that there are diminishing returns in working longer hours. The extra productivity is offset by hidden costs, like the emotional problems children who are not given enough attention develop.

      Really, I question who we're working for. How does decreasing my leisure time benifit me in any way? I don't even get paid more for working beyond my contracted hours. There may be a mild sense of satisfaction in a job well done, but it's pretty fleeting to be honest. When I pull an all nighter, I'm not really working for me I'm working to improve /someone else's/ lifestyle.

    • jwz says:

      For the record, I spend a whole lot of time doing fuck-all. The club doesn't really take up much of my time any more. And -- dude -- I'm in the business of getting people drunk. I mean how awesome is that?

      But a lot of that time is spend doing shit like surfing the web, because all of my friends have day jobs, and even the ones who work in the city always say shit like, "oh no, I'm far too busy to take time off for lunch."

    • spendocrat says:

      People like to do things. Many people would rather work on something than sit idle.

      I don't get this. If you're not working a job you're sitting idle? When I don't have a job (usually for a couple weeks between school and summer work, or between my last Real Job and my return to school) I had more things I could do than time to do them. Do people just not know what to do with themselves when someone else isn't telling them what to do?

      • mcfnord says:

        i have left and returned to full time employment many times. initially upon leaving, there's a moment of, "uh, what on earth shall i do?" but in a few weeks, i've found plenty, and in a few months, i wonder how the hell i'll fit a full time job into my busy schedule. but sometimes i do get bored (running out of drugs helps) and that usually leads to a job (noooo!).

      • jsl32 says:

        there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, btw. it would actually be problematic if most people were that way.

  10. snitrocket says:

    Relative prosperity is important to people. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to live a 1948 lifestyle in a community of people who live a 2006 lifestyle. Think: changing health codes, taxes, social structures. Most people living at a 1948 level would find it impossible to get a job. (Hell, people look at me funny because I own a business and refuse to carry a cell phone.) And that's before you talk about competitive pressures on rent or home ownership.

    In economics, "because everyone else is doing it" is a very important thing.

  11. 1eyedkunt says:

    thanks for posting this. i haven't read it yet (no time! ;p) but it's a subject about which i've been ranting for years.

  12. ctd says:

    More detailed time surveys have shown that Americans have more leisure than before.

    http://www.economist.com/printedition/displayStory.cfm?story_id=5476124

    (towards the end of the article, it is explained why folks may be eager to believe the opposite)

    • greyface says:

      That is not bursting anybody's bubble. Showing a 10 hour increase in leisure time per week is very different from showing a 20 hour reduction in work time.

      FWIW, I think a lot more people these days eschew sleep in favor of leisure. I know I do (lovingly caresses a 1L bottle of Dr. Pepper). It only takes a 6hr/night sleep schedule to make up ALL 10 of those leisure hours, and that's if you pretend that people are working the same amount of time.

      The Economist article only barely waves at the people who are underemployed, scraping by on 28 hours a week at WalMart, and don't have the drive to do anything with their time but watch TV. JWZ's link is saying that in those 28 hours a worker can produce enough good/service to equal the value of a 1948 worker who worked 56 hours. So why is the 28 hour worker living so much more poorly than the 1948 hour worker?

      This has little to do with whether the amount of leisure time is going up or down.

      My guess as to the answer is the free market. As economies balance towards global equillibrium and actual market efficiency, it turns out that Americans were massively overpaid in the 1948.

      • mcfnord says:

        i tend to sleep nine or ten hours. it'd be cool if i could get by on much less.

        • greyface says:

          If I were not limited by the length of the day, I would definitely sleep 9-11 hours a day. I just can't convince myself to go to sleep within 2 hours of getting home (even when I can talk myself into bed I end up reading or listening to music for a while).

      • ctd says:

        Hey, TV is leisure - that '48 worker didn't even have TV! And forget about internet chat boards and Youtube.

        Seeing as how the title of the original article was "The Decline of Leisure" (false), and multiple posters were saying "hey, yeah, _I_ have no time!", yes - thin surfaces have been punctured.

        Re: overpaid - maybe. I'd say Americans are overpaid today. Walmart shlub should be making 10 rupees an hour, max.

      • treptoplax says:

        So why is the 28 hour worker living so much more poorly than the 1948 hour worker?

        He's not. What we count as 'scraping by' today is doing a hell of a lot better than the median in 1948.