A new report says the average number of hours spent at work seems to be shrinking in most developed countries. But as more and more businesses stay open around the clock, a growing number of Americans are working long hours, which may mean less leisure time.
Twenty-four/seven, short for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has become a standard American phrase for businesses that never close. In addition to hospitals, police and emergency services, a growing number of restaurants, shops, banks, entertainment companies and other businesses now offer services at all times.
Jon Messenger, a senior researcher at the International Labor Organization in Geneva, and author of the new book, Decent Working Time: New Trends, New Issues, says this trend affects different workers in different ways.
"You have about a fifth - - roughly around 20 percent - - of Americans who are working long hours, 50 hours a week or more,” says Messenger. “You have about the same amount of Americans who are working short or part-time hours, less than 35 hours a week. This is a trend that you see across the industrialized world, although at differing levels."
Working Less in the Industrialized World
Jon Messenger says workers in South Korea, Greece, Czech Republic and New Zealand, on average, spend more hours at work than Americans. An average South Korean works close to 2,400 hours per year, compared to an average U.S. worker at just above 1,800 hours. But average annual working hours are shorter for most Western Europeans.
“We see that it is the United States, Australia and Japan, always about 1,800 hours average annual hours worked per year, and that's, again, in 2004. The numbers are much lower in most European countries and the lowest, for example, in the Netherlands -- which also has the highest proportion of part-time work -- at 1,357 hours per year," says Messenger.
Although the average American works longer hours than, the average European, for example, working time has shrunk in the United States in the past decade. In 1997, an average U.S. worker clocked 120 hours more than in 2004. Still, a growing sector of American workers clock more than the standard 40-hour week.
Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics and labor studies at Pennsylvania State University, says many high-income earners, such as salesmen, managers and executives, work 48 or 50 hours a week to keep their firms competitive, or just to keep their lucrative jobs. Low income Americans are sometimes compelled to work overtime to make ends meet.
"The problem in the U.S. over the last decade or two has been mainly that the real wage rate is eroding for people who rely on hourly pay. So the hourly pay rates -- because of global competition, or de-unionization or the lack of minimum wage increases, whatever reason -- the wage increase for most people working in hourly jobs has been slipping behind the inflation rate," says Golden. “And when that happens, people have a choice: 'Do I work longer hours or extra jobs, or do I just cut back on my spending or standard of living.'"
Professor Golden says most Americans prefer working more hours than taking a cut in pay. But even those on the standard 40-hour a week schedule report that household chores, shopping, child-care and other obligations increasingly chip away from their leisure time. Lonnie Golden says that as the commute gets longer, Americans find it increasingly tiresome.
"If you look at the annual census data, the average commute time of Americans is longer than it's ever been. People take jobs far away from where they live. Or, there's more and more traffic congestion if they want to live in cities or suburbs. And as a result, their leisure time feels more squeezed or fast paced," says Golden.
Elusive Free Time
But many analysts argue that, overall, Americans have more leisure time than ever. It is the working hours that have been shrinking steadily since the early 19-hundreds, they say.
John Robinson, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, an institution that has conducted several studies on U.S. leisure says, "From the measure that we look at, which are not based on people's estimates, but in terms of what people tell us they do on what we consider to be a typical day, we've compared our numbers to 1965 and we've seen some increase in free time. Not so much increase over the last 20 years, but a notable increase between 1965 and 1985."
Professor Robinson says that in the study, "free time" was defined as time left over after all paid and unpaid work, commuting and family care. He notes that when asked how much free time they have in a typical week, most people said 20 hours. However, their detailed time-use diaries revealed between 35 and 40 hours of free time. But Professor Robinson adds, in a recent study, the French, who have a 35-hour work week and five weeks of paid vacation per year, also underestimated their free time.
Jon Messenger of the International Labor Organization says a shortage of free time, real or perceived, is especially felt in households where both husband and wife work full-time. "When you have men continuing to work full-time and perhaps even long hours and women typically working full-time, you have a substantial increase in household working hours. So people feel this time squeeze because they are not operating individually,” says Messenger. “They are operating as a household, as partners, and they are experiencing it in a household context. And that's I think one of the key reasons that you see - - and this is particularly true in the U.S. - - a lot of people complaining about feeling a time squeeze."
Jon Messenger says that the increasingly 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week economy has put new demands on families in many industrialized countries. And he adds, the shortage of time to relax - - real or perceived - - is a problem that needs to be addressed.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.