The official start of summer arrived on Friday. Kids are out of school, and if this were a normal nation, workers would be heading en masse on vacation.
But this is the United States, where over half of the nation’s labor force fails to spend the vacation days due to them. And also where workers average more hours a year than every other nation in the world. The U.S. has long been at the forefront of a culture of overwork that has persisted for several centuries.
The problem began in the early 1610s. When Captain John Smith surveyed the New England coast, he became convinced that settlers could make a life there while only working three days a week. This was rather rich, coming from a man who had ruled the early Virginia settlement in Jamestown with a pithy credo: “He that will not work shall not eat.”
That saying pretty much set the tone for the rest of the Colonial era. Most people worked as farmers, and from what we can tell, they worked hard — and well beyond those practicing a Protestant work ethic. This was the ideal peddled by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, whose best-selling “Way to Wealth” was chock full of such cheery admonitions as “Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy,” and the better-known “There are no gains, without pains.”
But in the wake of the American Revolution, there was a brief flirtation with the idea of limiting the workday to something, well, sane. As early as 1791, carpenters in Franklin’s hometown of Philadelphia mounted an unsuccessful strike for a 10-hour workday. Similar campaigns suffered the same fate. It wasn’t until 1879, when Massachusetts passed a 10-hour workday law that things began to change. The new law only applied to female workers, as did most of the era’s legislation aimed at reducing overwork. Many men continued to work 80- and 90-hour workweeks, with unfortunate consequences.
The New York Times enumerated some of the maladies that could be traced to incessant mental labors: “Temporary paralysis … utter inability to think consecutively or even to read, sleeplessness, perhaps melancholia, and strange and unaccustomed conditions of the brain and nervous system.” Commentators worried about overwork often prescribed restorative vacations, ideally filled with manly activities like hunting, fishing and mountain climbing. This reflected a fear that brain work had left a generation of men enervated and enfeebled.
For industrial workers, the problem was different. By century’s end, the American Federation of Labor was pushing a motto — “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” — that captured the spirit of labor unions across the U.S. But these campaigns did not bear much fruit until the 20th century — well behind reforms passed in Europe.
Even after New Deal legislation capped the workweek at 40 hours, with overtime rates for anything in excess of that, the transcontinental contrast remained striking. For example, between 1950 and 1979, the average number of hours worked a year fell by 10.7% in the U.S. They dropped by nearly twice that in 12 nations in Western Europe. In the 1970s, the proportion of workers who toiled more than 48 hours a week began to increase significantly. That same decade, the psychiatrist Wayne E. Oates, who had 57 books to his name, added a new word to the American lexicon: “workaholic.”
Things haven’t gotten much better. While much of the rest of the world has followed a slow, steady decline in the average workweek, the U.S. has gone in the opposite direction, especially among high-skill, high-wage workers: fewer vacation days taken, more overtime hours, and still no national law requiring a minimum amount of annual leave.
When it comes to working ourselves to death, we’re still on top. Whether that’s something to brag about, though, is another matter altogether.
Stephen Mihm is a columnist with Bloomberg Opinion.