There is a general sentiment amongst Europeans that Americans are lazy. Every country has their unsavoury stereotypes. The Irish are drunks and British have a stick placed in a rather distasteful area. While these generalisations are nothing more that caricature, they are usually born from cultural tendencies. The American stereotype arose from a nation that worshipped fast food and Netflix. However, despite European notions (and the over-abundance of Dunkin’ Donuts) these generalisations about Americans are shockingly untrue, particularly when it comes to their work ethic.
I stumbled upon this little-known fact after travelling to Boston on a J1. After decades of exposure to shows such as “the Office” and “Friends”, I was under the impression that the American workplace was more of a hangout spot than a place of legitimate business. You can imagine my surprise when I was introduced to the authentic, and rigorous, American workplace. In fact, aside from the vertigo inducing buildings, the single-minded approach towards working was the greatest culture shock that many Europeans experience across the seas. One quick google search about the American work ethic will reveal a litany of confused Irish immigrants who find themselves suddenly bereft of a lunch break, sick days or a social life as the American Dream takes its hold.
As such, it is unsurprising that many Europeans consider the United States to be a country of workaholics. Americans work longer hours with fewer vacation days than their European counterparts. However, if we examine the financial, federal and cultural pressures that swarm the American workforce, the perceived workaholism begins to make sense.
Firstly, America has a highly developed market economy. However, with college debt at a staggering height of $1.28 trillion dollars as of 2018, and an ever-deepening, blue shifting divide in class, many Americans struggle financially. Although, financial strain is not the sole motivator of the American workforce. Some of their tendencies towards workaholism are maintained through social and cultural structures, echoing the ideologies of hard work upon which their nation was built. However, many are also promoted through direct and enforced laws. For example, the US is the only country in the Americas not entitled to parental leave. For that matter they are the only industrialised nation in the world not entitled to this leave. In contrast, European countries average greater than twenty weeks parental leave, and non-European countries average roughly 12 weeks.
In addition, there is no law requiring paid sick days in the US. In fact “the U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated leave”. They also have no set laws stating the maximum length of the work week, unlike many of their European counterparts. The stereotypical image of the lazy American does not corroborate these statistics, in fact it seems to directly oppose them. Europeans may be shocked to learn that those in the US simply work a lot more than they do, with Americans working “260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers”, according to the ILO.
At this point, it is evident that worker’s laws and rights certainly play a role in the arduous hours kept by Americans. However, it is not only federal intervention that keeps US workers in the office longer than would be expected by Europeans. In fact, many of these long days are self-imposed, whether due to a cultural or financial pressure. In a surprising statistic, only 51% of Americans actually take the entirety of their ‘paid vacation time’. Some cited a lack of belief that others could do their job and others feared they would be looked down upon by co-workers or passed over for promotion by managers for taking their vacation.
Not only do they not take the vacation time they are entitled to, according to NPR, 1 in 5 Americans admit to eating their lunch at their desk. This immersive attitude toward work is surprising and alien to Europeans who luxuriate in the well-earned time off they acquire. However, for us it is seen more as a necessity than a luxury.
Further to the subject of a national refusal to take a break, Project Time Off conducted a survey revealing that 29% of Americans considered themselves to be a work martyr (“someone who feels ashamed to take time off”) and a further 50% of millennials wanted their bosses to view them as work martyrs. As such, it appears that being attached to their desk is an admirable trait in an employee and exacerbates the pressure on American workers to chain themselves to their job.
So where does that leave the American workforce? There is pressure from every angle to work long hours with precious few days off. From a European perspective they can seem like a nation of workaholics, overworked and underpaid. However, to many U.S. workers, they are labouring under the ideals that built their nation; that hard work is a noble and worthwhile endeavour. There are still questions as to whether a life of all work and no play is admirable or pitiable, however we can rest assured in the fact that American workers are most certainly not lazy!
Aisling MacAree – Features Editor