If you work in the U.S., you don’t know how bad you have it

It’s no secret that United Statesians are more ignorant of the world beyond their national borders than the peoples of other countries. That ignorance serves a purpose. How can you keep screaming “We’re Number One” and believing you have it better than the rest of the world if you are in possession of accurate information?

For example, most United Statesians remain blithely unaware that they have among the worst health care outcomes of any advanced capitalist country while paying by far the most money. A Commonwealth Fund report, for example, found that the U.S. “placed last among 16 high-income, industrialized nations when it comes to deaths that could potentially have been prevented by timely access to effective health care.” As one of the few countries on Earth without a national health care system, health care is a commodity for those who can afford it, not a right as it is almost anyplace else.

The U.S. also has one of the highest rates of inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient; among the countries of Europe only Bulgaria has worse inequality. The United States has the widest gap between pay and productivity gains among advanced capitalist countries and U.S. corporations haul in gigantic sums of money, sometimes millions of dollars per employee, but pay their employees minuscule percentages of their haul. Declining lifespans in the U.S. are considered a “silver lining” in corporate boardrooms because pension costs are lower. And thus it comes as no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has widened inequality still further, with the world’s industrialists and financiers adding literally trillions of dollars to their accumulated wealth during 2020.

That was a long introduction to yet more bad news. Not only are wages stagnant and living standards decaying, but working people in the U.S. are working longer hours. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Socio-Economic Review found that, among 18 European and North American countries, the percentage of employees in the U.S. working at least 50 hours per week is the highest, at about 18 percent for the period 1990 to 2010. The paper, “Extreme work hours in Western Europe and North America: diverging trends since the 1970s” by Anna S. Burger, found that total rising — about 15 percent worked such hours for the period 1970-1989, a time frame in which the U.S. also had the highest rate.

(Author: CIPHR Connect)

Nonetheless, it is not only in the U.S. that more people are forced to work at least 50 hours per week. The study examined Canada, Switzerland and 15 members of the European Union (including Britain, then a member) and in only one country, France, did the percentage of people working excessive hours decline from 1970-1989 to 1990-2010. France, Sweden and Switzerland had the lowest rates, each less than 5 percent. Canada was second to the U.S. at 17 percent and also showed the largest jump, from about 6 percent in 1970-1989.

Work more or else

European Union law is supposed to prohibit working more than 48 hours per week, but the study by Dr. Burger noted that several countries have adopted opt-out clauses. Working beyond 48 hours, even with the exemptions, requires the employee consent. But given the one-sidedness of working relations, an employee could find it difficult to refuse consent. Dr. Burger wrote:

“[T]he choice whether to work long hours is not entirely, or even mainly, left to the preference of the individual but is guided by policy and collective socio-economic institutions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the most relevant work time tendencies of the past decades are shaped by liberalizing trends in labour market policies, industrial relations arrangements and labour market structures not only in the Anglo-Saxon world but also on most parts of Continental Europe, rather than by regime-conform developments.” [page 3]

Some of the people working excessive hours are high-paid professionals such as lawyers or investment bankers. But low-wage workers are increasingly forced to work long hours because they can’t survive otherwise.

“At the bottom of the skills scale, an increasing number of workers are becoming labour market outsiders who are in atypical, or precarious, employment or unemployment. … The practice of very long hours is particularly wide-spread among outsiders for two reasons. First, due to a lack of regulatory protection and high replaceability, outsiders are in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis their employers. Not complying with an employer’s request for overtime might result in an outsider’s immediate dismissal and replacement. Secondly, in many cases, outsiders consent to, sometimes even initiate, working very long hours in order for their income to reach subsistence level. In today’s increasingly unequal economies, an ever-larger number of low-skilled workers must compensate for their relatively low hourly pay by allocating more time to work. While this decision is formally voluntary, in substance it is not because the choice is strongly shaped by the restrictive political economy environment.” [page 8]

Working conditions in the EU are deteriorating, but employees in the U.S. have less protection and more meager unemployment benefits. The pressure to work long hours is more intense there than in Europe, and employers often find it more profitable to squeeze extra hours out of employees rather than hire someone to lighten workloads. Another product of the extreme individualist ideology U.S. capitalism fosters.

And although overall working hours have actually declined over the past half-century, the rate of that decline has been far slower in the U.S. than in the European Union. A paper by Robert J. Gordon and Hassan Sayed, “The Industry Anatomy of the Transatlantic Productivity Growth Slowdown,” found that for the period 1950 to 2015, there was a decline of 37 percent in average employee working hours for the 10 largest EU countries (a drop from 2,250 hours to 1,560 hours) as compared to a decline of only 12 percent for U.S. employees (2,020 hours to 1,780 hours). So much for John Maynard Keynes’ famous prediction that we’d be working 15 hours a week in the future.

U.S. working people work 220 hours per year more than do EU workers — that’s five and a half weeks of extra work!

That sobering comparison is no surprise when we make a comparison of mandatory paid days off. Among the 42 countries that are members of the OECD and/or the European Union, there is only one country with zero paid days of vacation or holidays under the law — the United States. Seven countries require workers be guaranteed 25 or more vacation days per year. Another 25 mandate at least 20 days. Each of those countries also mandate anywhere from eight to 15 paid holidays. Among the 42 countries surveyed, 34 legally require 28 or more days, led by Austria and Malta (38 each) and another half-dozen requiring 36. Turkey, with 12 days of mandatory paid time off, is next worst to the zero of the U.S.

Working conditions are not getting better

The pandemic may be making the above conditions worse. Working at home has led to a working day of two and a half hours longer for employees in the United States, Canada and Britain, according to a report by a business technology company, NordVPN Teams. The company, CNN reported, examined data sent via servers to calculate employee working hours. There were “no significant drop of business [virtual private network] usage at lunch time indicating potential short lunch breaks while working remotely.”

Other surveys have reached similar conclusions. A report by the U.S. staffing firm Robert Half said nearly 70 percent of professionals who work remotely because of the pandemic work on the weekends and 45 percent say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before the pandemic. For front-line workers not able to work at home, stress and mental health difficulties have increased sharply, with problems particularly acute in the U.S. due to its inability to provide coherent responses to Covid-19 and the chaos triggered by extreme right operatives who created the “Tea Party” organizing the anti-science and anti-intellectual spectacles opposing measures designed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Where does all this lead? To health problems and shorter lifespans. A study conducted by researchers at the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization reported that excessive working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 per cent increase from 2000. The study found that, in 2016, “398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and from stroke by 19%.”

Austerity and economic dislocation have taken their toll around the world, but the already existing harshness of life in the United States on top of austerity and dislocation takes a particular toll there. Nearly half a million excess deaths occurred in the U.S. from 1999 to 2015 from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. A paper published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PNAS found this increase in the death rate was limited to the U.S. among advanced capitalist countries.

We’re perhaps taken in more bad news than we can reasonably digest. It’s understandable to not wish to take in too much bad news at once. For readers with knowledge of the world, none of the statistics presented above make for a surprise. It is thus tempting to ask: Would the particularly toxic brand of nationalism practiced by millions of United Statesians continue as virulently were the above statistics widely known? Sadly, perhaps it would. If we were to summarize the discourse of U.S. nationalists, it would be: “We’re number one! We can kill more foreigners in less time than any other country! USA! USA!” Is being able to cheerlead for the world’s biggest military really worth working so many hours for such dismal results?

7 comments on “If you work in the U.S., you don’t know how bad you have it

  1. dylanfreak says:

    I’ve been in the belly of the beast, Pete, as have you. So my hatred of capitalism, forged in the capitalist working world itself, couldn’t be less theoretical or abstract. And it’s mind-boggling that the U.S. doesn’t even offer the better-than-nothing benefits that the EU countries provide.

    I saw a 2016 documentary in which men living in the “sacrifice zones” that are the result of Neoliberalism said that they would vote for either Bernie or Trump. Leaving aside the (in my opinion, cowardly) character of Sanders, this is good news, because it indicates that at least some Trump supporters wanted real economic change rather than militarism.

    • Trump only offered, and implemented, an acceleration of neoliberalism, but, sadly, there are those who wanted to believe Trump’s lies. Those of lies, of course, were helped immensely by the vast amount of attention the corporate media gave him during his 2016 campaign. I see nothing good in anybody voting for someone who aspired to be a fascist dictator.

      I know you are not whitewashing that, and I do understand the context in which you write “at least some Trump supporters wanted real economic change rather than militarism.” Of course, the low level of education, particularly political education, in the U.S. had much to do with so many people being bamboozled by an obvious con man. The total surrender of the Democratic Party to neoliberalism also plays a significant part here. Nonetheless, I can’t find any solace in anybody voting for Trump, even if they do wish real economic change.

  2. dylanfreak says:

    I don’t find solace in their voting for Trump, either. But these people may one day vote for a *real* populist if one finally comes along, though it doesn’t seem likely that this will ever be allowed in this particular political climate.

  3. Lee Miller says:

    I’m always surprised by how naive the average American is about their own country. It was pleasing to see the young getting to travel widely before this virus and see more of the outside world. We can only hope for the future.

  4. Emerson Addison says:

    I wish we could vote our way out of this mess, but “both” political parties are completely against socialism and the possibility of economic reform. Not to mention that the neoliberal “democratic” party openly rigs its primaries to prevent actual progressives / leftists from winning.
    If we want this system to change, at some point we will have to overthrow “our” government…

    • Both parties are indeed parties of capitalism; the main difference is that Republicans tend to represent industrialists while Democrats tend to represent financiers. Financiers definitely don’t like progressives, so what we saw in the 2016 Democratic Party primary will be repeated. Nor does it help that the U.S. has such an anachronistic constitution.

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