by K. Tang, Palo Alto
In the past 60 years, the average total annual work hours of U.S. citizens has decreased by about 200 hours, and it is projected to continue to decrease in the near future. This reduction in work hours is logical as automation and overseas manufacturing have reduced the need for labor, and governmental aids for unemployed or low-income people have increased over the last few decades. However, while the trend is justifiable, Americans, as individuals, should try not to reduce their own work hours.
First, one’s work hours correlate with one’s income, which is then correlated with people’s living quality and their family’s access to good healthcare and education. Many people assume that people with lower hourly income typically work more in order to support their families, but statistics shows the contrary. Four out of the top five occupations with the most average work hours, namely management, legal, agriculture, engineering, and business, are high paying occupations. This shows that high payment jobs often require more working hours, so one should not have the goal to reduce work if one intends to get a higher paying job. For those already in high-paying occupations, which are usually skilled trades, working more is an efficient way to learn. In occupations like engineering, working will often force one to learn new skills and knowledge, which are important even for senior engineers in a world with fast developing technologies. For occupations like management, legal, and healthcare, working is even more important as it gives one experience, which often plays a more significant role in rising income than one’s knowledge. For these reasons, reasonably long work hours can increase one’s social and monetary status.
Second, working for more hours will benefit the nation by increasing the GDP and the competitiveness of domestic companies against foreign competitors. The logic is simple: given the same workforce, the one with longer average work hours will crank out more goods, more food, and more innovations. One may argue that this will lead to an increase in the unemployment rate because companies can employ fewer people to produce the same amount of goods, and the amount of goods produced cannot increase because the market is fixed. However, the size of the market is not fixed. When people receive more income because of the longer hours they work, they will in turn buy more commodities. What’s more, the market is not limited to the U.S. alone – if factories in the U.S. can make more products, they can be exported to other countries, and the U.S. can import fewer goods from others. This will not only prevent an increase in unemployment, but also decrease the trade deficit and generate more tax revenue, which could be used to help the unemployed. More work hours will also make U.S. companies more competitive against foreign competitors because they can reduce labor cost per commodity made or product designed. U.S. companies, even the tech companies that are the pillars of American economy, are making less progress than foreign ones in recent years for a very obvious reason: while most employees in American tech companies work less than 50 hours per week, many employees in Chinese tech giants such as Huawei and Tencent work with “996” schedules – basically 72 hours per week. If the average work hours continue to decrease, the U.S. may lose its lead in technology, having already lost its lead in manufacturing, and Silicon Valley may become another Detroit.
One may argue that working more hours will not lead to a better economy because the average work hours of a country are negatively correlated with its productivity, measured in average GDP produced per work hour. However, the causation is the other way around: developed countries typically have more profitable industries like tech and luxury, and have better equipment that enhances the productivity of manufacturing or agriculture. This allows their people to work less in order to earn a basic living. More importantly, statistics shows that a developed country’s work hours positively correlate with its GDP growth. Developed countries with a positive GDP growth, such as the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, have average work hours in the higher end among developed countries. The ones with a negative or close-to-zero (which should be considered negative, because of the global inflation rate of about 1.5%) GDP growth rate, such as France and Greece, have average work hours in the lower end among developed countries. This shows that more work hours are indeed beneficial for the economy.
While working for more hours is good in general, whether to increase, maintain, or reduce work hours must depend on personal circumstances. One should definitely decrease one’s work hours if one is experiencing signs of overwork like physical or mental health problems. It is also wise to work less for reasons like personal improvement or to solve family problems. However, we should definitely work harder if our circumstances allow, for we are working for both ourselves and our nation.