Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world.
More than the English, more than the French, way more than the Germans or Norwegians. Even, recently, more than the Japanese.
And Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later, too.
That much most people agree on. What's harder to pin down is exactly how much Americans are working. It may be more than our industrialized competitors, but is it more than we have ever worked before?
The short answer, according to the government, is that it is only slightly more and not so much that most people should really notice.
Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a very gradually rising trend through the 1990s that has only just recently tapered off, hovering somewhere just north of 40 hours weekly.
A Month More a Year?
The long answer is, of course, more complicated. It depends who you ask, and about whom you're asking.
Author Juliet Schor, who wrote the best-selling book The Overworked American in 1992, concluded that in 1990 Americans worked an average of nearly one month more per year than in 1970.
There are also volumes of surveys that ask people if they're working more than they used to. Generally, people say yes, of course they are. And they also estimate almost 10 more hours a week than the government does.
A Bunch of Whiners?
Critics pooh-pooh such studies, saying self-estimators are exaggerators, although most of those studies echo the same general trend as governmental figures — a bit of a rise through the '90s with a slight dip recently.
Dissenters to overworked-American theories say it's better to base studies on employers' reports of worker hours, which is what the government does, but that leaves out overtime hours worked by salaried employees.
Critics also point to what they say is a growing number of part-time jobs. How can people be working more if they are not working full-time?
Here's where you have to ask which workers we're really talking about.
Measuring Past the Punch Clock
That's what Schor's book tries to do, as well as two recent releases: The White-Collar Sweatshop by Jill Andresky Fraser, and The Working Life by Joanne B. Ciulla.
All those books have been embraced by a large part of the public that apparently feels harassed by the pressures of the workplace.
The authors all find evidence that many Americans are overstressed and overworked in trends that are not necessarily measured with a punch clock; trends such as road rage, workplace shootings, the rising number of children in day care and increasing demands for after-school activities to occupy children whose parents are too busy or still at work.
They aren't the only ones finding long hours in at least certain parts of the workforce. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last year, more than 25 million Americans — 20.5 percent of the total workforce — reported they worked at least 49 hours a week in 1999. Eleven million of those said they worked more than 59 hours a week.
Sweat Under the White Collar
Who are these people? Fraser, after four years of interviews, concludes they are white-collar workers, who do not punch a clock and whose hours therefore are the most difficult to track.
The other evidence often pointed to that people are not really working as much as they say is the increasing number of part-time jobs. How can people be working more if more people are not working full-time?