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US Pays a Price for Prosperity

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WHEN the speaker of Japan's lower house of parliament, Yosh Sakurauchi, called American workers "lazy" last month, he prompted considerable commotion in the United States. Lazy is a relative term. Actually United States manufacturing employees work the equivalent of greater than two months (320 hours) more per year than their counterparts in West Germany or France, says Juliet Schor, a Harvard University professor and author of "The Overworked American." Furthermore, between 1969 and 1987, time on the jo b for the average employed American increased by 163 hours a year, or an extra month. But Japanese workers in manufacturing put in six weeks more per year than their US counterparts.

Does this mean US workers should be spending even more time on the job? By no means, Schor argues in this excellent book. She figures Americans are already overworked - contrary to the expectations a few decades ago of a future abundant in leisure time.

If business presses for more hours at existing pay, this is merely a roundabout way to reduce workers' wages, Schor notes. While lower wages help competitiveness in the short term, in the long run they can boomerang: Declining wages lead to declining productivity through diminished incentives to invest, higher turnover, and lower employee morale.

"The game of lowering wages can get insidious," she writes. "Once the highest in the world, US manufacturing wages have fallen substantially for a decade and now rank below many West European nations. How far down should they go? Korea, Brazil, and India are growing competitors. If corporations demand a decline to the poverty wages in many countries, should American workers simply accede?"

The important thing is to boost productivity. "In the international market, what matters in the long run is not how many hours a person works, but how productively he or she works them."

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