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October 17, 2012

Why working harder doesn't make you richer

WASHINGTON — Declinists, get ready to fret: Sometime this past summer, the average net worth of Canadians surpassed that of Americans. Adding insult to injury, Canadians have universal health care and a lower unemployment rate too.

But you know what really makes it sting? They barely even worked for it. The average employed Canadian works 85 hours fewer each year than the average American — more than two full workweeks. And that may be the lesson that Canada has for the United States: Working 24/7 isn't the road to prosperity, much less happiness, and there are numbers to prove it. In fact, across rich countries, it turns out there's no close link between the average hours people put in at the office and how much they make. So go ahead: Take that vacation.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the rich world's think tank, the average number of hours worked each year by someone employed in the United States is 1,787. In Britain, it's 1,625 hours — or about 20 fewer working days. In Germany, the engine of Europe's economy, the average employee works just 1,413 hours a year — that's more than 12 workweeks off. Nobody ever accuses Germans of being lazy; a lot of that is because the European Union mandates four weeks of paid vacation a year. But if you live in the United States, the government guarantees exactly zero paid vacation time. Thanks to the lack of any legal holiday requirement, nearly a quarter of workers get no paid vacation or holidays at all. Japan, the next stingiest among industrial countries, mandates 10 paid days off, with more the longer you have worked.

But doesn't working harder make you richer? It's true that at the individual level there is a link between working hard and being paid more. Nearly two-thirds of high-earning U.S. workers surveyed for the Center for Work-Life Policy clocked more than 50 hours a week, and one-third logged more than 60 hours. At the other end of the income scale, of course, many of those in poverty can't find a job to put in the hours at all. It's also true, however, that in many low-income families, parents are working two jobs just to stay above the poverty line. Poor people are poor because they don't get paid much per hour — not because they don't work hard enough.

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