08/23/2010 11:50 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The 24/7/365 Society vs. La Dolce Vita

As August winds down, let us take stock of why we Americans work so hard and long while others whom we normally consider our peers enjoy months of vacation. First the facts. We are vacation poor. Two weeks tend to be our entry level, not twice or thrice that, as is common in Europe. Part-time and other occasional workers don't get even that. And many who are entitled to more prefer, or feel obliged, nonetheless to remain at the coal-face rather than to reveal a penchant for leisure.

If we look at the total hours worked over the year by employed Americans, we are among the drones of the industrialized world. The Japanese work about as much, the Italians, Icelanders and east Europeans work more, and the South Koreans a lot more. Thanks to these hard workers from the east, Americans labor only a smidgen above the OECD average (1.4%). But compared to the dolce vita of central Europe, we are up there among the Stakhanovites. At the other end of the spectrum, the Germans and the Dutch enjoy the easy life, working about 20% less than the Americans.

Why do we bother? For one thing, it makes us better off materially. We work approximately a fourth more than the Germans and are about 30% richer per head than they are. If we wanted to, we could scale back our efforts to German levels and maintain German levels of prosperity. That might be a trade-off worth making. With a flexible enough labor market, it could even be a decision taken by individuals for themselves, though in the midst of unprecedented unemployment few are likely to take the leap. If one child, public schools and state universities, one bathroom and two bedrooms in a walk-up rental apartment, one car and the other accoutrements of a typical German life style are acceptable, then nothing prevents the average American from achieving that on 1400 hours of work annually, leaving her the other 350 for leisure instead.

How much we work is one question. Another more nebulous but equally important issue is when we do so. Studies by Michael Burda and his colleagues reveal interestingly that Europeans and Americans are divided not just by quantity, but by distribution. We tend to work more than the average German on workdays, but even more than him on weekends. Ignoring vacations for the moment, our workloads during an average week are greater, but they are also distributed differently.

We sleep as long as the Germans, we enjoy equal amounts of leisure. We also spend equal amounts of time shopping and doing housework. But we tend to do more of all the various forms of work, both formal and informal, on the weekends than do the Germans. They, in turn, exert themselves harder during the week and then knock off more thoroughly come Friday afternoon.

That is a cultural preference, and not one that divides absolutely across the Atlantic. The Italians, for example, work more than we do on weekends. In much the same way, we apparently tend to work more steadily throughout the year, rather than bunching work and leisure time together each for themselves. To some extent this fits with the image of the workaholic American bereft of serious vacation time, while the Europeans take their leisure seriously. But there is more to it than just that.

We live in a 24/7/365 society not just because we are drones caught in the capitalist treadmill and forced, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, to wield our wrenches ever more rapidly, lunchtime or not. We have a more homogeneous distribution of work and leisure because our society runs at a constant and more regular rhythm than is true in Europe. That, in turn, is not just because we love work as such, but because we are, even today, a more heterogeneous society with more varied habits, customs and expectations than Europe.

Although things have changed much in the past decades, the basic assumption of European life is still that most everyone both works and takes off at much the same times - whether we are talking about the working day, the weekend or the vacation.

Working hours remain surprisingly uniform in Europe by American standards. The easiest place to see this is in the retail sector. It is not many years since stores in Germany closed at 1.00 on Saturdays and 5.30 on weekdays. Nothing, of course, was ever open on Sundays, except oddly enough in Sweden where the power of the trade unions trumped the shop-keeping classes. The Mediterranean was always laxer in such matters, with afternoon siestas, but with stores open into the evenings instead. Even Germany has liberalized since then, but the range of possible opening hours remains strikingly narrow by American standards. Even university libraries - the scene of endless exam-time all-nighters in the US -- keep banking hours. No 24/7 there, indeed scarcely 7/11.

The same holds for weekends. In Europe the weekend is still defined religiously. Sunday anchors it and everyone, whether Christian or not, is expected to observe it. No less a document than the German constitution itself enshrines Sunday as a day of rest. A Member of the European Parliament from Bavaria is seeking to enforce a Europe-wide ban on shops opening on Sundays, just as in his homeland. Anyone who has had the dubious pleasure of living near a church on this supposedly secular continent knows that they can and do ring their bells so long and loudly early Sunday morning that no one could hope, whatever their faith or practice, to sleep through it.

In Sweden taxis cost more on weekends than normally, and even more than that on (Christian) high holy days. The assumption is that you should not be out and about, that taking taxis forces the poor driver to work when he could be relaxing, and therefore you must be punished. Oddly enough, neither train tickets, movie theaters, nor restaurant meals are surcharged on weekends. Something similar holds true for vacations. They are generally speaking taken at much the same time, with some staggering of school and industry closing times to avoid even more catastrophic traffic jams than is already true. In August, London, Paris and Berlin are inhabited only by tourists, and the locals whose jobs are tied to them.

Everyone is presumed to work and to take off largely at same time. That assumption was always flawed since leisure is also hard work. Someone has to be manning the trains, the restaurants, the hotels, the taxis, the ferries, the airports, the bakeries, the hospitals, the shops and all the rest of the infrastructure required for quality downtime. Given that the tourist industry is not only the single largest economic activity in the global economy, but one that European nations are increasingly reliant on, it follows that evermore locals must in fact work during time that is traditionally considered sacrosanct.

The modern tourist industry has simply made it increasingly clear what was always the case: only some of us can live according to traditional routines. Others are condemned to cater to those lucky insiders. America has gone further towards the recognition that there are actually no routines that all can live by. Someone always has to be working for others not to be. Once we break the habit of thinking that normality means Monday to Friday, nine to five, August off, we are headed towards the 24/7/365 society. That is a society of less pronounced seasonal and diurnal rhythms. But it is also one where the illusion of normality has been abandoned and fewer are turned into pariahs by their habits, customs or preferences.

When Elena Kagan was being grilled before her confirmation to the Supreme Court, Senator Lindsey Graham asked her what she had been doing on Christmas Day. "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant," came the answer. In Europe, such a reply would have been impossible - not because there are no Jews in politics, of course, but because no restaurant, Chinese or otherwise, would have been open on Christmas day. Conversely, the closest we come in America to the hermetically shut-down society of Christmas Day in Bavaria is Thanksgiving. That is the one day of the year when more institutions are closed and more Americans take off than any other time, all united by a common, secular, voluntarily adopted cause.

In that sense, the 24/7/365 society, though tough, is ecumenical, open and embracing. Where do the Jews of Europe spend Christmas day - not to mention the Muslims? Where do the lonely men in Edward Hopper's all night diners go at four in the morning in Stockholm? To suppose that the traditional nine-to-five world is normal is to indulge the provincialism of our diurnal species. Nature is the ultimate all-night convenience store. The more complicated and multifarious our societies become, the less the seasonal and daily rhythms of traditional bourgeois life (in bed by 10.00, off on Fridays by 4.00, to the Highlands for the Glorious Twelfth) will have any purchase.