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Why Americans Work Longer Hours Than Their Counterparts Overseas

02/03/2015 07:26 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

Americans went back to work recently after a holiday season that for some spanned nearly two weeks. It is hard to know how many workers actually took off all the days between Christmas and the Monday after New Year's Day, but Americans are not big leave-takers. In fact, many of us, apparently, have never taken a vacation lasting longer than a week.

There are many reasons why workers don't spend much time away from the office, despite the positive impact that getting away can have on health, stress and performance. Some workers are "too busy" or they suspect they are "indispensable" and the office cannot get along without them. Others have trouble meshing their schedules with a spouse's or school calendars. Some worry about being perceived as uncommitted and they might feel vulnerable to losing their job if they ask for vacation time.

Another reason that Americans, in contrast to their counterparts in many other countries, do not take much vacation is that their employers give them relatively little paid time off. Of 21 of the richest advanced countries in the world, only the United States offers no legally mandated paid holidays or vacations, the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports. The statutory minimum annual vacation leave is especially generous in France (30 work days) and the United Kingdom (28 work days). Scandinavian countries get a minimum of 25 work days off. In the United States, about one-fourth of workers are not eligible for any paid vacation at all. Low-wage and part-time workers are especially likely to have none. But even workers who get time off often leave days on the table according to a Harris poll for Expedia.

Even when they aren't worried about taking or foregoing various types of leave, Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in many European countries and at schedules that can make it difficult to deal with family responsibilities or other demands or interests. Family advocates have long maintained that the intrusion of work life into family life and the converse are bad for the workplace and the family and that better ways of balancing the two could be good all the way around.

Fewer hours on the job at younger ages might enable parents to spend more time with their children and get more involved in their activities. More intensive work schedules and longer working lives could make up for some of those "lost" hours once the children are older. Extended sabbaticals might enable midlife workers to pursue a once-in-a-lifetime experience or return to school for training or education that might foster longer work lives. Abbreviated work schedules later in life have been proposed as a way to keep older workers in the labor force while giving them time to engage in activities they did not have time for as full-time workers.

But while arrangements such as these might appeal to many of us, they are far from the norm. Working parents generally lack the financial luxury of scaling back work hours for any appreciable length of time. Stagnating wages have made that almost impossible. Lengthy sabbaticals are hardly the norm, except among tenured academics. Many older workers do, however, manage to transition into new late-life careers that offer part-time opportunities or more flexible work schedules than they had on their previous jobs. Most Americans in their mid- to late-sixties and beyond do not, in fact, work, but the numbers who do are on the increase, and they are far more likely to remain in the labor force than their age peers in most other advanced economics. Moreover, working full-time at ages 65 and above -- once considered the "retirement years" by most of us -- has risen substantially in recent years, while part-time employment has fallen. Older workers are more likely than all but the youngest workers to be employed part-time -- and many may want shorter hours -- but the majority work full-time.

Longer hours and unused leave alone, of course, don't necessarily mean we are working too much. Perhaps most of us are working the hours we want, although it is hard to make that case for workers who have no paid leave. Access to shorter hours, more flexible schedules, and more leave, especially paid leave, however, could make it easier for men and women at all ages to juggle work and caregiving commitments -- and perhaps throw in a few fun activities as well. Employers just might find that their workers are more productive, too.

Employment Update: December's employment statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed another month of robust employment growth. More older Americans were employed than had been a year earlier and the unemployment rate for the aged 55+ workforce -- 3.9 percent -- was moving in the direction of its pre-recession level of just over 3 percent. The unemployed, however, continued to experience very high long-term unemployment rates.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

What Post 50s Want Most In Retirement