The Overworked Cliché of the Overworked American

Social scientists and op-ed commentators have toiled overtime to popularize the image of the “overworked American.” Alas, Americans must have been too busy to notice these lamentations on their behalf. A majority deny they work too hard. In a survey conducted for, 26 percent of respondents said they work too hard, while 72 percent said they don’t. Among those who are employed full-time, 31 percent said they work too hard; 68 percent said they don’t. For part-time workers, the poll’s tally was 24 percent vs. 73 percent. Among adults who aren’t employed outside the home, 17 percent said they work too hard; 79 percent said they don’t. Obviously, the number of people saying they work too hard isn’t trivial. But as remarks in its analysis of the data, the “notion that vast swaths of the American public feel overwhelmed isn’t borne out.” What explains the Stakhanovite efforts of pundits to persuade us otherwise? In part, it’s because lots of high-profile people do work like dogs. One can no longer assume that underlings work harder than their bosses. In the process, lack of leisure has displaced enjoyment of leisure as a mark of social standing. A recent issue of Business 2.0 cited an Oxford Health Plans study showing 18 percent of professionals don’t use up all their vacation days—presumably because they’re indispensable. One could concoct an index of status based on the amount paid for a vacation home (the higher the better) divided by the days one manages to spend in it (the fewer the better). Another factor in the popular wisdom that Americans are overworked: The folks who are coasting have every reason to stay under the radar. After all, if you aren’t overworked, it means you’re either working precisely hard enough (and how could you calculate so finely?) or you’re slacking off. Far better to be discreet.