EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of three installments in a podcast series on American work produced in partnership with Open Source with Christopher Lydon, a weekly program on WBUR. In the final episode, we’ll consider policy solutions for working people that should be on the table in 2016. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or listen anytime at radioopensource.org.
Last week we spoke about the surprising history of the bloody, decades-long fight for a two-day weekend, an eight-hour workday, for pensions, worker safety, and a minimum wage.
But we also heard Calvin Coolidge’s famous line that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Almost a century later, that’s still true. Ours remains the biggest economy in the world, and American workers remain more productive per capita than any (big) nation in the world.
Americans spend more time working than doing anything else, and more than almost any other developed economy. A pre-crash study by the International Labor Organization found that we worked 137 hours more per year than Japanese workers, 260 more than Brits, almost 500 more than the leisure-loving French. And 86 percent of American men and 67 percent of women—sons and daughters of the union movement—work more than the union-preferred 40 hours a week.
Then again, the United States is exceptional in other ways: Among OECD nations for the share of our people living in poverty (more than 14 percent, or almost 47 million people), and among almost all nations for offering, as part of the law of our land, neither paid maternal leave, nor paid sick leave, nor annual minimum paid time off.
And then there are the problems we cannot quantify—or even always see: The stresses and disappointments that pile up, disproportionately upon the 35 million Americans who earn less than $10.55 an hour.