AMERICANS are working longer hours. The average worker in the United States put in 95 more hours of work in 1987 than in 1979. That's the equivalent of almost three-and-a-half extra weeks on the job.
Lawrence Mishel, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, says employees were mostly driven to pile up the hours by falling real wages in the 1980s. They have the same mortgages to pay, the same children to feed and clothe.
Though not necessarily disagreeing, Richard Freeman, a Harvard University economist, notes that polls show that Americans generally like to work more than less.
``The other possibility is, `Gee, we just love to work,' '' Mr. Freeman says.
Whatever the case, the rise in work hours has reversed in the US a long-term trend toward fewer hours. Longer hours are the opposite of what has been happening in industrial Europe. In 1987, the manufacturing worker in Germany spent 1,642 hours on the job, in France 1,645 hours, in Britain 1,94 hours, and in the US 1,949 hours. The Japanese, famed as workaholics, topped all these countries by putting in 2,168 hours on average. South Koreans and Taiwanese put in similar if not longer hours at work.
Europeans also get more vacation than do Americans. The West Germans, on average, enjoyed 29 days of paid time off; the French 26 days; the British 23 days. American workers got only 19 days. The Japanese took only nine days.
Many Americans do feel under financial pressure to earn more. In inflation-adjusted terms, hourly wages fell more than 9 percent between 1980 and 1989. Hourly benefits, such as pensions and health insurance, dropped even more, by 18.8 percent. By putting in more hours, the average US worker just made up for the decline in hourly wages. The end result was that the average worker in 1987 was working 5.9 percent more hours at an hourly wage 3.3 percent less than in 1979.
Professor Freeman suspects that one reason for the shorter work week in Europe is that governments and trade unions have forced it on employers. Most West Germans, for example, take four or five weeks of vacation, compared to two or three weeks in the US. The proportion of workers belonging to trade unions is far larger than in the US. These unions insist on shorter hours in their negotiations. The German metalworkers union is pushing for a 35-hour week. Retail workers in Germany have managed to persuade the government to maintain stern limits on the hours of store openings o weekends or in the evenings.
In the US, strong competition without so much regulation makes it more difficult for employers to grant reduced work hours. And high unemployment, especially among the less educated and skilled, makes it tougher for a worker to insist on shorter hours. He or she is easily replaced.
``There's a good supply of people out there to take your job,'' Freeman says. That fear may even apply to highly-paid executives. Some apparently fear that if they take a long vacation, the boss will discover that they are not truly indispensable.
``I have wealthy executive friends who don't take any vacation,'' Freeman notes. ``They have power. But what do they do with their money? It is crazy.''
The numbers showing Americans are spending more time at work don't indicate clearly what Americans are doing with their remaining hours. Are they spending less time on household chores? As a result, are homes dirtier, gardens in poorer shape? Do children get less attention? Are they spendng less time at leisure pursuits? Or are they sleeping less?
One of Freeman's concerns is that because US businesses are getting more hours out of their employees, they are not being required so much to make them ``work smarter.'' Productivity growth in the 1980s - 1.1 percent per year - did rise somewhat faster than in the 1970s. But would productivity have grown faster if shorter work weeks and higher wages had forced employers to find ways to make their workers more productive?
The US, says Freeman, shouldn't build its economy around cheap but less educated or less skilled workers. It should improve worker abilities so that they are worth more pay.