Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2003 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

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Spending so much time 'making a living', we don't live


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Throughout the downturn of the past few years, economists and analysts have trumpeted our historic increases in productivity as the one positive in an otherwise dreary economic environment.

But now that the recovery is in full swing, and the country's jobless situation has only begun to improve, some are beginning to question how these productivity gains were achieved and what effects they will have on the labor force, unemployed workers and the overall economy.

Some economists are predicting that demand shortly will catch up with productivity, spurring an enormous boom in job growth. Other economists, like Barry Bluestone, a political economy professor at Northeastern University, disagree.

Bluestone told me: "We'll be very lucky if we break even or have a little bit of job growth over the next year. With productivity continuing to grow at 4% to 5% per year, and the economy growing at best at 3.5%, that would mean that employment would basically hold steady without much growth at all."

Although our increasing productivity is due, in large part, to the use of technology, there is no denying that the people who are lucky enough to have jobs are simply working more.

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According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average American worker has added 199 hours to a year's work since 1973. Since companies began shedding jobs during this recent economic downturn, employees who remained behind are working more in order to avoid being the next victim of a layoff.

Although higher productivity contributes to our high standard of living and is a source of national pride for Americans, many workers are beginning to ask whether we are really so well off.

The United States does have the highest productivity growth per worker of any nation. But the productivity per hour - a more accurate measure of efficiency - of some European countries is far superior to that of the United States. American workers have an output per hour of $32, well below the $38 per hour in Norway and the $34 per hour in Belgium. So we may be working longer, but we are not necessarily working better or smarter.

In too many cases, corporate America is using higher productivity and greater efficiency as code words for cheaper labor, either using it in this country or in countries like India, China and the Philippines.

We not only work more hours than nearly any other developed country, we also have less vacation time. The United States, in fact, contrary to most European and Asian countries, has no mandatory standard of vacation leave time.

Only 87% of U.S. companies are now providing paid vacations, down from 95% in 1999. The American worker takes an average of just 10.2 vacation days per year, while our counterparts in France and Germany enjoy more than 30.

Joe Robinson, author of "Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life," calls our standard of living "our standard of nonliving, because we never have time to actually live our lives." Robinson also says that problems such as family strain and burnout can be attributed to our national work practices. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR. )

Corporate profits are up nearly 21% and Wall Street is expecting third-quarter GDP growth of more than 5%. As our economy continues to grow, corporations will shed their reluctance to hire additional staff.

But will they resist reasonable wages with reasonable hours? It's time to begin questioning the demands on our workforce and to talk straight about what higher productivity really means to our standard of living.

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