Last semester, I was able to study abroad in Barcelona, Spain. While most of my classmates and roommates were American, I did get the chance to learn about foreign perspectives on the U.S. from my Spanish professors and other international students (from countries including Lebanon, Ireland and Egypt) living in my dorm. One of the most prevalent opinions of the U.S. was that Americans love to work. This became more apparent to me as my classmates and I experienced the summer internship recruiting process and are now considering our post-graduation options.
One of my professors shared that while people in Barcelona “work to live,” Americans “live to work.” He continued to explain that with the value Americans put on work come stereotypes and social-influence levels tied to career paths. Instead of feeling valued for being a good person or spending more time with family and friends, Americans value working as hard as possible and making as much money as possible. Workism, the belief that work is not just a means to economic production but is also the center of one’s identity and purpose, is the cultural norm in the U.S., increasing overall stress and decreasing overall happiness.
One of the best examples of this is the way American employers treat new parents. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t require employers to offer paid parental leave. The average paid parental leave is 12 weeks globally and 20 weeks in Europe. While most wealthy countries’ governments guarantee health care, the majority of insured Americans are insured through their employer. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act pushed Americans even more towards workism by replacing most of the welfare system with programs that made benefits contingent on employment.
These gaps in the U.S. system have resulted in Americans working 184 more hours annually than Japanese workers, 294 more hours annually than U.K. workers and 301 more hours annually than French workers. Eighty-five percent of male employees and 66% of female employees in the U.S. work over 40 hours per week. However, working more hours does not increase productivity. Some research estimates that out of an eight-hour work day, workers are only productive for three of those hours.
Further, the pressure that American workers face to put all time and energy into their careers leads to higher rates of burnout, disappointment and stress. According to research by the American Psychological Association, burnout in the U.S. is increasing every year, with 79% of employees experiencing work-related stress in the month before the survey. Symptoms of work-related stress reported included lack of interest, lack of energy, cognitive weariness, emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue.
In a 1957 New York Times article, Erik Barnouw wrote that as work became easier with technological advances, identity would be defined more by hobbies and family life than by career. This prediction has not come to pass. In a recent Pew Research report on youth anxiety, 95% answered that enjoying their career is “extremely or very important” to them as an adult and even ranked higher than any other priority. The stress and pressure surrounding securing summer internships and post-graduation jobs are a quotidian presence on our campus, to the detriment of students’ emotional well-being.
One of the first questions seniors are asked returning from summer break is whether or not they plan on returning to their summer internship employer after graduation. Having a job already set up is respected and sought after. One of the reasons for the additional pressure on younger generations is employment-related social media platforms such as LinkedIn. These sites force students to compare themselves and their professional achievements to their peers. While most of the student body may not know their post-graduation plans, the only posts they see on these sites are from those who do, making students who are undecided feel behind and stressed.
Finding value in work can be good in measured amounts. However, Americans must shift their mentality to a healthier and more sustainable work-life balance. This change can happen at a policy level as well as at the individual level. Write your representative about paid leave; don’t answer emails on vacation. National policies such as universal basic income, parental leave, universal health care and subsidized child care can all reduce work-induced stress by de-emphasizing stable employment as a requirement in life. Individually, employees and students alike can remind themselves and their peers that people are more than just their careers. While finding a meaningful career can be great, finding purpose outside of work is just as important for long-term happiness and fulfillment.
Elizabeth Peppercorn is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.