Those ‘Lazy’ Americans

Nobody likes to be called lazy, but that's just what the Japanese have been calling American workers--lazy and illiterate. And many of us have an uncomfortable suspicion that the charges have some truth. The work ethic in America has been slipping. We've been losing our competitive edge. These are all things Jack Eckerd and I wrote about in our new book, Why America Doesn't Work. But are the Japanese really the ones to be criticizing us? A recent report in National Review offers some interesting statistics proving that U.S. workers still more productive than their foreign counterparts. According to the Department of Labor, in 1990 the average annual output per worker in the United States was just over $45,000. In Japan, it was about $35,000. This means American workers produced nearly a third more than Japanese workers. Why do many of us think it's the other way around? Because most comparisons fail to account for differences in purchasing power. They look at gross domestic product and translate it into American dollars at current international exchange rates, but they forget that a dollar buys a lot more in America than in most other places. And after all, what counts is not how many pieces of paper you have in your billfold but what those pieces of paper can buy at the store. In purchasing power, Japan falls far short of America. A modest, middle-class home in a Tokyo suburb costs the equivalent of over a million dollars--ten times the price of a similar home in America. And those who can't afford to buy homes rent tiny, cramped apartments for several times the rent Americans pay. The Japanese spend a much greater portion of their income on food, too, which means less to spend on consumer items. If by laziness we're talking simply about time spent on the job, well, by that measure Japanese workers do have us beat. They are notorious workaholics, spending 225 more hours per year at work than their American counterparts. But there's a trade-off. Americans do more household chores--and when you add household work to the equation, it turns out that American men work about 58 hours per week, compared to 55 and a half for Japanese men. And, of course, that's unpaid labor--a labor of love--something you do with your family. The American pattern appears to be less stressful. The Japanese are plagued by health problems stemming from overwork. In fact, in 1989 more than a thousand widows filed claims against companies, charging that their husbands were literally worked to death. They call it karoshi: death from overwork. I'll take the American way, thank you. But there's a catch: What's true of American workers is not true of their children. Japanese children spend many more hours doing homework than American children, and consistently score higher on international tests, especially in math and science. Our children are growing up--just as the Japanese say--lazy and illiterate. What that shows is that American parents are not successful in passing on their own work ethic, their own values, to their children. For some Americans, maybe it's time to work a little less, do with fewer material goods, and spend more time with their families. Our biggest job is to makes sure the next generation is brought up to carry on the American work ethic. And if the rude comments of the Japanese spur us to do a better job of that, they just might have done us a favor.


Chuck Colson


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