Americans Are Working Less, So Why Are We So Stressed Out?

The amount of hours worked in the U.S. is considerably less than it used to be. And we’re not alone — every other advanced economy around the world is working less, too. But single parents are working more, as are the highly educated and wealthy.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss some of the reasons why it seems like we all have less leisure time.


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


This is HERE AND NOW, from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

And we've all heard this one. Americans are working too hard, not getting enough rest. We are overworked, overstressed, and totally exhausted. But what if that is all wrong, that we're actually working less and more leisure time than we used to. Derek Thompson is senior editor at The Atlantic. He's with us now from New York to discuss. Derek, is that the case that we're working less and have more leisure time?

DEREK THOMPSON: Yes, it is the case that we, as a country, are working less, and have more leisure time than we had in the 1960s, more leisure time than we had in the 1980s. There are though some exceptions. Everybody you know might feel busy, and everybody I know seems to feel rather busy.

But in fact it turns out that it's a privilege to feel busy in an interesting way. It is the richest Americans who seem to have the least amount of leisure time, even though economists seemed to predict 100 years ago that what would happen is we would get so rich as a country that we'd be able to buy all this leisure time with our productivity, which happened actually.

It's this interesting what they call leisure inequality. With income inequality, the rich have more money, the poor have less. With leisure inequality, the poor have more leisure, and the rich have a little bit less. And the reason that we're not working as much as a country is basically three things quickly.

One, the work week has declined. Two, chores are easier thanks to washer dryers, better stoves, better mops. And three, men and women are sharing responsibilities. It's teamwork, and it makes homework and childcare a little bit more efficient.

HOBSON: So when you say work, you're not just talking about work at the office, or even doing your office work at home. We're talking about anything that requires you to use effort to get something done.

THOMPSON: That's right, formal work and housework both have declined. For women in particular, housework has just declined massively in the last 50 years. And this is a good thing. It's a good that the fact that we have wonderful home technology to make taking care of the house easier means that they can work longer in the office.

And we have a better--we have a more productive economy, and as a result we can actually buy more leisure time, which is what we want at the end of the day.

HOBSON: So I buy the idea that machines are making it easier for us, and that we then have less work. But explain how the rich are working harder than the poor, because I'm sure there are a lot of people who are not rich who are listening and saying, wait a minute, that doesn't make any sense to me. I'm working very hard just to put food on the table.

THOMPSON: Frankly, it's difficult to explain partly because economists are having trouble explaining it. Theoretically, the models should say that the richer you are, the more productive you are, the more you use that productivity to buy more leisure time, to buy more time off work.

And in fact, we see this throughout Europe. If you look at the decline in annual hours worked in Europe, they've fallen massively by 25, 30, 40 percent in Western Europe. In the U.S. they haven't declined as much, and one of the reasons why is that rich people in the U.S. seem to really, really want to work. They're workaholics. They're workaholics compared to basically every other country.

And so it's possible that there's just a spirit of industriousness in the U.S., some winner-take-all industriousness that's making people who really enjoy working rise to the top, rise to the top few percentiles across a lot of different industries.

HOBSON: Well, and you wonder whether--you say, people really enjoy working. It could be that work for some people who are at the top would be something that they want to be doing for a job, rather than somebody who might be at the bottom of the economic ladder who has to do work that is not as interesting to them. Could be, lot of questions there, and we welcome your comments, by the way, at about this.

Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, always working very hard for us and for you. Thank you so much, Derek.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.