The Optimist

Work More, Make More?

The case against long hours.

Declinists, get ready to fret: Sometime this past summer, the average net worth of Canadians surpassed that of Americans. Adding insult to injury, Canadians have universal health care and a lower unemployment rate too.

But you know what really makes it sting? They barely even worked for it. The average employed Canadian works 85 hours fewer each year than the average American -- more than two full workweeks. And that may be the lesson that Canada has for the United States: Working 24/7 isn't the road to prosperity, much less happiness, and there are numbers to prove it. In fact, across rich countries, it turns out there's no close link between the average hours people put in at the office and how much they make. So go ahead: Take that vacation.

According to the OECD, the rich world's think tank, the average number of hours worked each year by someone employed in the United States is 1,787. In Britain, it's 1,625 hours -- or about 20 fewer working days. In Germany, the engine of Europe's economy, the average employee works just 1,413 hours a year -- that's more than 12 workweeks off. Nobody ever accuses Germans of being lazy; a lot of that is because the European Union mandates four weeks of paid vacation a year. But if you live in the United States, the government guarantees exactly zero paid vacation time. Thanks to the lack of any legal holiday requirement, nearly a quarter of workers get no paid vacation or holidays at all. Japan, the next stingiest among industrial countries, mandates 10 paid days off, with more the longer you have worked.

But doesn't working harder make you richer? It's true that at the individual level there is a link between working hard and being paid more. Nearly two-thirds of high-earning U.S. workers surveyed for the Center for Work-Life Policy clocked more than 50 hours a week, and one-third logged more than 60 hours. At the other end of the income scale, of course, many of those in poverty can't find a job to put in the hours at all. It's also true, however, that in many low-income families, parents are working two jobs just to stay above the poverty line. Poor people are poor because they don't get paid much per hour -- not because they don't work hard enough.

A similar story applies across countries. The United States is more productive than the European Union -- with annual output of around $42,500 per person, about 19 percent higher than Germany and 30 percent higher than France. But not much of that difference is due to working more hours. Take an example from a benighted country in Southern Europe: OECD data suggest that, in 2011, the average Greek who was actually employed worked 2,032 hours that year. The average German worked 30 percent less than that. For all that hard work, however, Greek GDP per hour worked was only $34 -- compared with $55 in Germany. When it comes to relative economic strength, more efficient German production (alongside higher overall employment) completely outweighs those long hours the Greeks put in at the office.

And it's not just Greece. The link between work hours and output is pretty weak in general. In 1974, Britain was gripped by the threat of a coal miners' strike that forced the government to impose a three-day workweek to ensure there was enough electricity to go around. Despite the dramatically reduced number of hours worked, industrial production in those two months fell only 6 percent. In 2000, France cut its 39-hour workweek by four hours, but the country's GDP per capita climbed from $27,396 to $28,520 between 1999 and 2001. After President Nicolas Sarkozy effectively rescinded the 35-hour workweek in 2008, however, France's per capita GDP fell from $30,466 in 2007 to $29,169 in 2009. Clearly, the financial crisis was to blame for that decline, but the point is that working hours didn't do much, if anything, to move the needle in either direction.

So why do Americans fetishize hard work when the link between labor and economic strength is so tenuous? The bottom line is that productivity -- driven by technology and well-functioning markets -- drives wealth far more than hours worked. And very few jobs in developed economies nowadays are classic assembly-line positions, where working 20 percent longer will mechanically produce 20 percent more widgets. Psychology plays a role here too: At least 40 years of studies suggest that people work harder if you limit their time to complete a certain task. In some cases, working too hard can actually reduce output. Long working hours are also associated with ill health, which means lost labor in the long term, as well as higher medical costs for employers and government. A study of hospital interns found that young doctors who worked longer shifts made almost 36 percent more serious mistakes, like giving the wrong dose or the wrong medicine altogether to patients.

Working too hard has societal costs as well. Nearly two decades ago, Harvard University professor Robert Putnam warned that the "social capital" of the United States was decaying as Americans spent less time with family, friends, neighbors, and community organizations and more time "bowling alone." Over the last quarter of the 20th century, Putnam recorded a 58 percent decline in attendance at club meetings and a 43 percent drop in family dinners. He blames television and commuting for much of the decline. But note also that the hyperactive U.S. worker put in over 20 percent more hours at the office than the average French worker in 2011. All that extra parental time at home might be why French kids are so much better behaved -- rather than greater parental neglect, as suggested by the recent U.S. parenting hit Bringing Up Bébé.

But if long hours aren't the secret to rapid growth and high employment, the reverse does appear to be true. As countries get richer, their citizens work less: Since the mid-20th century, average annual working hours have declined across the Western world. In the United States, however, the decline has been less dramatic.

So maybe it's time for you Yanks to relax a bit more. Take a full week off for Thanksgiving (as opposed to trying to sneak off on a Wednesday afternoon), or do like the French and take August off next year. It'll make the country healthier, happier -- and maybe one day even as rich as Canada.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The Optimist

In Praise of Slums

Why millions of people choose to live in urban squalor.

There is something viscerally repulsive about urban poverty: the stench of open sewers, the choking smoke of smoldering trash heaps, the pools of fetid drinking water filmed with the rainbow color of chemical spills. It makes poverty in the countryside seem almost Arcadian by comparison. The rural poor may lack nutrition, health care, education, and infrastructure; still, they do the backbreaking work of tending farms in settings that not only are more bucolic, but also represent the condition of most of humanity for most of history. With life so squalid in urban slums, why would anyone want to move there?

Because slums are better than the alternative. Most people who've experienced both rural and urban poverty choose to stay in slums rather than move back to the countryside. That includes hundreds of millions of people in the developing world over the past few decades -- and 130 million migrant workers in China alone. They follow a well-trodden path of seeking a better life in the bright lights of the city -- think of Dick Whittington, the 14th-century rural migrant who ended up lord mayor of London. The good news is that the odds of living that better life are better than ever. For all the real horrors of slum existence today, it still usually beats staying in a village.

Start with the simple reason that most people leave the countryside: money. Moving to cities makes economic sense -- rich countries are urbanized countries, and rich people are predominantly town and city dwellers. Just 600 cities worldwide account for 60 percent of global economic output, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Slum dwellers may be at the bottom of the urban heap, but most are better off than their rural counterparts. Although about half the world's population is urban, only a quarter of those living on less than a dollar a day live in urban areas. In Brazil, for example, where the word "poor" conjures images of both Rio's vertiginous favelas and indigenous Amazonian tribes living in rural privation, only 5 percent of the urban population is classified as extremely poor, compared with 25 percent of those living in rural areas.

But is it much of a life, eking out an existence in today's urban squalor? Our image of modern slums comes from films like Slumdog Millionaire and books like Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, portraits of India's urban underclass not all that far removed from the horrifying picture of 19th-century industrialization in Charles Dickens's novels about the misery and violence of London's slum dwellers. A recent opinion article in the New England Journal of Medicine called urbanization "an emerging humanitarian disaster." And urban theorist Mike Davis writes in Planet of Slums, "[N]o one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable."

But slum living today, for all its failings, is markedly better than it was in Dickens's time.

For one thing, urban quality of life now involves a lot more actual living. Through most of history, death rates in cities were so high that urban areas only maintained population levels through constant migration from the countryside. In Dickensian Manchester, for instance, the average life expectancy was just 25 years, compared to 45 years in rural Surrey. Across the world today, thanks to vaccines and underground sewage systems, average life expectancies in big cities are considerably higher than those in the countryside; in sub-Saharan Africa, cities with a population over 1 million have had infant mortality rates one-third lower than those in rural areas. In fact, most of today's urban population growth comes not from waves of villagers moving to the city, but city folks having kids and living longer.

In part, better quality of life is because of better access to services. Data from surveys across the developing world suggest that poor households in urban areas are more than twice as likely to have piped water as those in rural areas, and they're nearly four times more likely to have a flush toilet. In India, very poor urban women are about as likely to get prenatal care as the non-poor in rural areas. And in 70 percent of countries surveyed by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, school enrollment for girls ages 7 to 12 is higher among the urban poor than the rural poor.

That said, modern slum dwellers -- about one-third of the urban population in developing countries -- are some of the least likely to get vaccines or be connected to sewage systems. That means ill health in informal settlements is far more widespread than city averages would suggest. In the slums of Nairobi, for example, child mortality rates are more than twice the city average and higher, in fact, than mortality rates in Kenya's rural areas.

But Nairobi's slums are atypically awful, more an indicator of the Kenyan government's dysfunction than anything else. In most developing countries, even the poorest city dwellers do better than the average villager. Banerjee and Duflo found that, among people living on less than a dollar a day, infant mortality rates in urban areas were lower than rural rates in two-thirds of the countries for which they had data. In India, the death rate for babies in the first month of life is nearly one-quarter lower in urban areas than in rural villages. So significant is the difference in outcomes that population researcher Martin Brockerhoff concludes that "millions of children's lives may have been saved" in the 1980s alone as the result of mothers worldwide moving to urban areas.

Slum life remains grim. HIV prevalence rates are twice as high in urban areas of Zambia as they are in rural areas, for instance, and the story is worse with typhoid in Kenya. Slum residents are also at far greater risk from violence, outdoor air pollution, and traffic accidents than their rural counterparts. And the closer conditions in slum areas get to a state of anarchy mixed with kleptocracy, the more health and welfare outcomes tend to resemble those of Dickensian Manchester.

But all things considered, slum growth is a force for good. It could be an even stronger driver of development if leaders stopped treating slums as a problem to be cleared and started treating them as a population to be serviced, providing access to reliable land titles, security, paved roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and clinics. As Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser puts it, slums don't make people poor -- they attract poor people who want to be rich. So let's help them help themselves.

TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images