Although most U.S. workers were off on Labor Day, we enjoy fewer government holidays and vacations than employees in Western Europe. Still, we remain staunchly devoted to work, even as we grow increasingly worried about job security.
"Americans believe that workers in this country are worse off now than a generation ago — toiling longer and harder for less wages and benefits, for employers who aren't as loyal as they once were, in jobs that aren't as secure, and in a global economy that might very well send their work overseas," according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
Even with those general worries, the report states, on an individual level, the attitudes of U.S. workers toward their jobs have remained remarkably consistent over the years.
"Most people still have positive feelings about their own jobs, and even though many are troubled by the way the forces of modernization are affecting the American workplace, the level of public concern today is not substantially greater than it had been a decade or two ago," the study said.
Those findings were contained in a special Labor Day report titled: "Public Says American Work Life is Worsening, But Most Workers Remain Satisfied with Their Jobs."
Those surveyed were asked about eight different aspects of the world of work and most said all eight areas had gotten worse. Yet, 89 percent said they were either satisfied or completely satisfied with their own jobs.
Employees were asked whether five trends affecting the workforce — immigration, offshoring, automation, modern communication and technology and declining unionization — had helped or hurt American workers.
"The offshoring of jobs drew the most negative assessments, with the public saying by a margin of more than 5 to 1 that this has hurt rather than helped American workers," the Pew study said. "The public says the same thing about the increasing number of immigrants working in America, but they do so by a more modest margin of 2 to 1. They also say the decline in union membership has hurt rather than helped, but the margin on this question is more narrow, 3 to 2."
The public is almost evenly split on the question of automation and is most positive about technology, with 69 percent saying the use of e-mail and other new ways of communicating has been helpful.
In 1997, 41 percent of workers felt benefits were better than they had been a generation before. By this year, however, 45 percent say worker benefits aren't as good as they were a generation ago.
American employees work harder than their European counterparts, including the Japanese. It is often said that Americans live to work while Europeans work to live.
Because workaholics are held in high esteem in the United States, Americans, on average, have more money, larger houses, bigger cars and other items considered status symbols.
But Professor Mauro Guillen of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School explains, "It is a sign of social status in Europe to take a long vacation away from home. Money is not everything in Europe; status is not only conferred by money. Having fun, or being able to have fun, also is a sign of success and a source of social esteem."
Because most jobs in Europe are covered by collective bargaining agreements, workers have been able to negotiate longer vacations there. Workers in France and Spain, for example, get a mandatory 25 paid vacation days per year. By contrast, the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not require companies to provide a minimum number of paid vacation days.
Consequently, a third of all women in the United States and one-fourth of all men do not receive paid vacations. Disturbingly, more companies are pressing to reduce the number of vacation days an employee receives.
When employees do receive vacation days, they tend not to take all of them. Time taken off in Western European countries exceeds the allotted vacation days. In France and Spain, workers take off 30 days a year; in Sweden they take off 35 days; in Italy, 25 and in Britain, 25. In the United States, workers take 10.2 vacation days each year.
"There a tendency to really relax in Europe, to disengage from work," said Christian Schneider, manager of the Wharton Center for Human Resources. "When an American finally does take those few days of vacation per year, they are most likely to be in constant contact with the office."
That can be chalked up to the growing number of cell phones, hand-held devices, laptops and old-fashioned workaholism. I know about this firsthand — I wrote this column in Johnson City, Tenn. over the Labor Day weekend.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.