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October 18, 2012

Why working harder doesn't make you richer

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

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.

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Kenny is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, and author, most recently, of "Getting Better."

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