In recent years, the United States has entered a strange state of counterbalance that no economist has quite begun to understand. Federal spending on education, as well as teacher continuing education, has declined, and a recent study confirmed that the highest paid public employee in more than half of the states is a football coach, followed by a basketball coach. In 2016, the average American spent 50 percent less time studying and more time watching TV - some research suggests that the average American spends 302 minutes (over 5 hours) watching television daily - a startling statistic.
The irony here is that Americans are notoriously the most overworked people in the world, ranking even ahead of China. According to a recent article in The New York Times, “In 2006, the top twenty per cent of earners were twice as likely to work more than fifty hours a week than the bottom twenty per cent, a reversal of historic conditions.” And although we appear to have increased our productivity, invented a number of labor-saving techniques and devices, and have more people (including an increase in women) entering the workforce, how have our work hours somehow gone up? With more resources and more people we should be spending less time working and instead enjoying a steady balance of work and personal life.
But that is not the case.
The effects of the overworked, always anxious American have stretched farther than we think. In a 2012 article published in the Stanford University newspaper, Steven Tung compared Finnish public school education to that of the U.S. and found that even though Finnish students spent less time in school, had less homework and took no standardized tests, they ranked far higher on the Program for International Student Assessments. In 2009, the Finns ranked sixth in math, third in reading and second in science out of the 65 tested countries, while the U.S. was 30th in math, 17th in reading and 23rd in science. We spend more time in school during the day, week and year then our Finnish counterparts, yet we still manage to rank significantly lower on international tests.
I believe this is happening because we’ve become so accustomed to thinking “we have to be better, therefore we must do more.” Giving students more homework and more tests is intended to better prepare them for the intensely competitive workforce we’ve created where “more” and “better” are required of them. We are acutely aware of where we stand in the world with regard to education, and we think changing it by adding more and more is going to make us better. Allowing students to take AP classes - college level courses - was meant to prepare them even more for a secondary school education and instead has just become another incentive for students to overwork themselves trying to compete with each other. Students are no longer being taught to learn for the sake of learning, they are being taught either to a standardized test or for the sake of the curriculum. As everyone is expected to achieve more, do more, compete more, the quality of our work has declined, and our focus on bettering ourselves has been replaced with being better than others.
Americans have reached a point where our “work hard and get results” has almost come to a grinding halt, as it seems everyone is working harder than everyone else - so one must work even harder just to keep pace.
Not to mention that America is a fiercely consumer society. Sure, you may be working hard and making more money, but mainstream America has also made it a requirement that you then consume more. Advertising is everywhere and is much more tailored to your tastes, and employers expect their staff to be on top of all social media outlets---actively and constantly. And, new “faster” and “better” technology is unveiled everyday - another thing to keep up with.
It seems that although we’re working harder and more frequently, our results are becoming more and more watered down, and our quality of life is declining at a rapid rate. Understandably, lifestyle and culture won’t just change overnight, but being aware of our stress and working to relax the way we live might be a good start.