American “Hustle Culture”

An ongoing series where I share a “Business Playlist” of articles that made me think in the hope that you find them valuable also.

This week: American “Hustle Culture” and its impact on work hours

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Before returning to live in New Zealand in 2020, I spent almost 12 years living and working in North America and experienced American “Hustle Culture” firsthand.

Not that you need to live in the USA to be infected by it. Business and personal development literature is dominated by US authors, the vast majority of whom preach the gospel of “hard work and long hours”. I was surprised to learn that this mindset is a relatively recent phenomenon!

Early in my career, my first managerial roles were in New Zealand’s pharmaceutical industry. I represented various European pharmaceutical manufacturers and spent a lot of time traveling back and forth from NZ to Europe to meet with suppliers in The Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. Scheduling my trips was complicated because my European contacts always seemed to be on holiday!

I was reading a lot of “hustle culture” literature at the time and had been indoctrinated into the American way of thinking about productivity. “How do these Europeans get any work done?” I wondered.

I have a fond memory of sitting in a boardroom in Copenhagen at 5 pm. My European colleagues abruptly ended our meeting and I heard what sounded like a stampede in the hallway outside. I thought to myself, “It must be a fire drill. People are evacuating the building!” Nope! The whole company stopped work and every person in the executive team packed up and left the building in short order. These were highly paid business leaders running large, successful businesses, but the cultural norms around working hours were the opposite of the USA-centric business literature I was reading. At first, I was puzzled, but over time I grew to admire the European mindset of work-life balance.

Later on, I worked in San Francisco’s software industry which was a very different experience! I can relate to the experiences Aki Ito describes in her article below (quotes in italics). The article, published in Business Insider, takes a historical perspective of America’s relationship to work and compares it to the work cultures of Japan and Europe:

How Hustle Culture Got America Addicted to Work

“Thanks to widespread economic growth and massive gains in productivity, spurred by everything from assembly lines to computers, people were working less and earning more.”

“But then something strange happened. In Europe, the average workweek continued to get shorter. But in America, the long, steady march toward a more leisurely future came to an abrupt halt.”

“Around 1980, as President Ronald Reagan launched an assault on labor unions and government benefits for the poor, the century-long decline in US working hours came to an end.”

“…the Fair Labor Standards Act prevented employers from overworking their hourly employees without providing overtime pay. But they were free to squeeze as many hours as they wanted out of salaried employees, without paying them a penny more.”

“Even stranger, Americans began to glamorize their lack of free time.”

“Work became the central means by which you undertook to live your best life, follow your passion, and change the world.”

“It was no longer enough to do your job. You had to be your job.”

“Working long hours was suddenly the ultimate status symbol, a peculiarly American form of humblebrag”

“….if you told an American you worked long hours, they assumed you were rich. If you told an Italian the same thing, they assumed you were poor.”

“…the German work year is an astonishing 380 hours shorter than (the USA) – which means that Germans work almost 10 weeks less than we do every year.”

“I came from Japan, where karoshi, which means death by overwork, is an official cause of death. I was moving from one overworking culture to another, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. In corporate Japan, you stayed in the office until 9 every night out of obligation to your employer. It didn’t make you rich, but you were ensured job security until you retired. In California, you also stayed until 9 every night, but only because you wanted to.”

“What made hustle culture so powerful was that we wanted to live this way. We were told it was fun, and therefore not really work. We were told it would make our lives worthwhile and complete.”

“By then, a cottage industry of self-help books, blogs, and management consultants had sprung up to spread the Gospel of Love What You Do to every laboring soul in every walk of life. No longer was a zeal for work the sole province of coders and clergy. We came to expect it from our baristas and bartenders as well. The sociologist Erin Cech gave it a name: the passion principle.”

“The way we glorify work in the United States is both a historical and geographical anomaly, a recent American invention. In Europe, industrialized nations have found a way to marry robust economic growth with dramatically shorter workweeks. And before you try to explain this away with some version of well, that’s Europe, it’s worth noting that from 1870 to the 1970s, Americans actually worked less than the Germans and the French. “While it may seem today that differences in work patterns are eternal aspects of European and American lifestyles,” a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research observed in 2005, “these differences are modern in origin.”

“…a “social multiplier” may have turbocharged the European trend toward less work. Europeans, in other words, value their leisure time more because their friends and family are around to enjoy it with them. It’s a virtuous feedback loop that favors time off. The more people there are who are free from work, the more everyone comes to enjoy their freedom.”

“America wasn’t founded on a cult of work. It was founded on an ideal of personal liberty.”

“Germany requires employers to offer at least 20 paid days off. In practice, though, the average minimum is 30 days – which comes on top of nine public holidays. That’s nearly two months off a year. The United States, by contrast, doesn’t require employers to offer a single paid day off, even on national holidays. Somehow it is Europe, not America, that has come to put a meaningful value on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“When the coronavirus pandemic struck, the question of why we’re all working so hard suddenly became foremost in the minds of millions. Virtually overnight, our jobs started to feel way less important than our personal lives. Americans began quitting in record numbers.”

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This article certainly made me think! For more information related to this topic, see my articles: How Many Hours Should We Work? and Measure Results, Not Hours.

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Until next time…
Stephen