D. Dowd Muska


The Crisis of the Underworked American

August 28, 2014

Horrible Bosses was a smash hit in 2011. Its sequel will be released in November.

Horrible Employees? Look for it in theaters next … never.

It’s sacrilege, with Labor Day so close, but millions of Americans are dogging it on the job. Employers and HR departments are rarely bold enough to aggressively address the issue, but goldbricking is commonplace.

As a 2011 article in the federal government’s Monthly Labor Review noted, self-made estimates of hours devoted to employment err on the high side. Even worse, they fail to account for “time spent using the Internet or telephone for personal matters, having water-cooler discussions, daydreaming, and doing dozens of other nonwork activities.” Eleven percent of the employees surveyed by Salary.com in 2013 admitted to wasting “several hours per day … on non work-related items.”

Last month, an online poll discovered that talkative coworkers were “the biggest annoyance in the workplace.” Lee Hecht Harrison, “a global talent mobility company focused on human resource services,” documented that at 45 percent, Chatty Cathies crushed the complaints ranked in second (emails, 18 percent) and third (odors, 9 percent) places. Leave time is another area of abuse. A 2007 analysis by the firm CCH calculated that “two-thirds of U.S. workers who call in sick at the last minute do so for reasons other than physical illness.”

“Cyberloafing” is a 21st century productivity-killer. Facebooking, game-playing, shopping -- we’ve all done -- er, seen -- it. Last year researchers from Kansas State University and Southern Illinois University revealed that between “60 and 80 percent of people’s time on the Internet at work has nothing to do with work.” Their study found that “young people” struggle to understand why “social networking [is] unacceptable behavior.”

Ah, the Millennials. Helicopter parenting, it’s being widely reported, is infesting the workplace. Mommy and daddy are accompanying more applicants to job interviews. The HR manager for a Denver theme park told The Wall Street Journal about receiving a call from the mother of a paid IT intern, who gushed about “how talented her son was, and how he deserved much more [compensation], and that he could make much more money outside of this position.”

The pervasiveness of lazy, distracted, immature, and hooky-playing personnel doesn’t conform to liberals’ narrative about “exploited” and “overworked” underlings struggling to cope with the “time crunch” imposed by nefarious taskmasters. Neither do the data on average hours logged per employee, which show a small but consistent downward trend in the postwar era.

And let’s not forget the growing aversion to working under any schedule. The share of the adult population that is either employed or looking for a job peaked at 67.3 percent in April 2000. It’s now down to 62.9 percent. The inevitable result of an aging society? Perhaps -- but that doesn’t explain why labor-force participation for 25-to-54-year-olds began a decline in January 1999 from which it has yet to recover.

Until very recently, lengthier lives, better healthcare, and greater knowledge about exercise and nutrition weren’t keeping Americans in the workplace longer. It took the Bush-Obama economic apocalypse to reverse the trend toward earlier retirements. A Gallup survey showed that the average employee called it quits for good at a youthful 59 in 2002. It’s climbed up to 62 -- and for the health of the economy and condition of Washington’s finances, it should keep rising.

The U.S. retains a cadre of midnight-oil-burning hustlers. Many still aspire to reach the executive suite. Even more brutally brow-sweat to earn enough to launch their own enterprises. Most immigrants come to The Land of the Free because they recognize the opportunities available to those willing to give it their all.

But America’s employers are carrying a heavy burden of entitlement-minded duds. The slackers who take advantage of inattentive managers and ridiculously inflexible union contracts ought to heed Thaddeus Russell’s Labor Day scholarship. In a 2009 essay for The Boston Globe, the historian expounded that when President Grover Cleveland signed the holiday into law, “he and its sponsors intended it not as a celebration of leisure but as a promotion of the great American work ethic. Work, they believed, was the highest calling in life, and Labor Day was a reminder to get back to it. It was placed at the end of summer to declare an end to the season of indolence, and also to distance it from May Day, the spring event that had become a symbol of the radical labor movement.”

The proper way to celebrate Labor Day is to go to work on Monday.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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