As I reflect upon a long life, one disturbing trend increasingly stands out: Americans seem to work less than they used to. People want time off these days for “parental leave,” or don’t want to have to leave their home to earn a living. For example, to make both students and faculty happy, universities increasingly teach classes on-line, despite a multitude of evidence from the pandemic era that learning is significantly less than where in person direct instruction occurs. Similarly, workers rebel at going to the office, where more direct interaction with fellow workers often stimulates ideas, teamwork, morale, etc. Downtown offices are often half-deserted and commercial real estate values have been negatively effected.

One might argue that as productivity rises over time, people want to consume more leisure, that is to say work less. Yet between roughly 1940 and 2000 the typical work week stayed relatively constant and annual hours worked per employee did not dramatically change despite sharply rising incomes. Most persons seemed to consider a work-life balance involving 40 hours of paid employment weekly to be about right.

Yet in this century working has been increasingly avoided. If the same proportion of Americans over the age of 16 today worked that did in January 2000, when Bill Clinton was president, we would have over 12 million more persons employed, and many of the supply chain and shortage issues of recent years probably would have been avoided. Americans have long noticed how workers in countries like France and Germany with massive welfare states work much less than us—often 34 hour weeks with five or even six weeks of annual vacation. OECD data for 2022 suggest the average American works 1,811 hours annually, 15 percent or 240 hours more than the average for the 27 countries in the European Union. Partly as a consequence, Americans generally outdistance Europeans in their standard of living—we have on average bigger houses, more cars, take nicer (albeit shorter) vacations, have more and nicer electronic gadgets. Yet it appears that we probably are beginning to catch the European Disease, facing a declining work ethic and corresponding “can do” attitude.

Why? Fortuitously, as I began contemplating this issue, I became aware of a recent study Hardest-Working Cities in America (2024) by WalletHub Financial, that calculated work efforts for 116 cities, including at least one in each state plus the District of Columbia. Looking at the criteria used, most seemed quite reasonable; factors like average workweek hours (an especially highly weighted factor), the proportion of the labor force actually working, the proportion of the young population (16 to 24) neither in school nor working, etc. Looking at the 50 states, I took the 20 cities adjudged to be the hardest working and compared them with the 20 cities where the inhabitants worked the least, to see if anything stood out.

One thing was striking. In 14 of the 20 highest working cities, the state had no individual income tax on work income. These were states like Texas, Tennessee, Alaska, Wyoming and South Dakota. By contrast, in every one of the 20 cities with the least average work effort, there were state income taxes. Many of those cities were in states with notoriously high marginal tax rates, such as California, New York, and New Jersey, all of which had some residents paying a marginal tax rate of over 10 percent of their income. Where the state confiscated in taxation a significant portion of income, people exerted far less work effort since it was less remunerative.

Moreover, the states with generally high tax burdens tended to use some of the tax revenues to generously subsidize others not working through various forms of public assistance payments. American governments generally redistribute income from workers (who tend to have relatively high incomes) to non-workers (who have low incomes).

Over time, there has been a rather persistent move to enhancing the size of the welfare state with its assorted public assistance payments, financed to a considerable extent by taxing work effort via income and Social Security taxes. At the beginning of the 20th century, no American paid any income taxes—a century later virtually everyone working paid federal income taxes and most paid additional such taxes at the state and even municipal level.

The growth in government over time has had additional, even longer-term effects on the propensity to work. I suspect of particular importance is that American governments finance most educational spending, spending which has exploded over time. It is my sense that the schools have moved away from rewarding students who have learned important facts and skills (like the traditional three “Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic), to downplaying excellence in the accumulation of knowledge and increasing emphasis on maximizing student self-esteem. Generally mediocre American student performance on international examinations such as the PISA in reading, mathematics, and science are consistent with this view.

At the collegiate level, grade inflation is endemic. Whereas at a typical university, 60 years ago the average grade was around a “C” or “C+,” today it is about a “B.” In some of the elite private schools, the average grade is even much higher, at least a “B+” and often closer to an “A-.” Moreover, time use survey date suggest students are spending sharply fewer hours weekly on academic tasks—doing less for more. The increased obsession with such identity markers as skin coloration or even sexual orientation has further downplayed rewarding academic excellence achieved through hard work.

There are no doubt many other factors at work. Citing just one: the decline in religious affiliation probably on balance has led to a lessening of a sense of duty to work hard, to try to strive. But as we face an aging population which will tend to lower work effort still further, the War On Work poses grave problems for future generations of Americans.