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It was Friday, and frankly, it had been a long week. So when a Twitter follower asked us to check a claim from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, that Americans work longer hours than any other people in the world, we were inclined to agree.
But as a March 10, 2011, column from the New York Times' David Brooks so eloquently pointed out, Americans often perceive themselves as better than they are.
So we thought we'd better check.
Sanders made his comment on C-SPAN's Washington Journal program on March 8, 2011, in response to a caller who said federal programs like welfare have taken away Americans' incentive to work. Sanders responded that while there are certainly people out there who exploit the system, "I think the number of those people is much overrated."
"We are the hardest working people in the world," Sanders said. "A few years ago, we had the dubious distinction, I think, of surpassing the Japanese in terms of the number of hours our people worked. We now work the longest hours of any people around the world."
We asked Sanders' office for backup and they forwarded us a press release from the International Labour Organization, a London-based United Nations agency that oversees international labor standards. The release ran under the headline, "Americans work longest hours among industrialized countries, Japanese second longest."
According to the story, "US workers put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations, clocking up nearly 2,000 hours per capita in 1997, the equivalent of almost two working weeks more than their counterparts in Japan where annual hours worked have been gradually declining since 1980, according to a new statistical study of global labour trends published by the International Labour Office."
This fact-check seemed like a slam dunk until we checked out the date of the press release: Sept. 6, 1999. And it was based on 1997 data.
We contacted the International Labour Office for more recent statistics. They provided a spreadsheet of the latest available data, from 2008, which shows the U.S ranked eighth (out of 28) when it comes to the annual number of hours actually worked per person.
Who worked longer?
Topping the list was Greece, where people logged an average of 2,120 hours. Also working longer hours: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Mexico, Iceland and Italy.
The U.S., where people worked an average of 1,792 hours, did nudge out Japan, where people worked an average of 1771 hours. That has been consistently true for more than a decade.
We also checked with the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), a group of 32 large, industrialized democracies, which tracks these kinds of statistics as well. Their report showed a nearly identical number of hours worked by Americans in 2008, 1,796. But in the OECD report, which tracked more countries, the U.S. ranked 12th (out of 35). In addition to the ILO list of countries working more hours, the OECD listed Korea, the Russian Federation, Estonia and Israel.
According to the OECD report, Americans worked about 32 more hours a year than the average for all OECD countries.
And they worked slightly longer than workers in Japan.
A spokesman in Sanders' office stressed the fact that Sanders was correct about the U.S. surpassing Japan in the number of hours worked. And Sanders is correct about that. But we were more interested in the idea that Americans now work longer hours than any other people in the world.
The data shows Americans work longer hours than the average for industrialized nations. But the number of hours worked by Americans has been gradually declining (though only slightly) over the last decade. And according to the ILO, we no longer work the longest hours. In fact, that hasn't been true for over a decade. And according to OECD statistics, the U.S. hasn't even cracked the Top 10 in over a decade.
There's another caveat. The lists don't include most developing nations.
According to a 2003 ILO report, "In all developing Asian economies where data were available, people historically worked more than in industrialized economies. This is a typical sign for developing economies as they often compensate for the lack of technology and capital with people working longer hours."
In other words, in addition to those countries listed earlier, there are many more developing countries where people work more hours than Americans.
Sanders said "We now work the longest hours of any people around the world." That may have been true when compared to other industrialized nations in 1997. But it's not true now, and it's not true when you consider any country, as Sanders said. We rule his statement False.
C-SPAN, Video: Washington Journal for March 9, 2011 (about the 30-minute mark)
New York Times, "The Modesty Manifesto," by David Brooks, March 10, 2011
International Labour Organization, Press release: "Americans work longest hours among industrialized countries, Japanese second longest," Sept. 6, 1999
OECD website, Average annual hours actually worked per worker
International Labour Organization, Key Indicators of the Labour Market, Table 6b. Annual hours actually worked per person
International Labour Organization, Press release: "New ILO study highlights labour trends worldwide: US productivity up, Europe improves ability to create jobs," Sept. 1, 2003
International Labour Organization, Key Indicators of the Labour Market, KILM 6. Hours of work, 2009
E-mail interview with Monica Castillo of the International Labour Organization
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