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Opinion | Working Less Is a Matter of Life and Death

That’s what the Center for Economic and Policy Research called the United States in a 2019 study of 21 wealthy nations that found it was the only one without nationally mandated paid vacation or paid holidays. Only 16 states and the District of Columbia have legislated paid sick leave.

Even Americans who do get paid vacation use it sparingly. One study found that more than half did not use all their time off.

Americans, wrote Samuel Huntington in his book “Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity,” “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies.”

Many Americans work long hours to make ends meet. Keynes anticipated the prosperity of modern society, but he assumed incorrectly that everyone would enjoy a sufficient share of that prosperity.

What’s even more striking, however, is that affluent Americans are not following the example of grandees of centuries past. Wealthy, college-educated people actually work far more than they did decades ago, and the richest 10 percent work the most.

Rich people in earlier eras demonstrated affluence by ostentatiously not working. They wore white togas or fancy hats or clean gloves. During the last Gilded Age, the “leisure class” spent its days in Downton Abbey-like pursuits, puttering in the rose garden, chasing a fox or getting dressed for dinner.

Today, wealthy Americans show off by working all the time.

Why? One explanation is that people like working, at least in the kinds of jobs that wealthy Americans tend to do. Throughout human history, most people had to work, the work was grim, and they assumed no one would work more than necessary. Aristotle opined, “The reason we labor is to have leisure.” Affluent Americans seem to have decided leisure is best enjoyed in moderation.

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