Don't You Forget About Me

August 29, 2010

I've been talking with Ayako about some fundamental differences between Japanese and American culture. While Americans are certainly considered hardworking, frequently turning up in the top 10 hardest working countries, I'm convinced we've got nothing on the Japanese.

According to Ayako, entry-level Japanese workers are expected to put in 12 - 15 hour days the first year working at a company. After that, they're able to finally relax and settle in to a mere 10 - 12 hour day. This is so common there's even a term for death by overworking, called karoshi.

Such devotion to work is perhaps compounded by the idea that Japanese at a young age are expected to plot a strict course in life from which they're not expected to deviate. The Japanese sense of happiness also seems to be bound up in their individual talents. There doesn't seem to be an inherent separation between what motivates someone out of preference verses innate aptitude. It was interesting when asking Ayako what drove her to follow how she spends her time (whether it was working or playing piano), she would respond simply that she was good at it.

We talked a lot about this and what it means to be "happy". Is life any less fulfilling if your happiness is predicated on what you're good at? Can we be bred to be satisfied in our jobs, as opposed to more base inclinations? The American perspective is so different -- one of working hard and playing hard -- but there's a strict separation there. There's not an expectation that people should enjoy their work simply because they're good at it. For those slogging through their jobs (and let's face it, that's a fair number), that's what weekends are for. To reclaim what made life important in the first place.

Desperate to communicate the American idea of having a personality totally independent of work, I wandered past a decrepit theatre in Dublin hosting a John Hughes retrospective. I could hardly resist then, taking Ayako to see The Breakfast Club, complete with the dust and scratches of 25 odd years and a warbling sound track. I couldn't think of a better movie to show teenagers resisting categorization, an inherently American claim to individuality. Not sure she totally liked it, though we both had some giggly moments along with the cheering audience.

These are some statistics of estimated annual hours over 8 centuries (to put our contemporary work ethics in perspective) courtesy of Wikipedia:

year               type of worker                      annual hrs
13th century    Adult male peasant, UK            1620 hrs
14th century    Casual laborer, UK                  1440 hrs
Middle Ages     English worker                        2309 hrs
1400–1600      Farmer-miner, adult male, UK   1980 hrs
1840              Avg worker, UK                       3105–3588 hrs
1850              Avg worker, U.S.                     3150–3650 hrs
1987              Avg worker, U.S.                     1949 hrs
1988              Manufacturing workers, UK        1855 hrs
2004              Avg full-time worker, Germany   1480 hrs
2008              Avg worker, India                     2817 – 3443 hrs
2010              Investment Banker, NY              5082 hrs

What do your work hours look like? Are they in line with the contemporary average of where you're living?


A. Jesse Jiryu Davis said...

Ooh, interesting table. I work 3 or 4 days a week, and I take at least 6 weeks vaction, so I work 46 weeks a year. So, 1100 to 1450 hours a year. Pretty cush. I spend nearly as much time on hobbies and volunteering as on work.

I've generally heard 2000 hours a year as standard for American professionals.

I try *not* to make a distinction between work and self-actualization, since I fear it makes a rift in my life - how could I spend over a thousand hours a year at activity that's somehow "not me"? And wouldn't that attitude make it easier to behave unethically at work, even if I think I'm an ethical person?

That said, I often make the distinction anyway, but I'm trying to integrate it all.