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America’s Work Obsession Is Only Getting Worse

May 16, 2017 | by
Reviewed by real estate expert Jonathan Tootell

The evidence is mounting: Americans are overworked.

Recent studies point to less mandated time off (like paid parental leave) and longer hours as a sign that Americans, relative to other developed nations, devote an unhealthy amount of time to work.

Ask the average person, and without looking at the numbers, they would probably agree. They feel sleep-deprived. Physically and emotionally exhausted.  Their stress grows disproportionately to their salaries.

Some detractors argue that the perception America works harder than other countries is actually stronger than the reality.

Either way, the response from the workforce has been a call for greater flexibility and explorations of mindfulness. Working from home. In-office meditation. Less reliance on smartphones.

“Work smarter, not harder” really just means “Always be working” now.

The flexibility should bring a welcome change of pace and relief from the rigors of routine.

Instead, it’s bringing something else entirely.

Flexible Space Creating More Work?

Flexibility has in many ways made work more inescapable, a growing presence in people’s lives, not a diminishing presence.

Look no further than commercial real estate to see America’s obsession with work deepen.

Nowadays, it seems every spare square foot of space in American cities is being reanalyzed for its potential as workspace.

It’s estimated that shared office space alone accounts for 27 million square feet of space in the US alone, much of it new or converted from other uses.

Our work obsession has even spread to spaces designed as havens from work.  New apartment complexes now offer shared workspace as an amenity. And in a more recent development, you can now rent space in a restaurant during off hours.

These trends have arisen in response to the demand for more, not fewer, workspaces and occasions to do that work. “Work smarter, not harder” really just means “Always be working (ABW)” now.


photo; paid time off at the pool, with sunglasses


Which is OK. If each of us secretly wants to operate in the gig economy and become a five-to-nine digital nomad. That’s how many entrepreneurs get their start, after all.

The problem for many is that they’re becoming both a nine-to-fiver and five-to-niner. That doesn’t leave many spare hours in the day for anything but work.

Why are we so obsessed?

The Work Identity Crisis

It used to be past generations that romanticized work, that identified with the honor that steady, loyal employment brought.

Millennials were supposed to have changed that, with a propensity to change jobs and careers rapidly, stay on their parents’ health insurance and adoption of a general DGAF attitude.

Well. If anything, our reliance on work as a major source of identity is only increasing.

Perhaps more than beauty and wealth now, our sense of self-worth derives from some measurement of “productivity.” Every third article on the Internet is some variant of “12 Habits of the Most Productive People.” As though, if we could only figure out how to wring one last minute of work out of the day, we could all be Elon Musk. Or at least blogger-famous. Or if we can’t be rich and beautiful, no one is going to outwork us.

After all, employees are the ones asking permission to work anytime, anywhere. They would rather have more flexible hours than more paid time off. Time to rethink that?

These shifts in work policies and behavior are supposed to help people manage stress, not compound it. But that seems increasingly difficult to do with the complete erasure of the border between private life and work life. The latter usually tips the scale. I’m an entrepreneur. I would know.

If Americans are serious about clawing back their time and independence from work, better compartmentalization skills and lots of practice with those skills would be a good start. Idly “catching up” on work on a Saturday might not be such idle work after all if we’re to believe the numbers.

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