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Why do Americans work more than Europeans?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A worker on the IG Group's trading floor looks away from his screens in the City of London, October 4, 2011 (Credit: Reuters/Olivia Harris)

Welcome to Labor Day (a paradoxically-named event since it is supposed to be a holiday from labor).  The idea of a day to celebrate those who labor was first proposed in 1882, and became a federal holiday in 1894.

America’s laborers deserve a holiday.  According to the International Labor Organization, Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours annually than British workers, and 499 more hours annually than French workers.  American workers receive 13 paid vacation days on average per year; in Finland and France, they get 30 days, an entire month.

If you can’t get more days off work, maybe you can get more sleep on the days when you work.  Here’s an option: You could live in Melbourne, Australia.  It’s a fantastic city—I was privileged to visit a few years ago and was very impressed with the people and culture.  According to The Wall Street Journal, Melbourne residents get more sleep per night than those living in any other city on earth.  They log an average of 6 hours and 58 minutes, nearly the 7 hours recommended by experts.  By contrast, residents of Tokyo get an average of 5 hours and 44 minutes of sleep, making theirs the least-rested city.

Why do Americans work so many hours?  Some point to unions—while 20 percent of American workers are unionized, more than 80 percent are unionized in France and Sweden.  Historically, American unions have fought for higher wages while European unions have fought for shorter hours.

Others point to higher tax rates in Europe—in theory, the higher your taxes, the less incentive you have to work.  Western European countries also offer more generous unemployment benefits, which may cause jobless people to wait longer before returning to work.  

However many hours you work, it’s important occasionally to ask yourself this diagnostic question: Am I doing what I was made to do?  Am I using my best gifts and fulfilling my greatest passion?  Most of all, am I doing what God wants me to do?

Knowing the will of God starts with being willing to do the will of God.  All through Scripture, God most used those people who were most willing to be used.  Noah was “warned by God concerning events as yet unseen,” and built the ark that saved humanity (Hebrews 11:7).  Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was going,” and God made him the father of the Jewish nation (Hebrews 11:8).  Mary said to Gabriel, “I am the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), and she became the mother of the Messiah.

As you enjoy this Labor Day, why not take a few minutes to reorient yourself to the purpose of God for your labor?  Submit your life and work to God as your King.  Say with Mary, “I am the servant of the Lord.”  And you will be, to the glory of God.