Do Today’s Employees Work Harder Than Those in the Past?

Recently, (July 19, 2010) in a nationally syndicated newspaper column (Dear Abby [by JeannePhillips]) there was a discussion about the work ethic of today’s employees. The debate was fierce; with most respondents of the opinion that today’s employees do not work as hard. One writer said: “Years ago, people worked hard for their money. Now, they hardly work,”

Of course, only those who have been in the workforce over a reasonably long career would have the work history to make an informed opinion based on personal experience. And, sometimes memory is selective (e.g., “walking 10 miles in the snow,” “working from dawn to dusk”). Nevertheless, it seemed that the “old-timers” thought people worked “really hard,” “back in the day,” while younger employees felt their current jobs are more demanding.

The Nature of Work has Changed

The nature of work, and the types of jobs, has changed dramatically over the past several decades. While we were a manufacturing economy, we have become a post-industrial, service-economy; some would say a post-service, information economy. This transition has taken place in relatively short order. Workers toiled in factories, mines, lumberyards, etc. performing physically demanding, often dangerous, work. Technology has, of course, eliminated and/or made many of these jobs simpler and safer. Back-breaking, physically debilitating, work is almost relegated to the dustbin of history – in this country.

Instead of physically demanding work, we now have mentally demanding jobs. This makes comparison challenging, perhaps impossible. Who works harder, the guy shoveling coal, or the operator of computerized coal mining equipment?

Employees have Changed

Surveys of “Generation Y” workers (post baby boom) show that these workers expect job satisfaction and work-life balance. They don’t have the same level of employee loyalty that prior generations demonstrated, and will “bail” if they feel they’re being treated unfairly. They have grown up in an age of prosperity and, despite the recent economic downturn, do not feel they need to accept just any work. Many employees will just not put up with the conditions endured by their parents and grandparents.

Acting busy isn’t the same as being busy!

Technology has made it easier to fool the boss into thinking you’re busy working on company business. Surfing the net can appear to be business-related. Computers can be programmed to send emails to colleagues in the middle of the night while you’re sound asleep. These, and similar activities are referred to as “Cyberloafing.” (New York Times, Jan. 23, 2009)

Others perform “busywork” which may not be productive from your employer’s standpoint. Desk jobs are easier to fake than manual labor.

Unionization has an Impact

Union workers are often protected from disciplinary actions when they slack off. Fairly, or unfairly, unions are obligated to represent and protect their membership. Increasingly, unions (especially SEIU [Services Employees International Union] are organizing the service sector.

“Thinking” Work May be More Stressful

Some employees are just too stressed to be attentive or productive. Recent studies by: Northwestern National Life indicate 40% of workers report their job is “very or extremely stressful,” the Families and Work Institute results indicate 26% are “often or very often burned out or stressed,” and, Yale University‘s study reports 29% are “quite a bit or extremely stressed at work.” (As reported by: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,, [publication 99-101]).

And the Answer is…

Nobody knows if people are working harder today than their counterparts of the past. The nature of the jobs defies meaningful comparison. Additionally, work expectations for professionals and managers have expanded so there is little downtime. Even if employees are working “normal” schedules, they’re typically on call most or all of the time. So, as a consequence of technologies, they’re “tethered” to the office (by computers and cell phones) 24/7. And, the debate continues.