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A view from Washington

18th May 2006

At last, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association has confirmed what many of us Americans who have lived in England have long suspected: you Brits drink more, smoke more, and spend far less on healthcare, but you're still a whole lot healthier than we are in middle age.

And the race, as measured by a blue-ribbon team from two London universities and the prestigious Rand Corp., isn't even close. Americans aged 55 to 64 are up to twice as likely to suffer from diabetes, lung cancer, and high blood pressure as English people of the same age. Tea consumption can’t explain all of that, can it?

Nor can our legendary obesity or cloying propensity toward earnest self-absorption. At least part of the blame for our poor national health lies in our national character. America is a land of extremes—and for us the terrain between workaholism and the dole queue, between alpha and omega, ecstasy and despair, wealth and homelessness, is a vast no-man’s-land. Excess? We love it. Stress? Anorexia nervosa, or morbid obesity? Overwork? Bring it on. Until it kills us, that is.

Consider the following:

Careerjournal.com reports that after 27 years at Wal-Mart and annual holiday of a week at most, CEO Lee Scott is taking off the entire month of May. Far from wishing him a restful
month, however, Wall Street is abuzz with speculation that this extraordinary month off might mean he’s about to be sacked (the company denies this). The sad truth is that most senior U.S. executives take a miserly two weeks off every year—several days at Christmas and around other holidays, and then a week in the summer.

Further, the nonprofit Familes and Work Institute reports that one-third of workers who could take paid holiday time don’t. The study, unambiguously titled “Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much,? reports that one in three American employees are chronically overworked, while 54 percent have felt overwhelmed at some time in the past month by how much work they had to complete. The study of more than 1,000 wage and salaried employees identifies for the first time why being overworked and feeling overwhelmed have become so pervasive in the American workplace. “Ironically, the very same skills that are essential to survival and success in this fast-paced global economy, such as multi-tasking, have also become the triggers for feeling overworked,? said Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute and a lead author of the study. “Being interrupted frequently during work time and working during non-work times, such as while on vacation, are also contributing factors for feeling overworked.?

Hourly wage workers in the United States live under different, less pathological stresses. In March, the California-based Center for WorkLife Law released a report titled "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When Opting Out Is Not an Option." Using data from 99 published union arbitration cases, this study found workers in a broad range of fields, from typing to driving or healthcare, had been sacked for offenses such as leaving work without permission to care for a child taken to hospital with a head injury. And these were the fortunate workers, with a union willing and able to take up cudgels on their behalf. Just over one-eighth of Americans belong to unions. And 45 million Americans have no health insurance whatsoever.

Can someone save us from ourselves?

As a professional myself, driven at times to near-madness by my own insistence that a part-time career is not only possible but beneficial to me, my family, and the media, I am sadly pessimistic about whether we Americans can change our ways and thereby extend our lives.

The drive to excess in our production as well as our consumption is too deeply ingrained. Psychology Today quotes Johns Hopkins psychiatrist John Gartner as saying that the United States and other countries founded by immigrants tend to have high rates of mild mania. I have long perceived this as well, but I think of it as the chutzpah factor—found in a self-selecting group of uniquely relentless people. These are "energetic risk-takers—precisely the type of person likely to undertake a bold endeavor like immigration."

So it’s our national character—mania, chutzpah, gumption, the old Horatio Alger myth of the self-made American man—that’s responsible for our gluttony, our mad work ethic, our yearning for extremes.

Perhaps Fortune magazine has a brilliant strategy then—investing in pharmaceuticals aimed at the millions upon millions of American insomniacs, predicted to spend $5 billion every year on soporific drugs by 2009. If history is any guide, most of us will be living on the margins and the rest will be filthy rich, but only a precious few will grow old in sufficiently good health to truly enjoy the fruits of our national largesse.

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