Are American Workers Unproductive? And How Do We Compare To China?

Map of the U.S. alongside a map of China

By John A. Tures, Professor of Political Science, LaGrange College

When I was a teenager, the movie “Gung Ho” was released, which depicted the American manufacturing workers as lazy and having a shoddy work ethic, until a Japanese company buys their facility. Only then do Americans learn lessons in a proper work ethic, according to the film (though Gung Ho is a Chinese term, I believe). It’s a sentiment that’s being repeated a lot in the news. But is it true? And how do American workers compare to other countries in productivity.

A critic of my columns sends me a lot of emails, forwarded from a series of sites fairly critical of Americans. The latest was a series of claims that U.S. workers are unproductive, certainly less productive than Chinese workers, and that unions are to blame. It’s a popular talking point, as 138 million Google hits mention the term “lazy American workers.”

Elon Musk seems to think so. Futurism reports “In a wide-ranging appearance at the Financial Times‘ Future of the Car summit yesterday, Musk told the crowd that he believes the Chinese workforce is harder working than Americans…“I think there will be some very strong companies coming out of China,” he said during his remarks at the autos conference. “There [are] just a lot of supertalented hardworking people in China who strongly believe in manufacturing. They won’t just be burning the midnight oil,” Musk added, “they will be burning the 3am oil, they won’t even leave the factory type of thing, whereas in America people are trying to avoid going to work at all.”

To investigate, I researched the data published by the World Population Review. Of course, they list the Gross Domestic Product (the USA is ranked tenth here), but as the site indicates “Helpful as it is, GDP per capita alone does not provide a complete impression of productivity because it does not consider the number of hours worked in an average work week varies significantly between countries, which is vital when measuring productivity. To provide a more complete economic analysis, economists have devised measures such as GDP per hour worked, which is a measure of a country’s productivity, excluding unemployment or hours worked per week.”

In measuring the ten most productive countries in the world, using the GDP per hour worked as the unit of analysis, the United States clocks in at eight in the WPR analysis. They add “American full-time employees work 41.5 hours per week, and about 11.1% of the employees work over 50 hours per week. While the U.S. is still the sixth-most productive country per hour, this shows that many Americans live to work instead of working as a means to live.”

So where does China rank? By the measures of productivity per hour from WPR, China is tucked in between Peru and Indonesia, behind Ecuador, Thailand and Sri Lanka. It’s GDP per person employed trails Colombia.

But I won’t use this column to blast China’s work ethic. I’m sure the average Chinese person works very hard. They live with a country run on a highly unproductive ideology, with a government whose efficiency can be seriously questioned, whose best measure of productivity is in its propaganda that seeks to puff up their own economic model, while working nonstop to denigrate the average American worker and businesses, accounting for a fair chunk of the “lazy American worker” myth that’s pushed so persuasively, yet doesn’t match the facts.

However, that critic is right about one thing. GM, plus Ford’s and Chrysler’s stock could be performing better, but that doesn’t mean unions are to blame. The companies and the United Auto Workers need to come together on a model that provides some give-and-take on shifting to electric vehicles and the next generation of production, one that might require more education and job retraining. But if the evidence shows anything, it’s the American workers are capable of rolling up their sleeves and meeting that challenge too.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His views are his own. He can be reached at His Twitter account is JohnTures2.