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(DV) Choi: Revenge of the Shift Worker







Revenge of the Shift Worker
A Brief, Lighthearted Look at Star Wars and Work in America
by Chohong Choi
September 27, 2005

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“Maybe the U.S. should declare a national holiday for Star Wars.” [1]

  -- a business commentator


“A dull people all work and no play can make.”  That is what Yoda would say about Americans if he were to travel from that galaxy far, far away to Planet Earth and, more specifically, the United States. While the U.S. is blessed with a wealth of leisure and entertainment facilities, many Americans have insufficient time to utilize them.

“But when into town a new Star Wars movie rolls, a different story it is,” the wise Jedi master might say for May of certain years. They have come six times in 29 years, including 2005. When a new Star Wars movie premieres, not even a legion of stormtroopers can stop its most dedicated American fans from experiencing it.  (Actually, stormtroopers constitute a good part of the fan base.)

During the first two days of the release of Episode II: Attack of the Clones in 2002, 9.4 million Americans -- workers as well as non-workers -- went to see it.  Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas (CG&C) estimated that some 51 percent of them (4.8 million) were full-time workers. [2] So using this figure and multiplying it by the 2005 average daily wage, which it determined was $130.60, CG&C estimated that American employers would lose almost $627 million worth of productivity during the premiere of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. [3] Some workers who did not have the luxury of paid vacations even chose to forego a day’s wages to catch the movie. [4]

However, CG&C speculated that its estimate could be low, because reviews of Episode III were mostly positive. [5] It speculated correctly, because the latest Star Wars movie grossed over $83 million domestically in its first two days (May 19 and 20).  Divide this amount by 2005’s average ticket price (estimated to be $6.40), and the number of admissions for the first two days of Sith would be over 13 million – considerably more than the number who went to see Episode II three years earlier.  So if 51 percent of Sith viewers during its first two days were full-time workers, that comes to over 6.6 million “human resources” skipping work to see Sith happen. In that case, the estimated loss in productivity from this higher turnout would be over $869 million. [6]

Some have accused director George Lucas of hurting the economy by releasing his movies on a weekday, so as to encourage employee absenteeism. [7] But that is not looking at the entire picture, because other sectors of the economy stood to benefit.  Said John Challenger, CEO of CG&C: “[Sith] will result in increased consumer spending on movie tickets and refreshments, increased foreign and domestic tourism, and increased business in shops and restaurants near the movie theaters." [8] Once the DVD comes out, along with any reworked version (yet again!) of the previous five movies, their sales will further contribute to the economy (and we have not even taken into account the numerous other product tie-ins with Star Wars).

Some employers realized the Star Wars phenomenon early on, and, rather than compel their “Star Warriors” (or “geeks”, as the most devoted Star Wars fans are popularly known) to show up for work during the first days of a new release, have accommodated them by being flexible in dealing with absentee excuses. A handful even joined in the hype by taking their employees to the movies. [9] One Boston employer has been doing that for the last three Star Wars movies. Starting with Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999, Seth Miller of Miller Systems has been giving his employees a paid day off -- as long as they go with him to see the latest Star Wars movie during its premiere. Said Miller: “It's the benefit of not working at a giant monolithic -- dare I say 'Imperial' -- type company." [10] His company’s unusual employee perk serves as a recruiting tool (although it is not certain if it will remain, since Episode III is believed to be the final movie in the series -- unless Lucas decides to do a sequel trilogy). [11]

Even Challenger himself is an admitted Star Wars fan. [12] He advised that the figures put out by his firm were “a fun way of looking at absenteeism,” and added that, “Hopefully, employers, rather than firing employees, will be embracing it. A good manager will ask who is going to be out and then have a backup plan.  If someone calls in sick with a hoarse voice, go with 'em! Build some morale.” [13] Since not all workers have the bonus enjoyed by Miller Systems employees, Challenger said that workers who planned to cut out of work should tell their bosses the truth. [14]

Now that Episode III is winding down in theaters, how did you fans out there who saw it on its first two days explain your absences to your bosses? Something akin to, “Take that, Trade Federation!” [15] or an alternative form of persuasion like, “I'm going to Star Wars and I'm going to be inspired for the rest of the year”? [16] To those who used the former alibi, just bear in mind that the Empire can and does strike back. [17]

In all fairness, not all full-time workers who saw Episode III during its first two days of release played “Wookiee Hooky” to do so. Some had already received that day off (and sometimes more) from their bosses well in advance (and likely with pay, so this could not be counted as lost productivity because employers factor in vacation days when determining their employees’ salaries). Some reported for work during the day and then to theaters in the evening (or caught the morning matinee before going to work).  A few lucky ones managed to catch the very first midnight showings and still turned up for work the next morning feeling like they could take on the whole Empire by themselves.

Even American workers need to recharge their batteries every now and then. They are already among the most productive workers in the world, and work some of the longest hours for employees in the industrialized countries. They also receive less vacation time than most of their counterparts in these countries. [18] European workers have long received at least twice the vacation time, and workers in a few European countries are actually more productive on an hourly basis than their American counterparts. [19]

American workers are more productive overall because they work longer hours. [20] But even their productivity (the hourly output by each worker) [21] has gone up by some 30 percent since 1973 (about the same time Lucas began writing Star Wars). [22] If real wages (wages that are adjusted for inflation) [23] had increased commensurately over this time, Americans would now be working three or 3.5-day weeks or five-hour days, as some futurists predicted back in the 1960s and 1970s, without cramping their incomes. Computers and robots would have taken over many of our domestic chores. That would have given folks plenty of time to watch Star Wars while C3PO served them refreshments. But real wages for many have struggled to keep up with this enhanced efficiency in the last 30-plus years. [24] For many others, they have fallen. [25] (The 3.5-day work week, however, is quite real for our members of Congress, along with their six-figure salaries, generous pay hikes, and superb benefits. [26])

The fact that their pay has not kept up with their productivity has apparently not been lost on American workers.  According to a recent survey on wasted time at work, over 23 percent of workers surveyed said that their less than adequate compensation influenced them to slack off on the job, which happened to be the second most popular reason for being unproductive (behind not having enough work to do). The estimated value of the lost productivity from such uneconomical uses of company time? Something to the tune of $759 billion a year. [27] Possibly enough to finance the construction of Darth Vader’s star destroyer, and this amount severely dwarfs any productivity lost from absentee workers during the premiere of a new Star Wars movie.

Employers had estimated that their workers wasted from 0.94 to 1.6 hours on the job each day -- on top of their lunch hour. In fact, employees wasted an average of 2.09 hours per day. That is two hours and 5.4 minutes -- almost enough time to see a Star Wars movie, which Lucas likes to limit to just over two hours. (If one skips the end credits, then that may be exactly enough time.) The amount of time wasted in the top ten time-wasting states, ranging from 2.5 to 3.2 hours [28] would give employees more than enough time to watch Episode III (2 hours, 26 minutes long) in its entirety, with even a few advertisements thrown in.

Still, Americans generally do work hard (and this includes Star Wars fans, who are ridiculed for never leaving the security of their parents’ basements except for the next movie in the saga [29]), and some are even workaholics. Being a workaholic does not necessarily mean diligently slaving away on the job day in and day out. It simply means being addicted to work, whether or not one feels good about it. [30] Fatigue, for one, is a common symptom of workaholics, which affects their productivity. Illness is another.  Two-thirds of American workers usually or always labor while sick, and their diminished productivity (“presenteeism”) during their ordeals accounts for up to 60 percent of their companies’ healthcare costs. [31] Even über employees have their shatter points.

The loss of economic output due to workers’ health problems (their own and those of loved ones) totaled some $260 billion in 2003. This figure includes productivity lost from workers taking sick days, workers with reduced productivity days (including those without paid time off to see a doctor if they become sick, which also puts their co-workers at risk), and even the 18 million working age adults who could not work for health reasons. [32] Combine this with the amount of lost productivity from slacking, and the country is faced with a couple of Jabba-sized problems, making any economic loss from all Star Wars premieres look like Salacious Crumb in comparison.

Hence, it is possible to be a workaholic and unproductive at the same time. Someone who shows up for work every day and is the last to leave the office could be considered a workaholic, even if s/he has not put in a good day’s work for whatever reason. On the other hand, a tech worker who spends 2.2 hours (slightly above the average) [33] of his/her work day trying to sneak in a bit of Rogue Squadron on the PC (with panic button software installed just in case the boss walks by), but still managing to get the work done (courtesy of those longer work hours), could be deemed a slacker.

Americans are caught in a paradox of slacking because they lack adequate work and/or pay, and yet have managed to log long hours and achieve a high level of productivity.  Many still demonstrate a sense of duty to their jobs, even if over 70 percent of them admitted to being “disengaged clock watchers” and over 60 percent did not think they received any meaningful worth from their toil in 2003. [34] The feared worker exodus to theaters during a Star Wars premiere and ensuing dent in the American economy, the effect of which has been more phantom than menace, could represent how a lot of employees feel about the work/rest balance today, and what many employers continue to dread even as they test the limits of worker endurance.  More hours do not always a better employee make.

Slacker employees may actually cost their companies less by occasionally being allowed to take off for at least a couple of hours instead of idling in company premises. The presence of more people in the office means a greater use of company resources like water, electricity, paper, ink, and even bathroom tissue (for those folks who time their bowel movements to occur during their work hours). If an employee gets into an accident while trying to perfect his/her Vaapad technique near the copy machine, that will hit the company’s insurance premium.

Some employers have taken this slacking in stride and dubbed it “creative waste.” They understand that there may be a silver lining to this cloud, such as a more liberal work environment, which could lead to greater innovation and ultimately bigger profits. [35] Lucas might agree. His slacking off in school did not preclude him from dreaming up and creating an American institution. [36] Miller might agree too. “It’s definitely business first,” he said [37], which is why he may recognize that sometimes employers have to give to get the most from their employees instead of tightening their grips so hard that some lucrative ideas may slip through their fingers.

There are people who genuinely like work, with a small percentage developing “leisure sickness” if they leave it. [38] But, there is a difference between working because you like to and working because you have to, and between working on your own terms and working on someone else’s terms. Also, it is hard to deny a distinction between not having enough vacation and not taking enough vacation. Unused vacation is like money in the bank; it is nice to know that it’s there. For a lucky few, work and leisure are the same thing. “Find a job you like and you’ll never work a day in your life,” goes the saying. [39] But for most workers, work is just that -- work -- and as one comedian asked, “If work is so terrific, how come they have to pay you to do it?” [40]

Yet, it can be hard for Americans to go on vacation, even if their fewer vacation days would seem more appreciated. About one out of every eight workers with paid vacation days takes fewer than three days off each year, although the typical worker needs to take three vacation days (consecutively?) to reduce stress. Some fear taking too much vacation will damage their career prospects, while more recently, the prohibitive cost of fuel (by American standards) has forced many to modify their vacation plans by staying closer to home. [41] In that case, taking a few hours off to catch a Star Wars flick (or any other flick) does not sound like such a bad deal. Sitting down to a movie is one of life’s little rewards, and one that is relatively inexpensive and effortless. But a reward has to be taken in order for it to be called such. As Han Solo would say, “What good’s a reward if you ain’t around to use it?”

Not being around to use it seems to be on the increase for Americans. From 1970 to 2002, the number of hours put in by each American worker increased by 20 percent -- the biggest increase among all industrialized countries. [42] Yes, American workers, among others, have been subjected to increasing overtime since the 1990s -- to the point where up to one-third of it is now mandatory -- and with it an increased risk (up to 61 percent) of injury. [43] But as one employer saw it, this speaks two ways: “if you have to work regular overtime, it is because either you are bad at your job, in which case you should be fired, or, I am bad at my job because I cannot manage my staff and time well and I should be fired.” [44]

To those employers who already understand the need for balance between work and rest: may the (work)force be with you. Always.

Chohong Choi has lived in Hong Kong and New York, and can be reached at:

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[1] Steven Mallas, “Star Wars: A New Economy,” The Motley Fool, May 16, 2005.

[2] Stokely Baksh, “Movie-goers, Bloggers Hit with Sith Fever,” UPI, May 20, 2005.

[3] “‘Star Wars’ Film May Zap US Economy for 627 Million Dollars,” AFP, May 16, 2005 (hereafter referred to as “Zap”).

[4] Megan Blaney, “Moviegoers Can Barely ‘Sith’ Still,” San Bernardino County Sun, May 19, 2005.

[5] “Zap”.

[6] The two-day gross for Episode III and the estimated average ticket price were obtained from the online movie site Box Office Mojo.

[7] One good example came from Roger Ebert’s website, in which a voicer accused Lucas of damaging the economy for the sake of bashing President Bush.  “And what happened to Padme’s pants?” replied Ebert.

[8] “Zap”.

[9] (1) Blaney.  (2) Al Swanson, “Feature: Star Wars Flu,” UPI, May 14, 2002.

[10] Ben Fox, “Long Wait Comes to End for Serious ‘Star Wars’ Fans,” Associated Press, May 19, 2005.

[11] See:

[12] “Employers Told to Beware ‘Darth Vader Virus’,” Reuters, May 1, 2002 (hereafter referred to as “Virus”).

[13] Blaney.

[14] “Virus”.

[15] Quote extracted from Ed Janzen, “Corporate Armies vs. Galactic Governments,” Prairie Dog Magazine (rpt., May 29, 2002.

[16] “Virus”.

[17] “SHRM Advises on Star Wars in the Workplace” (rpt., May 6, 1999.

[18] Darrell Hutchins & Jeff Milchen, “Americans Working More, Earning Less,”, August 27, 2003.

[19] John Buell, “What European Crisis?, June 1, 2005.

[20] (1) International Labour Organization, “KILM 18: Labor Productivity and Unit Labor Costs,” Key Indicators of the Labour Market.  (2) Joan Williams & Ariane Hegewisch, “More Productive or Just Working Longer?Los Angeles Times, August 30, 2004.

[21] Seth Sandronsky, “Rethinking Productivity,”, August 16, 2002.

[22] Hutchins & Milchen.

[23] Definition taken from Wikipedia.

[24] (1) Hutchins & Milchen.  (2) Jane Elizabeth Zemel, “Saturday Diary: Time is Running Out for the New Millennium Woman,” Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, December 11, 1999.  (3) Kris Maher, “Keeping Up is Hard to Do; With Wages Flat, a Family Struggles to Make Ends Meet; Why the Chevy Stays Parked,” Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2005, p.B1.

[25] (1) Hutchins & Milchen.  (2) Robert Guy Matthews, “Recovery Bypasses Many Americans; Despite Economic Growth, Median Household Income and Wages Fell Last Year,” Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2005, p.A2.  (3) Christopher Swann, “Real Wages Fall at Fastest Rate in 14 Years,” Financial Times, May 11, 2005.

[26] “Three Days a Week” (editorial), Rapid City Journal, June 19, 2003.

[27] Dan Malachowski, “Wasted Time at Work Costing Companies Billions,”, July 11, 2005.

[28] Malachowski.

[29] C.K. Rairden, “A Review of the Star Wars Economy,” The National Ledger, May 18, 2005.

[30] Definition taken from Wikipedia.

[31] “The Road to Nowhere: A Nation of Workaholics Sings the Summertime Blues,” Mother Jones (July/August 2005), p.26-27 

[32] Karen Davis, et al., “Health and Productivity among U.S. Workers,” The Commonwealth Fund, August 2005, p.4-5.

[33] Malachowski.  Software and internet workers waste 2.2 hours per day; research and development workers waste 2.3 hours per day.

[34] “Stats of the Union: Facts, Figures, and Uniquely American Absurdities,” Mother Jones (May/June 2004), p.62-63.

[35] Malachowski.

[36] Dale Pollock, “Epoch Filmmaker,”, June 8, 2005.

[37] Swanson.

[38] “The Road to Nowhere”.

[39] Bill Beuttler, “We Work Too Hard,” Boston Magazine, November 2001.

[40] As said by George Carlin.

[41] “The Road to Nowhere.”

[42] “The Road to Nowhere.”

[43] (1) Mark Engler, “You May Justifiably Want to Take This Friday Off,Newsday, October 22, 2003.  (2) A.E. Dembe, et al., “The Impact of Overtime and Long Work Hours on Occupational Injuries and Illnesses: New Evidence from the United States,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine 62, no. 9 (2005), p.594.  The article defined overtime as work that qualifies for extra pay, which for almost 80 percent of the civilian labor force is 150 percent of their regular pay rate for all work that exceeds 40 hours per week.  Mandatory overtime was defined as overtime work that is performed often under the threat of job loss or other penalty.

[44] John L. Richards, letter to the editor, South China Morning Post, April 12, 2005.