June 14, 2003
POLITICS: Lazy Europeans
A piece in last Sunday's New York Times had some fascinating details about the decline in the number of hours worked by the average European, its connection to the decline of the European economies, and a possible explanation: the demise of the Protestant Work Ethic. Of course, this raises some chicken-and-eggery with regard to the European cradle-to-grave welfare state . . .
Here are the key numbers:
According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average working American spends 1,976 hours a year on the job. The average German works just 1,535 — 22 percent less. The Dutch and Norwegians put in even fewer hours. Even the British do 10 percent less work than their trans-Atlantic cousins. Between 1979 and 1999, the average American working year lengthened by 50 hours, or nearly 3 percent. But the average German working year shrank by 12 percent.
Yet even these figures understate the extent of European idleness, because a larger proportion of Americans work. Between 1973 and 1998 the percentage of the American population in employment rose from 41 percent to 49 percent. But in Germany and France the percentage fell, ending up at 44 and 39 percent. Unemployment rates in most Northern European countries are also markedly higher than in the United States.
Then there are the strikes. Between 1992 and 2001, the Spanish economy lost, on average, 271 days per 1,000 employees as a result of strikes. For Denmark, Italy, Finland, Ireland and France, the figures range between 80 and 120 days, compared with fewer than 50 for the United States.
1,535 hours; by my count, that means that if the average German worked an 8-hour day 5 days a week, he or she would get . . . 14 weeks of vacation??? (Yes, I'm aware that part of the issue is shorter workdays and sick leave and part time jobs, but still).
There was a guest comment on NYT a few weeks ago regarding this. The main theme was, that in the US, the productivity gains were put into earning more money, whereas in Europe they went into having more free time.
From my point of view, one should try to maximize one's joy of living. Money is a necessary ingredient to that, so *not* working is no option. On the other hand working 80h weeks just to buy a ferrari instead of a porsche just might not be a wise idea. Money vs. joy-of-living certainly observes the law of the deminishing return.
So there must be some kind of optimum. Europeans just seem to put it at a different level. The status symbols are different. Having to skip vacations and less family time negates most status points awarded by high income.
/ol (Living in Vienna/Austria, who recently reduced his work-week from 40h to 28h due to health reasons)