Europeans Working More Hours
And not just Germans. The French, who in 2000 trimmed their workweek to 35 hours in hopes of generating more jobs, are now talking about lengthening it again, worried that the shorter hours are hurting the economy. In Britain, more than a fifth of the labor force, according to a 2002 study, works longer than the European Union’s mandated limit of 48 hours a week.
Europe’s long siesta, it seems, has finally reached its limit Ã¢€” a victim of chronic economic stagnation, deteriorating public finances and competition from low-wage countries in the enlarged European Union and in Asia. Most important, many Europeans now believe that shorter hours, once seen as a way of spreading work among more people, have done little to ease unemployment.
“We have created a leisure society, while the Americans have created a work society,” said Klaus F. Zimmermann, the president of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. “But our model does not work anymore. We are in the process of rethinking it.”
From the 1970’s until recently, Europe followed a philosophy of less is more when it came to labor, with the result that Europeans work an average of 10 percent fewer hours a year than Americans. Germans, with the lightest schedule, work about 18 percent fewer hours.
The job creation argument went hand in hand with the greater social premium that Europeans place on leisure. In the land of the four o’clock rush hour and the monthlong summer holiday, it does really seem, as the clichÃƒ© goes, that Europeans work to live, while Americans live to work.
Since the 1970’s, Europeans have been willing to accept somewhat slower growth in wages as a price for fewer work hours and longer vacations. The French have an average of 25 vacation days a year, while the Germans get 30 days. The average in Japan is 18 days and in the United States, 12 days. For a long time, the price for this was not very high, since Europe had high gains in labor productivity, which contributed to booming exports, briskly growing economies and steady wage growth.
Nearly all of these trends turned negative in the 1990’s, as productivity growth rates collapsed, especially in comparison with the United States. For a decade, Europe has been stuck in a period of chronic slow growth. “We’re seeing a change because the trade-off has changed,” said Daniel Gros, the director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “Europeans are seeing that when times are lean, total incomes don’t rise at all. So they are saying, `Perhaps we better work longer hours.’ “
From a social idealist standpoint, the old European paradigm is clearly preferable to the American model. Shorter workweeks and longer vacations should lead to healthier lives and, to a point, happier, more productive workers. Reality and theory don’t match up very well in this case, however.