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« Free Reads -- Alice on Punk | Main | The Empire Strikes Back »

July 10, 2003

Free Reads -- Business Week on Work Hours

Friedrich --

I never know whether to trust these reports, but this piece by Louis Braham from Business Week online (here) certainly feels like it's on to something. In a nutshell:

The average European’s annual work hours actually declined in the 1990s to 1,629, compared to 1,878 here. American economists often point to all this “wasted time” as a sign of European inefficiency. But greater efficiency is often better for companies than it is for human beings. By traditional measures, Americans have a higher standard of living than Europeans do. But Europeans have longer life expectancies than Americans and spend more time with their loved ones.

Perhaps we love our jobs. Perhaps we're incapable of coming up with something better to do than spend more time on the job. Perhaps we're being bullied into it. Your hunch?



posted by Michael at July 10, 2003


I do not recall ever seeing anyone call time off "wasted time." The whole concept is random. PErhaps it is not wasted time but an economic multiplier where people go to theatre and spend money or in a cafe and spend money. The real question is how much of that decline can be attributed to mandatory shorter workweeks, increadibly expensive overtime, and strikes.

A more interesting measure, for me at least, would be job satisfaction, and whether hours worked track similarly for similarly regulated industries, i.e. whether city or auto workers that belong in a union in USA work significantly more than their German or French counterparts?

Posted by: Con Tendem on July 10, 2003 4:24 PM

Actually, after reading the article again, I realized that it makes no sense at all. In the middle of the article the author concedes that cutting hours with the same pay is pretty much impossible in a competetive economy. But somehow he still manages to close the article hoping that unions renew negotiations for better hours and pay. I am not sure how these contradictions get resolved in his mind, but they have not been resolved in my mind as of yet.

Posted by: Con Tendem on July 10, 2003 4:29 PM

I would politely point out that the Euro-economies are in the toilet, and their workers aren't going to be getting away with working fewer hours much longer, unless they want to enjoy their family time in a straw hut with no heat soon. It would be a more compelling argument if their economic growth (which really is the tide that lifts all boats) were thriving. Then you'd wonder how they did it. It isn't, and the fact that they aren't getting their asses in gear doesn't bode well for their future. However, it might make European vacations for richer and more overworked Americans cheaper!

Posted by: annette on July 10, 2003 5:04 PM


Not to pile on, but did you notice the front page article in the Wall Street Journal of July 10? It is entitled: "In Deep Crisis, Germany Starts to Revamp Vast Welfare State." To quote a few passages that concern work-weeks and time off:

"Within the past few months, Berlin's center-left government has proposed reducing unemployment benefits, opening the public health-care system to private insurers, cutting hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies and easing laws that protect workers from being fired. Late last month, the government brought forward by a year a planned tax cut. Some ministers even want to cut back on the country's famously large amount of free time--30 vacation days on average, compared with 12 in the U.S." [Emphasis added]

"A decade ago, then-Chancellor Hulmut Kohl, a member of the more-conservative Christian Democratic Union, called Germans to task for their high number of holidays, dubbling the country a 'free time amusement park.' The comments unleashed howls of indiganant protest and the government quickly backed off."

"Declining birth rates, longer lifespans, earlier retirement ages, less working time and steadily high unemployment mean that those paying into the system can no longer support those living off of it." [Emphasis added]

I seem to recall something about a "free lunch."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 10, 2003 5:40 PM

The German wellfare state does have its ridiculous sides. A perk many Germans have for instance, is to get one week a year off to cure. This is no vacation, but an all expenses paid sick leave, just meant for people to lose weight. "Abspecken" this is called, literally meaning: to get rid of the bacon.

However, the problems the German economy faces right now are much more complex than that the people that are working don't work enough.

There's the fact West-Germany had to adopt, school and refurbish East-Germany, at the estimated cost of €600 billion for instance. And it's an economy still heavily depending on heavy industry, unlike any other European country.

Than there's that still very hierarchical German society, that stifles innovation.

Joe Klein [him of "Primary Colors"] gave the perfect example last year to illustrate that point, when he travelled through Europe for "The Guardian":

""I've also heard businessmen say that if Bill Gates had been born German, he'd be middle-management at Siemens. "That's not true! That's not true!" said Frank, a self-employed management consultant. "You have to have a university degree to be middle-management at Siemens. Gates is a college dropout. They wouldn't allow him to be middle-management at Siemens."",2763,744299,00.html

Posted by: ijsbrand on July 10, 2003 6:25 PM

Heavens, go ahead and pile on. Maybe the article's author deserves it. Me, I'm just wondering out loud. That said, I do find it interesting that American workers seldom seem to clamor for more time off, don't you? Whether this is a good or a bad thing, beats me. But it's an interesting thing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 10, 2003 6:29 PM

I noticed on Con's blog a link to this good posting (here) by Alexis at Stumbling Tongue about the Italian attitude towards business and economics. "In Italy the economic side certainly isn’t forgotten, but it doesn’t rule the roost," writes Alexis. Yet somehow they get by. Thanks to Con and Alexis.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 10, 2003 6:41 PM

The main question to be asked is - are people free? Are they free to choose between longer working hours and more free time, each acording to his personal preferences?
It seems that in Europe (or is it in France only?) free time is decreed by law.
That cannot be a good thing no way you look at it.

Posted by: Jacob on July 11, 2003 9:02 AM

From my own previous life (associate in a NY law firm), I recall us associates never asking for more time off. We barely took the time we had, and Blackberries, cell phones, etc. kept us in the loop. We were miserable, but to try to change that would somehow be career disaster.

The partners were the same way, and I had the sense more than once that they did not like being home or with their families, and wouldn't know what to do whewh they got there. Living at such a high level of stress and activity makes one forget how to do something else. (Three years at the firm, and I never heard one discussion of a book, play or movie that lasted more than 30 seconds)

Maybe the Europeans are less focussed on money as the only source of status. In the UK (and I am guessing), if you are an OBE and poor, you are still an OBE. I do know that foreign clients I represented, and even their lawyers, were astonished at the hours we worked.

I left for government practice recently precisely because I wanted more time, and haven't regretted it for a minute despite a heavy pay cut. (Though perhaps that's because my Sicilian ancestry gives me a genetic predisposition to la dolce vita (nice word for laziness) and a suspicion of institutions.)

Posted by: Gerald on July 11, 2003 10:02 AM

I don't know whether you've ever seen the term, but about a year ago I saw an article on BBC Online about continental Europeans decrying a persistent British "culture of presenteeism". I thought then (and think now) that phrase was revelatory.

(For more about this, try a search on "culture of presenteeism". The best article I could easily find was this one.)

Whenever I've mentioned the term to other Americans, I've gotten a sort of stunned, incredulous response. I suspect most Europeans would not understand that response, but then that's sort of my point.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 11, 2003 12:30 PM

Jacob -- I'm no one to be taken seriously on any of this. But, given that I've never run into a Frenchperson who complained about the legislated time off, and that I've certainly run into tons of them who laugh at us overworked Americans, my suspicion is that they're hardly being forced into taking lengthy vacations. My impression is that they're thrilled with the arrangement, and would consider it progress to pass a law giving them yet more weeks off. (Whether or not this makes any economic sense or pleases the Anglo-libertarian in us.)

Gerald -- Congrats on successfully scaling down. My goal in my professional life, such as it laughably is, has always been to make an OK middleclass income and snag as much free time for myself as I can. Like you, I've made some choices and deals that cost me money but gained me time. Well worth it, every one of them. I only wish I could make more such deals. Plus I'd love to see more opportunities to negotiate job arrangements, but most seem to be take-it-or-leave-it. Why isn't there more openness about looser job arrangements? My hunch, which I gabbed about in some posting long ago, is that it's worries about health insurance that keep a lot of Americans locked into fulltime (and more) jobs. Can you do better than that? I could be wrong -- perhaps most American are secretly dying to work longer hours than they're putting in already. But I'd bet that isn't true, and that, given half a chance, many Americans would scale back their work obligations. Though I've got no evidence to back this up with and could well be wrong.

Doug -- "Presenteeism," that's a keeper, thanks. And thanks for the link to the article.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 11, 2003 9:41 PM

Heh, I only worked just under 140 hours in the last 8 months of 2002. Double that would have been just about right.

If I work one day a week it sticks me in the middle class. Arguably, the fact that this is so puts in a higher one since I maintain that with so few hours. Highly paid slacker? Underemployed consultant? All these things and more?

But yes, the misus works full time, and that's where the health insurance is gonna come from for the forseeable future. She chafes a bit sometimes at our incomes being equal and me working so much less, but that was at the cost of nearly 100% of a social life through age 19, and lots of hours in books since then. Tradeoffs that I'm glad I got to make in the US.

Posted by: David Mercer on July 12, 2003 3:57 AM

I agree with you, Michael, and would add that in addition to health care, worries about children's education are the reasons no one rocks the boat in terms of work hours. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, there was a constant round of discussions about whether The Firm would "go for" a part time schedule. For all the talk about flex-time, "the new economy," etc. in most cases my profession at least remains just as it was in postwar America, except with longer hours.

Posted by: Gerald on July 14, 2003 10:49 AM

I agree with you, Michael, and would add that in addition to health care, worries about children's education are the reasons no one rocks the boat in terms of work hours. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, there was a constant round of discussions about whether The Firm would "go for" a part time schedule. For all the talk about flex-time, "the new economy," etc. in most cases my profession at least remains just as it was in postwar America, except with longer hours.

Posted by: Gerald on July 14, 2003 10:51 AM

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