Labor Versus Leisure in the US and Europe

Today’s NY Times has a story about the amount of time off that people in Europe enjoy. The author of the piece seems to detect a reversal of the trend in countries like France and Germany toward working fewer hours.

Intentionally or not, the piece is quite timely. Today the OECD released its annual Employment Outlook for 2004. Among the numerous interesting pieces of information in it is the following chart showing the change in the amount of hours spent at work by the average resident of a number of OECD countries since 1970.

The astonishing difference between the US and the major European countries is evident; the average person in France and Germany works about one-fifth less now than they would have in 1970, while the average person in the US works about one-fifth more. In both cases the result is a mixture between the number of hours worked by each working person, and the number of people that are actually working. (Even in the US, the number of hours worked by each working person has actually fallen a bit.)

This divergence between the US and Europe (and Japan too, for that matter) is striking. And it’s hard to come up with a better explanation than cultural differences. In Europe people have preferred to take their higher productivity in the form of leisure time. In the US the preference is to enjoy higher productivity in the form of greater consumption. That’s a fundamental difference in preferences for which I don’t have any profound explanation, but which is probably deeply rooted in both cultures. Which is why I am skeptical that the few cases mentioned in the NY Times article are enough to constitute a broad trend. But time will tell.