By Ed Conway in THE TIMES, 14 December 2018
Here’s a late entrant for the most surprising statistic of the year: the French work longer hours than the British.
That’s right. Despite the 35-hour week, despite the strikes, despite the quality of life, it turns out the average French worker puts in about ten more hours than the average British worker each year.
If you’re surprised by this bombshell, buried in a paper by the international economic authority the OECD earlier this week, you’re not the only one. So was the OECD itself, whose figures had until then depicted a more familiar world where British workers were a paragon of toil, putting in longer hours than the French or the Swiss.
The only problem is: those numbers weren’t quite right. After a lengthy investigation, the OECD discovered that British workers actually notch up far fewer hours than previously thought. The details are prosaic: it turns out British statisticians, through no fault of their own, hadn’t been adjusting the country’s total hours for overtime, holidays, industrial action and so on. But make the numbers truly comparable and you get a very different picture indeed.
Britons, it turns out, work an average of 38.4 hours a week, compared with 39 in France and 39.4 in the US. If you include holidays, Britain’s weekly average comes down to 29.1 a week — among the lowest in the developed world. This is unlikely to be a recent development and no, it isn’t slacking. In large part these unexpectedly low numbers reflect a steady increase in part-time work, generous parental leave, female participation and a welfare system that accommodates more flexible working. Indeed, on this yardstick the citizens who work the fewest hours in the developed world are the Germans (26.2 hours if you include holidays).
John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that in a century’s time we would all be working 15 hours a week, and while he wasn’t quite right (by my reckoning that will take at least another 175 years) the underlying point is no less relevant today than it was 90 years ago.
For while one can quibble with the details — the numbers above do not reflect the way smartphones have blurred the distinction between work and leisure, for instance — there is a clear trend: technology, wealth and changing social conventions mean we have more leisure time. Add the fact that we are all living longer and should enjoy longer retirements, and there’s probably never been another era when, across a lifetime, each of us has worked less.
Bear this in mind and you may be less likely to scoff at the TUC’s campaign for a four-day week. Because statistics suggest the average worker already does a three-and-a-half-day week. So if the TUC gets its way — and Labour might adopt the campaign in its next manifesto — it will simply be a recognition of the status quo.
Something similar happened just over a century ago. For a long time, there was no such thing as the weekend — at least officially. You had Sunday off for church and the odd saint’s day too, but the working week typically began on Monday and continued through to Saturday evening. But as workers earned more things started to change. In the 18th and 19th centuries many employees would drink heavily on Sunday nights and not come into work the following day. So institutionalised did this tradition become that it eventually earned a nickname: “keeping Saint Monday”.
Only towards the end of the Victorian era did the weekend as we know it come to exist, following a campaign by factory owners, social reformers and religious groups disgusted by drunkenness on the Sabbath. Employers started to trim the working week, giving employees Saturday off provided they actually came in on Monday. The six-day week had became five.
And contrary to what some warned at the time, the sky didn’t fall in. Far from collapsing, productivity actually grew in the following years, which kind of goes without saying when you recall that productivity is simply economic output divided by hours worked.
Productivity statistics are a fascinating window into national culture. The Germans work far fewer hours but achieve far more in them. The Americans work longer hours, take fewer holidays and generate more income. Both have much higher productivity than the UK, but each gets there in a different way.
On the bright side, since British workers are putting in fewer hours a week, it is no longer true that the French achieve in four days what Britons take five days to achieve. They are now only half a day ahead.
Hardly the worst news to begin the weekend with. Though strictly speaking, if you are the average British worker, your weekend began some time yesterday.
Ed Conway is economics editor of Sky News