Shorter workweeks are catching on in Europe—America not so much

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.
It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.
Image: Reuters/Alex Domanski
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There’s no question: Shorter workweeks are good for employees. People who work fewer hours are physically healthier, less prone to depression and heavy drinking, and better at mental and social tasks. One recent study found that most people’s brains function best working about 25 hours a week.

Reducing the workweek has long been deliberate public policy in a number of European countries, including France, the Netherlands, and Germany. It also seems to be a rule of thumb that technological leaps come with shorter working hours. This happened dramatically in the US a century ago—the standard workweek dropped to about 40 hours by the 1930s, from more than 60 in the 1870s. More recently, South Korea reduced its average workweek to 41 hours from 48 between 2000 and 2014.

Among all rich countries, variation remains. Germans work about 26 hours per week, according to numbers from the Organisation for EconomicCo-operation and Development, while the Japanese work 33 hours on average. Americans spent around 34 hours per week at work, longer than any of the most technologically advanced OECD nations except Ireland.

Here are the average workweeks in the most economically significant OECD countries (data is from 2014);

So why hasn’t the US followed Europe’s lead? For one, cultural values. America prides itself on a certain ambition that encourages long hours; to Americans this might make French workers seem lazy, while to Europeans it might seem that America is materialistic and status-obsessed.

While there may be some truth to those stereotypes, they don’t occur in a vacuum, says Lonnie Golden, an economist at Pennsylvania State University. “I think it has to do with [America’s] inequality, security of health care, and the fact that part-time work comes with such a big step down in wages and benefits.”

In other words, if Americans are preoccupied with fancy cars and fancy jobs, it could be because the country lacks public transportation options and because US workers depend on their employer for health insurance. America’s unusually high income inequality also means moving up the pay scale can feel particularly urgent. (The UK, too, has long workweeks and high levels of income inequality.)

America’s unions are also far weaker than Europe’s, making it difficult for low-earning workers to demand a bigger share of the country’s economic pie, whether that manifests as cash or time off. 

“If [Americans aren’t] making enough, they’ll get two 35-hour jobs,” says Nicholas Ashford, an economist as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In countries with shorter workweeks, results have been mixed. When Germany and France reduced working hours, they held monthly wages steady, meaning hourly wages rose. But employers responded by increasing automation rather than hiring more people. In France, some employers are now pushing back on the standard 35-hour workweek and 10 weeks of vacation.

The US many not be ready to embrace the reduced workweek, but it is taking a small step in that direction: Last month, the Obama administration finalized plans to expand overtime protection, entitling more than 4 million additional Americans to time and a half for hours worked after 40. 

Regardless, evidence continues to pile up showing that shorter hours have benefits for health and productivity, including in Sweden, which has found early experiments so successful that it’s expanding the use of a shortened workweek.

“It would be good if people could work fewer hours not primarily because it would reduce unemployment, but because people would be less stressed,” says Jennifer Hunt, a Rutgers University economist who has been studying working hours in European countries for years. “Leisure is good.”