Why Americans Need to Work Way More Than Europeans

In classic European fashion, a knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail taunts onlookers

In classic European fashion, a knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail taunts onlookers | EMI Films

You may have heard that Americans work longer and harder than their counterparts in other areas of the world. Though we generally think of the workweek lasting 40 hours, for many people, that’s actually just a target figure. The workweek often extends to 50, and sometimes even 60 hours. That’s a point of pride for some, and for others, a point of frustration. In Europe, for example, it’s not uncommon to work significantly less than 40 hours in an average week — and enjoy twice as many vacation days as the typical American on top of that.

Americans aren’t the only ones putting in some serious working hours week in and week out. The Japanese, for example, are famous for their incredible work ethic and long hours as well. Roughly 22% of the Japanese workforce works more than 49 hours per week, according to The Guardian. That’s a lot, especially for a developed country in which most people enjoy fairly high living standards. But it’s similar in the United States — we have one of the highest standards of living in the world, and yet, people are working themselves to the bone. It’s fairly common to have two or three jobs as well.

On the other hand, Europeans tend to work way less while still enjoying a high quality of life and high living standards. In fact, according to a new study, the average American works 19% more in a given year than the average European, or 258 more hours per year. That’s equal to 32 work days.

Brits enjoy the sun in the middle of the day, during prime working hours

Brits enjoy the sun in the middle of the day during prime working hours | Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

That study, which has yet to be published, was authored by three economists: Alexander Bick of Arizona State University, Bettina Bruggemann of McMaster University in Ontario, and Nicola Fuchs-Schundeln of Goethe University Frankfurt. By digging through the data and comparing the number of working hours put in by people in different countries, the authors found that Americans work roughly 25% more than Europeans.

The 44-page working paper took many factors into account to try and make it easy to compare the average workload and productivity of workers from different countries, with the ultimate aim of trying to figure out why it is that Americans are putting in so much more time at work compared to their European counterparts.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really an easy explanation. But the conclusions point to the differences in tax structures, workers rights, and culture as the main drivers. For example, labor unions tend to be much stronger and more influential in European countries than they are in the U.S., and as a result, there are more worker-friendly policies in the books. We’ve seen several laws passed in France, for example, that would never make it to a Congressional committee hearing in the States.

Illustration of a worker going at it long after quitting time

Illustration of a worker going at it long after quitting time | iStock.com

Getting into the specifics, the economists note a few things the data uncovered that explains why Americans are working more than Europeans.

“First,” the paper says, “the higher number of vacation weeks in Europe is a significant driver of lower hours.” The researchers also found that “longer vacation weeks are not associated with either higher employment rates or longer weekly hours worked.”

Employment rates and education also play a role, according to the report:

Secondly, we document a negative correlation between weekly hours worked and employment rates across countries that is not entirely driven by differences in the sectoral or educational composition. Third, the educational composition matters significantly in accounting for cross-country differences in hours worked through its effect on employment rates. Understanding why different education groups exhibit such different employment rates (but not weekly hours worked), and different countries have such different educational compositions, will thus be a helpful step in explaining hours worked differences across countries.

As Bloomberg reports, after speaking with the authors, there is actually a lot to unpack in those last two points. Higher taxation rates in Europe actively depress incentives for people to work more while allowing for more generous social programs and labor laws. Because of that, Americans actually have more to gain by working more than Europeans do — which helps explain the gap.

Again, there’s no easy answer as to why Americans are spending more time on the clock compared to Europeans. This paper explains the complicated set of factors that are at play, and the differences seem to run much deeper than culture.

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