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Bone-Tired? You Need a Job in Europe

The work ethic in the EU wanes as time on the job expands in U.S.

August 11, 2004|Niall Ferguson | Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. His latest book, "Colossus: The Price of American Empire," was published this year by Penguin.

LONDON — In Europe, nothing happens in August. It is not, of course, that absolutely everyone is on holiday. There are still an unhappy few slogging in to work. But the commuter train is half empty, the flow of traffic at rush hour is uncannily smooth. Virtually no serious decision can be taken in a London office throughout this month because there is always at least one key executive on holiday.

The effect of high summer on other European cities is even more dramatic. From Bastille Day on, for instance, Paris is a Parisian-free zone.

Yet such is not the case in the United States. Having spent a week in what apparently remains the terrorists' favorite target, I can confirm that despite the sweltering heat and multiplying mosquitoes, it is still business as usual in Manhattan. The city's familiar rhythm of work is scarcely interrupted by the fact that it is summer. Only a select few take themselves off for the summer to Martha's Vineyard.

Why is this? For one thing, Americans have much shorter vacations than Europeans. While German, Italian and French workers enjoy, on average, more than 40 days of vacation a year, the average American has to make do with just two weeks.

But this is only part of a growing transatlantic disparity in patterns of work.

There are, for example, many more Europeans out of work than Americans; over the last decade, U.S. unemployment has averaged 4.6%, compared with 9.2% for the European Union.

Then there is the familiar European penchant for strikes. Between 1992 and 2001, the Spanish economy lost, on average, 271 days per thousand employees as a result of industrial action. For Denmark, Italy, Finland, Ireland and France, the figures lay between 80 and 120. The figure for the United States was just 50.

Nor should we forget what the English like to call the "sickie." It was reported last week that employees of the Royal Mail -- one in every 17 of whom call in sick on an average day -- are to be offered a novel incentive to show up. From now on, those Stakhanovite types who turn up for all their shifts for six months will be entered in a drawing to win a new Ford Focus.

In the U.S., of course, the approach is different. Workers who consistently miss work because they are feeling under the weather are given the chance to miss it on a permanent basis -- by being fired.

Perhaps the most striking of all the differences between American and European working patterns relates to working hours. In 1999, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average American in employment worked just under 2,000 hours a year (1,976). The average German worked just 1,535 -- fully 22% less. According to a recent U.S. study, the average Frenchman works a staggering 32% less.

Twenty-five years ago, this gap between U.S. and European working hours didn't exist. Between 1979 and 1999, the average American working year lengthened by 50 hours, or nearly 4%. But the average German working year shrank 12%. The same was true elsewhere in Europe.

How are we to explain this divergence? The obvious answer is European legislation like the French 35-hour week or the recent British reduction of the hours worked by junior doctors. Another theory points to differences in marginal rates of taxation.

But I see another possible explanation -- one that owes a debt to the German sociologist Max Weber's famous essay on "The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," written a century ago.

Weber believed he had identified a link between the rise of Protestantism (and especially Calvinism) and the development of "the spirit of capitalism." I would like to propose a modern version of Weber's theory, namely "The Atheist Sloth Ethic and the Spirit of Collectivism."

You see, the most remarkable thing about the transatlantic divergence in working patterns is that it has coincided almost exactly with a comparable divergence in religiosity, both in terms of observance and belief.

According to the Gallup Millennium Survey of religious attitudes (conducted in 1999), 48% of people in Western Europe nowadays almost never go to church; the figure for Eastern Europe is just a little lower at 44%. In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than one in 10 of the population now attends church at least once a month. Only in Catholic Italy and Ireland does more than a third of the population worship once a month or more often.

By contrast, more than twice as many North Americans as Europeans attend religious services once a week or more.

I do not say this is the sole explanation for the fact that London today is lethargic while New York toils away as usual. But there is surely something more than coincidental about the simultaneous rise of unbelief in Europe and the decline of Weber's work ethic.

If I weren't on holiday, I'd write a book about it.

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