Last week over dinner with friends, a debate arose as to whether Australians worked harder than Americans or not. The case for the affirmative argued that many Australians were very successful overseas and indeed Australians working abroad were highly sought after by employers. The case for the negative drew on experiences working with large US firms which exhibited far more aggressive, high-pressure work-practices than Australian firms.
Since we had more wine than data, the argument did not last very long and we instead moved on to the question of whether China now more closely resembles a fascist regime than a communist one (this debate was quickly mired in definitional issues and became rather animated). Reflecting later on the first discussion, I decided to dig up some data on hours worked and attempt to determine a winner for the debate. According to the OECD, Australia and the United States drew very close in 1979 when workers in both countries put in an average of 35 hours per week. But apart from that, over the last forty years US workers have fairly consistently worked an average of 1 to 1.5 hours more each week than Australian workers.
Total Hours Worked per head of Workforce (1950-2008)
And what of the rest of the world? Among the countries covered in the 2008 OECD data, Korea* was by far the most industrious country. Employed Koreans laboured an average of 44.5 hours each week. From there, hours worked fell quickly to Greece on 40.8 hours and then down to the Czech Republic on 38.3 hours. Australia and the United States are in a tightly packed group, ranging from Iceland in seventh place overall on 34.8 hours per week down to Australia in 16th place on 33.1 hours per week. The United States is towards the top of this group, working an average of 34.5 hours and sitting in ninth place overall. The Hanseatic League is not what it once was as Germany, Norway and the Netherlands are clustered at the bottom of the league table, all putting in around 27 hours of work each week.
One shortcoming of these figures is that they do not give an indication of the total effort contributed to each country. This is because the averages are calculated per head of the workforce and ignores children, the unemployed, the sick and the retired. It is conceivable that in countries with fewer workers, those workers may have to work harder to support everyone else. Indeed, recalibrating the numbers based on total hours worked per head of the total population does change the rankings somewhat. Korea still puts in a good showing, but surrenders first place to Luxembourg. Australia climbs a few places to 11th place and in the process pulls one place ahead of the United States, reflecting in part the higher unemployment rate in the United States. Coming in last place is France, which puts in an average of only 13.5 hours of labour per capita.
But is this data enough to resolve the debate? Unfortunately not. There are too many things that this kind of broad data does not capture. For instance, underemployment is a significant concern in many countries, including Australia and the United States. If there are many people not working as many hours as they would like to, actual hours worked may not be a good indication of the relative industriousness of different countries. Segmentation is another problem. Before our dinner-table debate moved on to China, speculation arose about possible differences in work patterns in US firms based in large cities on the East and West coasts compared to workplaces around the rest of the country. Again, aggregate statistics cannot capture any such differences.
So next time this particular group of friends meets, I will have some data to bring to the table, but not enough to carry the argument.
* Only 2007 data is available for Korea. All other data is for 2008.
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