Workers in the UK and USA work much longer hours per year than those in France and Germany. This has partly to do with the number of days paid holiday per year, partly with the number of hours worked per day and partly with the number of days worked per week.
According to the latest OECD figures, in 2017 average hours worked per year ranged from 2257 in Mexico (the OECD’s highest) to 1780 in the USA, 1710 in Japan, 1681 in the UK, 1514 in France, 1408 in Denmark and 1356 in Germany (the OECD’s lowest). Annual working hours have been falling in most countries across the decades, as the chart shows. However, in most countries the process has slowed in recent years and in the UK, the USA and France working hours have begun to rise. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
But why do working hours differ so much from country to country? How do they relate to productivity? How do they relate to human happiness and welfare more generally?
Causes of the differences
There are various reasons for the differences in hours worked between countries.
In a situation where individual workers can choose how many hours to work, they have to decide the best trade off for them between income and leisure. As wages rise over time, there will be substitution and income effects of these extra hourly wages. Higher wages make work more valuable in terms of what people can buy from an extra hour’s work. There is thus an incentive to substitute work for leisure and hence work longer. This is the substitution effect. On the other hand, higher wages allow people to work fewer hours for a given income. This is the income effect.
As incomes rise, generally the substitution effect will tend to decline relative to the income effect. This is because of the diminishing marginal utility of income. Richer people will tend to value a given rise in income less than poorer people and therefore will value the income from extra work less than poorer people. Richer people will prefer to work fewer hours than poorer people. Generally workers in richer OECD countries work fewer hours than those in poorer OECD countries.
But this does not explain why people in the USA, Canada, Japan and the UK work longer hours than people in Germany, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands and France.
One possible explanation for these differences is the role of trade unions. These tend to be stronger in countries with lower working hours. Reducing the working week or obtaining longer holidays is one of the key objectives of unions.
Another is income distribution. The USA, despite its high average (mean) income, has a relatively unequal distribution of income compared with Germany or France. The post-tax-and-benefits Gini coefficient in the USA is around 0.39, whereas in Germany it is 0.29, meaning that Germany has a more equal distribution of disposable income than the USA. In fact, rises in real incomes in the USA over the past 10 years have gone almost exclusively to the top 10 per cent of earners, leaving the median income little changed. In fact median household income only rose above its 2007 (pre-recession) level in 2016.
Social and cultural explanations may also be important. People in countries with higher working hours relative to hourly wages may put a greater store on consumption relative to leisure. The desire to shop may be very strong. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic model pursued by right-of-centre governments in English-speaking countries, such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK puts emphasis on low taxes, low regulation, low public expenditure and self-advancement. Such a model encourages a more individualistic approach to work, with more emphasis on earning money.
Then there is the attitude to hours worked generally. There is a saying that in the UK the last one to leave the office is seen as the hardest working, whereas in Germany the last one to leave is seen as the least efficient. Social pressures, from colleagues, family, friends and society more generally can have a major effect on people’s choices between work and leisure.
Productivity, in terms of output per hour worked, tends to decline as workers work longer hours. People get tired and possibly bored and demotivated towards the end of a long day or week. If workers are paid by the output they produce and if productivity declines towards the end of the day, then the hourly wage would fall as the day progresses. This would act as a disincentive to work long hours. In practice, most workers are normally paid a constant rate per hour for normal-time working. For overtime, they may even be paid a higher rate, despite their likely lower productivity. This encourages them to work longer hours than if they were paid according to their marginal productivity.
Linking pay more closely to productivity could encourage people to opt for fewer hours (if they had the choice). Indeed some companies are now encouraging workers to choose their hours – which may mean fewer hours as people seek a better work–life balance. (See the BBC article below about PwC’s employment strategy.) Alternatively, some other employers adopt the system of giving workers a set amount of work to do and then they can leave work when it is finished. This acts as an incentive to work more efficiently.
It is interesting that countries where workers work more hours per year tend to have a lower output per hour worked relative to output per worker than countries where workers work fewer hours. This is illustrated in the chart opposite. The USA, with its longer working hours, has higher output per person employed than France and Germany but very similar output per hour worked.
Hours and happiness
So are people who choose to work longer hours and take home more money likely to be happier than those who choose to work fewer hours and take home less money? If people were rational and had perfect knowledge, then they would choose the balance between work and leisure that best suited them.
In practice, labour markets are highly imperfect. People often do not have choices about the amount they work; they work the hours they are told. Even if they do have a choice, they are unlikely to have perfect knowledge about the impact of long hours on their health and happiness over their lifetime. They may not even be good judges of the shorter-term effects of more work and more pay. They may believe that more money will buy them more happiness only to find soon afterwards that they are wrong.
- What factors are likely to encourage workers to work longer hours?
- Give some examples of jobs where workers have flexibility in the amount of hours they work per week and jobs where the working week is of a fixed length.
- For what reasons are annual working hours longer in the USA than in Germany?
- Would it be in employers’ interests if the government legislated so as to reduce the maximum permitted working week? Explain.
- What is meant by ‘efficiency wages’? How relevant is the concept to the issue of the average number of hours worked per year from country to country?
- Explain why people in poorer countries tend to work more hours per year than people in richer countries.
- If workers’ wages equalled their marginal revenue product, why might some workers choose to work more and others choose to work less (assuming they had a choice)?
- Are jobs in the gig economy and zero-hour contract jobs in the interests of workers?
- Is South Korea wise to cut its work limit from 68 hours a week to 52?
The UK’s Low Pay Commission has just published its annual report. This shows that the lowest-paid 20% of workers aged 25 and over benefited from last April’s 4.4% rise in the ‘National Living Wage (NLW)’, the name the government gives to the statutory minimum wage for people in this age group. Although only around 6.5% of such workers are paid at the NLW, when it rises this tends to push up wage rates which are just above the NLW as employers seek to maintain the differential.
If the new NLW is above the equilibrium rate for those receiving it, it would be expected that firms would respond by employing fewer workers. However, the Low Pay Commission found no evidence that rises in the NLW caused unemployment. Instead, employers responded by combinations of increasing prices, accepting lower profit margins, restructuring their workforce and reducing the gaps between pay bands.
Over the longer term, employers often seek to increase labour productivity to offset the higher cost per worker of paying increased minimum wage rates. This, however, could lead to a reduction in employment if it involves substituting capital for labour or if greater labour efficiency does not result in a sufficient increase in total output to compensate for an increase in output per worker.
Report and data
- Demonstrate on a supply and demand diagram for a perfectly competitive labour market the impact of a rise in the minimum wage on employment and unemployment in that market. Assume that the market is initially in equilibrium at the previous minimum wage rate.
- For what reasons in such markets may a rise in the minimum wage not lead to a rise in unemployment?
- Now demonstrate the effect of a rise in the minimum wage in a monopsonistic market. Assume that the previous minimum wage was previously being paid by the employer.
- For what reasons may the employer in the previous question choose to retain employment at the current level?
- For what reasons may the effect of a rise in the minimum wage be different in the long run from the short run?
- How can employers avoid paying the minimum wage (a) when workers work in the ‘gig’ economy; (b) when workers have to travel as part of their job: e.g. care workers moving from house to house; (c) workers working from home producing items for an employer, such as clothing or jewelry, or providing a service such as telesales?
In a recent post, we looked at the rising number of people being paid less than the (voluntary) living wage. The Living Wage Foundation has just published the latest annual update to the living wage. This brings it to £9.40 per hour in London and £8.25 outside London – well above the statutory National Minimum Wage of £6.70 for those aged 21 and over. Even when employers are required to pay at least the so-called National Living Wage (NLW) of £7.20 per hour from April 2016 to those aged 25 and over, the NLW will still be well below the living wage.
Read the earlier post and then answer the questions in the light of the new living wage rates and the new linked articles.
Living wage rate increased by 40p an hour BBC News (2/11/15)
London ‘living wage’ rises to £9.40 an hour Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (2/11/15)
Living Wage now £8.25 across the UK and £9.40 in London Independent, Jon Stone (2/11/15)
Special report: The Living Wage and its impact on workers and businesses Manchester Evening News, Adam Jupp (2/11/15)
Living Wage: Number Of Employers Paying It Doubles In A Year, While Six Million Workers Still Go Without Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (2/11/15)
Living wage rate increases announced as campaigners call for more businesses to go beyond legal minimums Living Wage Foundation (30/10/15)
Data and Reports
Estimates of employee jobs paid less than the living wage in London and other parts of the UK ONS (12/10/15)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings ONS
Living wage rates: the calculation Living Wage Foundation
National Minimum Wage rates GOV.UK
- By referring to the Living Wage Foundation site, explain how the living wage is calculated. If you were defining the living wage, would you define it in this way? Explain.
- Distinguish between low pay and poverty. Does pay give a good indication of poverty?
- For what reasons has the number of jobs paying below the living wage increased? Does marginal productivty theory provide an explanation?
- Is it best to base statutory minimum wages on median earnings, mean earnings or the cost of living? Explain.
- If more 6 million jobs pay below the living wage, does this mean that 6 million people, more than 6 million people or fewer than 6 million people receive average hourly wages below the living wage? Explain.
- For what reasons might firms volunteer to pay the living wage to their employees? Is doing so consistent with the aim of profit maximisation?
- Why are more women than men paid wage rates below the living wage?
- Why does the proportion of people being paid the living wage vary from one part of the UK to another? Is this likely to be purely a reflection of differences in the cost of living?
Labour markets can be a key indicator of the strength of an economy, with emphasis placed on measures including the unemployment rate and the rate of job creation. Over the past few decades, we have seen many changes in the UK labour market, with more women, more part-time jobs, flexible hours and a shift towards services. After the financial crisis, unemployment declined and more and more people were entering the labour market. But one criticism of this was zero-hours contracts. They are nothing new and were considered in earlier blogs.
Zero hours contracts are essentially what they say: a contract where you are guaranteed to work for zero hours. This means that under such a contract, there is no guarantee that you will have employment on any given day/week and hence this creates uncertainty. However, on the other side, there can be more flexibility with such a contract and with growth in female participation and part-time work, flexibility is essential for many people. James Sproule, Director of Policy at the Institute of Directors said:
“Zero hours contracts offer businesses and employees an important degree of flexibility. For skilled professionals, a degree of flexibility can boost their earning power, while flexibility also suits students and older people – the main users of zero-hours contracts – who cannot commit to a set number of hours each and every week.”
The ONS has found that businesses are using more zero-hours contracts, with a 6% rise. This reflects a growth in January from 1.4 million to 1.5 million zero-hours contracts, though this increase was not statistically significant. Over the past year, the use of these contracts has increased by 19%, from 624,000 people employed on them in 2014 to 744,000 people in 2015.
Although there has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts, there is also more recognition of these contracts. Therefore, part of the increase in the numbers could be down to this recognition and not just due to more and more people moving onto these contracts. With this greater flexibility, comes more opportunities for more people to enter the labour market. While this is a good thing, it can hide some other aspects. For example, if more people are working, it may suggest a fall in the rate of unemployment and a rise in employment, but perhaps this is misleading if some of those in employment are under-employed. The data revealed that:
On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week, with around 40% of them wanting more hours, most from their current job, rather than in a different or additional one.
Furthermore, for some people there may be very few other options. However, there was also evidence that the possibility of zero-hours contracts has created opportunities for those who may otherwise not have entered the labour market: perhaps women re-entering the labour market and students in full time education. They also offer businesses greater flexibility and this may be a key way for the UK to improve efficiency and productivity. Jon Ingham from Glassdoor, an employment analyst said:
“It’s no great surprise to see the number of people on these contracts is on the up … It’s safe to say that employees who accept a zero hours contract do not do so as a career choice. For most it’s because they have limited options. For some it might be beneficial to have the flexibility to fit around their lifestyle but for others it’s a substandard contract which offers little in the way of benefits or security.”
The change in the structure of the labour market has been on-going and this may be a small change in amongst a much larger structural change. As the economy continues its recovery, we may see a return to the more typical working contract, but it appears that there will always be this greater demand for flexibility in working patterns and hence perhaps the zero-hours contracts do have a place in Britain. The following articles consider the implications of this data.
Employee contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours: 2015 udpate Office for National Statistics September 2015
Number of workers on zero-hours contracts up by 19% The Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/9/15)
Zero-hours contracts hold their place in UK labour market Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (2/9/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump 19% in a year Sky News (2/9/15)
19 per cent rise in people on zero hours contracts recorded across Britain over the last year Independent (2/9/15)
Use of zero-hours contracts rises by 6% BBC News (2/9/15)
Insecure ‘zero-hours’ jobs on the rise in Britain – ONS Reuters (2/9/15)
- What is a zero-hours contract?
- Outline the main advantages and disadvantages of zero-hours contracts to both workers and businesses. You should think about different types of workers in your answer.
- How do you think the increase in zero-hours contracts has affected the unemployment rate in the UK?
- What is meant by under-employment? Would you class this as inefficient?
- What other changes have we seen in the UK labour market over the past 30 years? Have these changes made the labour market more or less flexible?
- Zero-hours contracts create greater flexibility. Do you think that they create greater functional, numerical of financial flexibility?
- If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
- Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.