European countries never do very well in the gimmicky league tables or comparative indices of nations that thinktanks love to devise in order to meet the bills. You know the sort of thing ? the World Competitiveness Ratings or the Index of Economic Freedom. I thought it was time to come up with one that plays to Europe’s strengths.
What strengths, you may ask? Well the combination of gloomy back-to-work September, and a recent report from the International Labor Organisation, Key Indicators of the Labour Market, reminded me of something the continent has in its favour ? short working hours and long holidays. And so to boost European?s international self-confidence during these difficult economic times, I would like to propose a new measure of how much time we have to spend at work, Work Freedom Day.
Work Freedom Day is based on a concept pushed by two right-wing think tanks, the US Tax Foundation and the UK Adam Smith Institute, called Tax Freedom Day. As they put it, this is the day of the year when you can ?stop working for the government and start working for yourself?. Eh? Well it?s the day of the year by which the average worker would have earned enough gross salary to pay off the average worker?s yearly tax bill. Comparisons can be made internationally: in the US it is on May 5th, in the UK June 2nd, and in the EU not until June 11th; and also historically: those in the UK now work four days less before we’ve paid off our taxes than we did in 1982.
Thus for people who don’t like paying taxes, Tax Freedom Day is an easy to understand measure that lets them work out where they’d pay the least in taxes, and whether things are getting better or worse.
Now, Work Freedom Day is going to be a similar concept, but will miss out the middleman of taxes and just concentrate on the work. It is designed to appeal to people who just don?t like working, period. It?ll show them in a simple way in which countries and what years one wouldn?t have had to work so much. It will be calculated much like Tax Freedom Day, except it will be the day of the year on which if you had worked for eight hours a day every weekday until then you would have completed the same number of hours as the average worker does in a year.
And don?t the Europeans do well! Referring to Key Indicators of the Labour Market, we see that in 2002 the Dutch worked the fewest number of hours in a year, just 1340. So on our eight hour, five day week, this would allow your average Dutch worker to pack up his clogs for the rest of the year and celebrate Work Freedom Day on August 22nd. The Germans, wouldn?t be far behind on the 10th September, closely followed by most other Europeans, on average starting their vacations from October 1st. Hoteliers across the Med islands could breathe a sigh of relief as the problem of the Brits trashing their towns would be solved by the fact they have to keep working until chilly October 25th. Even the British however pale into comparison with the industrious Americans, who would still be hard at until November 17th. And at least they would get a holiday ? for the Koreans Work Freedom Day doesn?t arrive until mid-February the following year. By which they?d be back at work again.
Work Freedom Day also allows us to look at trends over time. In general, it arrives sooner that it used to, typically as workers get more productive per hour they seem to put in fewer hours. This is especially pronounced for those in fast-growing economies. In 1980 the Irish would have had to wait until November 30th before heading on their holidays; last year they could be doing their own thing from October 18th. For other countries Work Freedom Day has shifted less, but again the Europeans do well, with the EU average Work Freedom Day now 33 days earlier than 22 years before. The Americans may be more determined to work themselves to death than most other First World nations, but even they have seen their working year fall by a week over the same period
Of course I can foresee some criticisms of Work Freedom Day. One could object to the very concept. Does aggregate data really tell us anything about our own experience at work? Does it accurately measure desired working hours, or does it reflect recession and overly restrictive labour laws (the French being the classic case of legislating to protect their fragile physiques from the horrors of greater than 35 hour weeks)? One could also object to the implicit assumption that shorter working hours are A Good Thing. Many people enjoy work, and of course you get compensated for doing it. A shortage of work in the past has meant misery for millions.
All these are true. Anyone who has been on holiday with close family knows there is such as thing as too much leisure. And a fall in working hours needs to be carefully examined, for example if it goes hand in hand with a fall in income it probably isn?t a good thing. But at the end of the (hopefully only a half) day, many studies show that work is making people unhappy, and the longer hours they are at work the unhappier they are. University of Warwick Professor Andrew Oswald, who has done a prodigious (Korean-style?) amount of research into the work/life balance, highlights an international study which shows that 46% of Americans wanted to have more time at home with the family, 36% of Britons but only 18% of the Dutch. I wonder why?
Yet even now there?s a simple objection. Working hours are ? by and large ? voluntary. If people wanted to work shorter hours, why don?t they? The obvious answer is ?It?s the Money, Stupid?. But it doesn?t primarily seem to be the money. People nowadays earn vastly more than their grandparents did, but work only moderately less. In fact, Oswald argues, it is because ?people?s innate need for ranking means they are compelled to run ever faster because they look over their shoulders all the time? In other words everyone would like a holiday, but many don?t dare take one because their colleagues aren?t. They want to leave at 5pm on the dot, but always someone else hanging on until 7pm. Thus Oswald stresses the need for ?co-ordinated? leisure time, i.e. guilt-free leisure time, which brings us back to those lazy Europeans with their long statutory holidays.
So let us embrace Work Freedom Day as a badge of European pride. Obviously I don?t expect everyone to literally work flat out until his or her Work Freedom Day and then party for the rest of the year. But it could engender some healthy competition among Europeans to see who can put the least hours in, with perhaps the winning country celebrating in the way that they know best, by making it another a public holiday. This of course would have the added bonus of bringing Work Freedom Day a day closer, starting a virtuous cycle that would eventually mean the people of Europe could on New Year’s Eve all go to bed and stay there, safe in the knowledge that work was something that happened in other parts of the world.