Europe reluctantly eyes a longer work week

"Europeans work to live. Americans live to work." There's much to this adage, and even more so than decades ago.

Between 1970 and 2002, hours worked per person rose by 20 percent in the United States. In Europe, they fell greatly. Hours were down most of all - 23.5 percent - in France with its legislated 35-hour week. Germans worked 17.1 percent fewer hours, according to a new analysis of 19 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based club of the world's richest nations.

Europeans are now thinking that maybe they ought to work a bit longer. That's not because they don't enjoy their time off. The typical worker in Western Europe is entitled to six or more weeks of holiday and vacation days annually.

But business, and workers to some degree, have become concerned about high labor costs forcing firms to take production and jobs out of Western Europe into Eastern Europe or other regions where wages are lower.

In Lyon, France, this week, Bosch, the German tool- and car-parts maker, is demanding that its workers accept a longer 36-hour week and other concessions, or face seeing its jobs go to the Czech Republic.

This type of demand, now more common, startles Europe, which is used to seeing hours decline, not increase.

Europe also has a relatively high jobless rate. Using a standardized unemployment rate calculated by the OECD, Germany has a 9.8 percent jobless rate and France 9.4 percent. That compares with 5.6 percent in the US.

German unions suspect that if they give employers "one finger, they will take the whole hand," says Ulrich Ramm, an economist at Commerzbank, Frankfurt, one of Germany's largest banks.

Mr. Ramm nonetheless maintains that Germany needs "more flexibility" in its labor markets, that companies should be able to ask employees to work 50 hours some weeks if product demand is high, and only 30 hours if it's weak.

Last week, Germany's upper house of parliament gave Chancellor Gerhard Schröder a key victory to pass the deepest cut in social benefits in half a century. The lower house had already approved the measure, reducing state benefits for the long-term unemployed.

The OECD study shows that workers in five or so richest western European nations are approximately as productive as Americans while they are working.

That may surprise many Americans, often thinking of themselves as especially productive in their work.

When France switched to a 35-hour week, starting in 1997, the goal was to spread work around and reduce unemployment. But it hasn't worked out that way. French employers and employees reorganized their work to boost productivity decidedly.

Beside, such nations as the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have managed both short official working hours and low unemployment rates.

On the social side, though, French working mothers could look after their children on the Wednesday school half-day. Gym memberships soared, along with home improvements, gardening, and other hobbies and enjoyable activities.

But business costs did rise. France's new finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, complained this spring that the 35-hour week was a financial disaster, costing the state huge sums.

And because Europeans work fewer hours and retire earlier, their income falls short of that of Americans.

The French, says Paul Swaim, an OECD economist in Paris, work about 30 percent less than Americans and that translates directly into about 30 percent less income. So French households may keep their cars longer and buy fewer TVs.

Over the last 20 years, says Ramm, household income rose about 80 percent in the US and only 40 percent in Europe.

The difference largely reflects the preference of Europeans for more leisure, not greater output per hour.

It will be no surprise to working mothers anywhere that the OECD report finds "that long working hours are associated with greater perceived conflict between job and family responsibilities."

In the US, a higher proportion of women work for pay than in Europe. Some 71 percent of the working-age population has jobs, compared to an OECD average of 65 percent.

Ramm notes that at his bank, a big one with many thousands of employees, only 150 employees are older than 60. That's because retirement benefits are so lavish. For instance, at age 56, a worker can cut his hours in half and still receive 75 percent of his salary. And, laying off workers no longer needed in Germany is "nearly impossible," he says.

Europeans hope for a happy medium on hours. Many American firms keep pushing their employees for more hours.

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