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July 08, 2004
Europeans Rethinking Their Shorter Workweeks

Europeans work to live. Americans live to work.

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With Europeans working an average of 10 percent fewer hours a year than Americans, the cliché has had more than a bit of truth behind it. But that may be changing.

The New York Times reports that chronic economic stagnation, deteriorating public finances, and competition from low-wage countries have combined to put pressure on Europeans to work longer hours. At the same time, there's a growing belief that the shorter workweek, once seen as a way of spreading work among more people, has actually done little to ease unemployment.

Klaus F. Zimmermann, president of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, told the Times: "We have created a leisure society, while the Americans have created a work society. But our model does not work anymore. We are in the process of rethinking it."

Or as the Times itself puts it: "Europe's long siesta, it seems, has finally reached its limit." The newspaper cites this evidence:

  • The French, who in 2000 trimmed their workweek to 35 hours in hopes of generating more jobs, worry that the move is instead hurting their economy. They are talking about returning to longer hours.

  • The English already are moving in that direction--informally. A 2002 study found more than a fifth of the labor force working beyond the European Union's mandated limit of 48 hours a week.

  • The Germans, who put in the lightest schedule in Europe by working about 18 percent fewer hours than Americans, got a wakeup call when the industrial giant Siemens threatened to move production of its cordless and cellular phones to Hungary, where salaries are much lower. Rather than risk the loss of 2,000 jobs in a country that already has a 10 percent unemployment rate, the union representing the Siemens workers agreed to extend the workweek from 35 hours to 40 and to scrap annual bonuses that every employee received to help pay for vacations and Christmas expenses.

"It's about lowering labor costs," said Peter Gottal, a spokesman for Siemens, which is based in Munich. "Where we are in a global competition, 35 hours are no longer feasible. We just need more hours."

While Siemens and its union say the contract is not a template for the rest of German industry, the Times reports that it is being viewed that way.

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