THE Waning of Europe's Work Ethic Is One of the Most Significant Cultural Changes the Continent Has Undergone in the Past Few Decades; Yet Its Story Remains Largely Untold

Sunday Business (London, England), August 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

THE Waning of Europe's Work Ethic Is One of the Most Significant Cultural Changes the Continent Has Undergone in the Past Few Decades; Yet Its Story Remains Largely Untold


THE waning of Europes work ethic is one of the most significant cultural changes the continent has undergone in the past few decades; yet its story remains largely untold. Along with diminishing respect paid to education, thrift and self-discipline, traditionally some of the wests core values, work is no longer valued by European society.

Whereas a belief in upwards social mobility and success through hard work remains a key component of the American dream, Europeans increasingly seem to prefer spending time at the beach, cafe or in front of the television. As such, the gulf between US and European cultural norms continues to widen; one certain consequence is that the gulf between US economic prosperity and European stagnation will also widen.

The desire to relax rather than work is understandable. But Europeans think they can do a lot less and still enjoy the highest standards of living and welfare. In reality, you can have one or the other. The loss of the work ethic will take its toll on Europes economic performance and prosperity. On present long-term trends, Europe is in grave danger of one day becoming an economic backwater. The average German now only works 1,400 hours a year, 17% less than in 1980, while the French and Italians work significantly fewer hours. Americans toil just as hard as they did in 1980, clocking up about 1,800 hours a year on average. Although the Japanese work fewer hours than they used to, largely because their economy has stagnated in the past decade, they work about the same hours as Americans.

Apart from working fewer hours on a daily and weekly basis, Europeans are also taking longer paid holidays. While Americans take two weeks off a year, Europeans now routinely take six weeks holidays: many workers in France now take nine weeks.

Far fewer Europeans of working age have a job than do Americans: the average employment participation ratio in the five largest European OECD countries is just 63.5%. In the US, almost three-quarters of those of working age work. The average employment ratio in the five largest non-European OECD countries is 70.8%.

In Italy, 52% of young people aged between 20 and 34 still live in their parents home, far more than 20 years ago, which generally means they do not have to work if they choose not to; many young Italians spin out their studies as long as possible rather than get a job: the average age at graduation is 28. Throughout the EU, surveys indicate that young people are no longer as professionally ambitious as they used to be and increasingly prefer to enjoy free time rather than start a successful career.

Whereas no one would argue for all work and no play there are too many American (and British) workaholics, whose Stakhan-ovite ways do not necessarily give them a high quality of life the European balance has clearly shifted too far towards leisure. The unavoidable consequence of this decline in dynamism will be fewer entrepreneurs, less risk-taking and lower productivity, condemning the continent to lower growth over the next decades and long-term decline.

The wealth-destroying consequences of Europes culture of leisure is reinforced by its looming and massive demographic problems. Falling birth rates mean that the population will start to fall by about 1% a year from next decade. Given that productivity will probably continue to grow by a meagre 1% or so a year, economic growth could stagnate for decades to come in Europe.

Although increased immigration could compensate for a falling population, further large-scale immigration threatens to bring upheaval to Europes political and social fabric. Europeans do not want to work hard themselves; but they are not keen to see the work being done by people of different skin-colour or religion. …

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