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Europeans are working fewer and fewer hours, especially men

The reduction in working hours is also concentrated among young people, who are spending more time on their studies, an IMF study has indicated. The richer the country, the fewer hours people work

Trabajo europa
A worker at a soft drinks factory in Matorelles, Barcelona (Spain).Albert Garcia
Emilio Sánchez Hidalgo

There is a lot of debate in Spain around the total hours worked, usually to clarify the employment records of recent months. Two coinciding realities have provoked this conversation: never before has the Spanish labor market employed so many people, 21.27 million according to the latest Active Population Survey; but the total hours worked (608 million) has not beaten any records. Compared to the third quarter of 2008, employment has grown by 3.5% and hours worked have fallen by 3.8%. This means that the hours worked by each employee on average have decreased over the years. But this is not only happening in Spain, according to a study recently published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) focusing on European labor markets. Furthermore, it points out that it is men and students who are clearly behind this trend of working fewer hours.

“Three years after the coronavirus crisis, employment and total hours have fully recovered, but average hours per worker have not,” state the authors of Dissecting the Decline in Average Hours Worked in Europe, which compares today’s figures with those from the pre-pandemic period, but also looks further back. This trend, they conclude, “is not cyclical, but predominantly structural, extending the long-term trend that predates Covid-19” and “it seems unlikely” that it will be reversed in the future.

As the report based on Eurostat data highlights, the total hours worked in Europe are now in figures similar to those of 2019 and in some cases below, but this is not the case for the median hours worked per employee, at slightly below 37 hours per week. This drop in hours worked is preceded by decades following the same line: “Average working hours in developed economies have been on a long-term declining trend since the 19th century, roughly halving between the 1870s and the 2000s in Germany, for example. More broadly, average working hours across OECD countries have decreased by about 0.5% per year between the 1870s and the early 2000s.”

The contraction in average working time is concentrated in three groups: young people, men in general, and particularly men with young children. “In the case of young people, an increase in the incidence of part-time workers who are also enrolled in education may explain the decline. For men in general, including those with young children, the decline cuts across both full-time and part-time workers [...] This finding is surprisingly consistent across all European countries,” the IMF study indicates. “The fall in in actual hours has come alongside a fall in desired hours,” add the authors (Diva Astinova, Romain Duval, Niels-Jakob H. Hansen, Ben Park, Ippei Shibata, and Frederik Toscani), who consider that these reductions are due to personal preferences among these groups of employees.

The analysis highlights that men continue to work more hours (39.9 hours) on average than women (34.7 hours), “but this gender gap has shrunk over time, and so did the gender gap in the employment rate.” Behind this phenomenon is the fact that women continue to assume most of the childcare, usually out of obligation. What’s more, the hours worked by women with children have increased slightly. In Spain, although women make up less than half of the workforce, they account for 73% of the bias. Of the total number of people in employment who work part-time due to care or family obligations, 89% are women. And of the total who do not work a full day because they have not been able to find such arrangements, the number is 71%.

With the focus on other demographic groups, the IMF study also highlights that older workers (55 to 64 years old) and elderly workers (65 years and older) “have seen an increase in their employment shares as effective retirement ages rose across most European countries, but average hours also dropped for them.”

The study also points out that contractions in working time are more pronounced in richer countries than in those with a lower GDP. “These results are consistent with a dominant role of the income effect over the substitution effect in determining the worker’s labor supply at the intensive margin, as widely documented in the literature.” A look at Eurostat’s present tense data shows this reality: people living in Serbia work an average of 42.2 hours a week; in the Netherlands, the figure is 31.1 hours.

Thus, the report anticipates that the average hours worked will continue to fall in European countries, at a rate that will depend on productivity and wage growth, “at varying speeds across countries depending on their economic convergence paths.” The more productivity and added value in economic activity, the more pronounced contractions are expected. “In the medium term, most economic forecasts, including the IMF’s, foresee modest productivity gains for economies that are close to the technological frontier, namely advanced Europe,” so the reduction in hours would also be “modest,” according to The document. In the long term, the IMF warns of the key role that artificial intelligence and the measures adopted to contain global warming will play.

Spain’s PSOE and Sumar committed in their coalition agreement to reduce the ordinary working day, from the current 40 hours to 38.5 hours in 2024 and 37.5 in 2025. By doing so, Spain would join some European countries that have officially reduced the length of the working day, although the 40-hour work week remains the most widespread norm.

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