But perhaps the most striking of all the differences between American and European working patterns, however, relates to working hours. In 1999, according to figures from the OECD, the average American in employment worked just under 2,000 hours a year (1,976). The average German worked 1,535 – 22 per cent less.
According to a recent American study, the average Frenchman works a staggering 32 per cent less. The journalist Madeleine Bunting has recently lamented that British workers are being pushed towards the American model, but the British worker is still working 12 per cent less than his American counterpart. This gap between American and European working hours is of surprisingly recent origin; 25 years ago, it didn’t exist. Between 1979 and 1999, the average US working year lengthened by 50 hours, nearly four per cent. But the average German working year shrank by 12 per cent. The same was true elsewhere in Europe.
How are we to explain this divergence? The obvious answer is European legislation such as the French 35-hour week or the recent British reduction of the hours worked by junior doctors. Another theory points to differences in marginal rates of taxation. But I cannot resist suggesting another possible explanation – one that owes a debt to Weber’s famous essay The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which he wrote almost exactly a century ago.
Weber believed he had identified a link between the rise of Protestantism and the development of what he called “the spirit of capitalism”. I would like to propose a modern version of Weber’s theory, namely “The Atheist Sloth Ethic and the Spirit of Collectivism”.
Interesting concept. It makes sense that atheists would be less inclined to work hard, since if this life is all they’ve got before vanishing into oblivion, there’s no point in slaving away instead of devoting oneself to an Epicurean philosophy of eat, drink and be merry. Oh, sure, some misguided non-souls among the godless might be inclined to work hard to make a better life for their children or something, but in general, it would be logical for the soulless to employ the same parasitic attitude towards societal wealth that they do towards societal mores.
I can’t say I entirely disagree, either. As I’ve written previously, I don’t think anyone ever went to his Maker – or into the dark bowels of oblivion – wishing he’d spent more time at the office.