Recently, the Dutch right-wing magazine Elsevier used this cover to illustrate its stance on the rescue package devised by European governments to tackle the corona crisis. The header reads “not a cent more for Southern Europe”. The drawing is quite explicit: at the top, blond hard-working Northern Europeans. At the bottom, a hairy South European sitting at a café, a dark-haired woman tapping on her phone by the pool.
Is this picture of lazy southerners and industrious northerners actually true? First, it’s important to say that this exercise is quite irrelevant for the issue of the rescue packages, debt mutualisation and other ways to tackle the crisis: Italy and Spain are so large that it doesn’t really matter if they “deserve” to be helped or not: if they face a liquidity crisis and go bankrupt, the damage will be so large for the Eurozone as a whole that Northern countries cannot do nothing. The question is whether there is some mechanism of conditionality or not. But if we still consider this question relevant for the political debate, a question would be: how many hours do people in different countries work throughout their life?
There are two indicators that are relevant to measure this: the number of hours workers put in per week or year, and the duration of their working life: how many years they spend in paid employment in-between their education and their retirement.
It seems that Northern countries generally have a longer working life, and retire later than Southern European countries. This map below was tweeted at me repeatedly by Dutch people to show that the Dutch have the longest working life in Europe. Why should Dutch people, so the argument goes, pay for Spaniards while they work 5 years longer?
However, if you look at the number of hours worked each year, its is quite clear that Southern countries work more hours. The graph below shows the total number of hours worked per worker in a year in OECD countries. Workers in Germany (blue) and the Netherlands (purple) are at the bottom with about 1400 hours worked per worker per year, while Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece usually work many more hours each year, ranging from 1700 for Spain to almost 2000 hours for Greece. On average, the average Greek in employment works 36% more hours each year than the average employed Dutch person. “In employment” is important here though because a higher share of Dutch people are in employment than in Greece.
Looking at these two things together, there is a negative relationship between the number of hours worked each year and the expected duration of working life: countries (in the South) that work more hours each year usually have shorter working lives, while countries (in the North) with shorter hours tend to work more years and retire later. This surely has something to do with the structure of the economy: there are more low-skilled jobs in the South that tend to have longer hours but are more difficult to perform when you’re old (think of factory or construction workers) while there are more high-skilled jobs in the North that have shorter weekly hours but can be performed even when you’re old (think of tax advisors or business controllers).
So in theory it could be possible that these two things could balance each other: some countries could work more intensively for a shorter number of years while other could work fewer hours for a longer number of years, but in total they could have put in the same number of hours. How does it look like if you multiply the total number of hours worked per year by the duration of working life? It looks like this:
Workers that would have worked the highest number of hours over a working life would be Estonians, with more than 68’000 hours worked, and those with the lowest number of hours would be in Luxembourg, with 51’000 hours. There is absolutely no North-South divide: Greek, Portuguese and Spanish workers worked a higher estimated number of hours over their working life than Dutch or German workers. In fact, if you balance the duration of working life and the yearly hours worked, hard-working Germans actually work less than all Southern countries. And they can afford it, because labour productivity in Germany (and in the North) is higher in general.
It’s important to say that I only look at people in employment and don’t look at the population as a whole. These numbers show the number of hours worked per worker and not per inhabitant, or per working-age inhabitant. In countries with a lower employment rate (usually in the South), work is concentrated on a smaller portion of the population and the average number of hours for the whole working-age population will be smaller than if the employment rate was high. I leave this question aside because people who are not part of the labour force may actually be working and doing important things (caring for children or the elderly) but they’re simply not counted. For instance, women in Italy are more likely to stay at home when they have children than Swedish or Dutch women, and Swedish kids are more likely to be placed in childcare. All of these women work, but the hours of Italian women caring for their kids at home are not counted. This caveat is actually also valid for the number of weekly hours in general: what you can measure is quite different from the effort required for or the value of the work. But even if you look at the part that can be measured, the reality does not conform to stereotypes.