One of my main sources of data for my postings is the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis better known as FRED. Using their data, we can compare many facets of the American economy and even compare American data to data from other OECD nations. In this posting, I want to compare the number of hours worked annually by American workers to the number of hours worked by our European counterparts who famously have weeks of vacation compared to the measly few that American workers receive. We will also see how the annual number of hours worked in each nation changes over the decades.
Let's start with the average number of hours worked annually in the United States:
Obviously, the nature of work has changed a great deal in the U.S. since the 1950s. At its peak in 1951, the average American worker put in 1918.5 hours of work a year or 38.4 hours per week over a 50 week working year. This has dropped to 1703.6 hours in 2011, a drop of 11.2 percent, bringing the average working week down to 34.1 hours.
We all hear stories about how hard Germans work. Let's compare the German data (in red) to the United States (in blue):
While Germans worked longer than Americans in the 1970s, this changed in 1981. As it stands now, Germans work only 1406.3 hours annually, 297 hours or 17.4 percent less than Americans. The decline in the number of hours worked by Germans has also been much more rapid than for workers in the U.S.
Now, let's compare the annual hours worked in the United Kingdom (again, in red) to the United States:
Once again, before 1993, workers in the U.K. worked longer than the United States, in fact, in 1955, United Kingdom workers spent 18 percent more time at work in a year than U.S. workers. As you can see, in 2011, workers in both nations worked roughly the same length of time with American workers spending about 50 hours more at work in a year than their U.K. counterparts. Again, the number of hours worked by U.K. workers has declined much more rapidly than in the United States.
Here's how annual working hours compare for Canada (in red) and the United States, a comparison that is particularly interesting given that the economies of the two nations are tightly connected:
Like workers in the United States, Canadian workers have seen the number of hours worked in a year drop since the 1950s. However, right from 1950 to the present, Canadian workers have spent more time at work every year than their American counterparts although, by 2011, workers in both nations worked the same length of time. In the early 1960s, this was not the case; in 1961, Canadian workers spent nearly 240 hours or 12.9 percent more time at work than their American peers.
Now, let's switch gears for a minute and compare the number of annual working hours in the United States to three key economies in the Far East starting with Japan:
The pattern in this graph is somewhat different. Until the 1990s, Japan's workforce spent over 2100 hours working every year. Unlike the aforementioned nations, Japan's working year didn't really start to decrease substantially until the 1990s. In the cases of Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada, workers in these nations saw their hours of work decline rather steadily since the 1960s.
Here's a graph comparing the annual working hours for Taiwan (in red) and the United States:
Since the early 1970s, Taiwan's workers have seen the number of hours spent at work decline gradually, later than the decline that took place in the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. As you can see, Taiwan's workers still work far longer hours than American workers even though they have decreased since the 1960s and 1970s, in fact, in 2011, Taiwan's workers spent 26 percent longer at work than American workers.
Lastly, here is a graph comparing the annual working hours for South Korea (in red) and the United States:
Again, workers in South Korea spend far longer at work on an annual basis than American workers. In 1982, Korea's workers spent 2789 hours at work compared to 1714 for Americans. Even in 2011, Taiwan's workers spent 490 hours more at work than their American counterparts. You'll also notice that, like Japan, the number of working hours for Taiwanese workers didn't begin to decline meaningfully until the mid- to late-1990s.
It is interesting to compare the number of working hours in several nations and how the number of hours worked has changed with time. Workers in the economies of both Japan and South Korea saw their working hours decline much later than their counterparts in Europe and North America and in the cases of both South Korea and Taiwan, their work weeks are still at levels much higher than those of the United States (and Canada for that matter) even in the 1950s.