The advocacy of a four-day working week by the Labour Party’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell prompted a commentator to say that the one bulwark against the Americanisation of the UK economy was that the British were a bunch of slackers, at least compared to the industrious Americans.
This got me thinking. We all know that Americans work longer hours – the OECD in 2018 puts the average working year at 1,768 hours, 15% higher than the British who put in 1,538 (incidentally about the same as in France; it’s Germany which has the really short hours at 1,363). This difference of 230 hours is about 5 hours extra per work, or the equivalent of about 7 weeks holiday untaken.
However, fewer Americans now work at all compared to the British. The employment rate, which measures what proportion of people of working age population are in fact working, is just 71.1% in the US, compared to 75.1% in the UK.
If we multiply hours worked by % working we should get the average hours worked per person of working age population. For the US this is 1,768 x 71.1%, or 1,257 hours a year. For the UK it is 1,538 x 75.1%, or 1,155 hours. So the Americans still have it, but by a narrower amount of 9%.
It might even be closer than that. It is hard to be sure definitions are the same between the two countries. If we look at total hours worked in the economy, in 2018 it was 254.6bn in the US and 54.0bn (1,038*52) in the UK. The number of adults in each country is quite hard to find out, but seems to be 253m in the US, and 52.5m in UK. This suggests a very similar number of hours per person over the age of 18* of 1,028 in the US and 1,006 in the UK.
I’m not sure why this gives a more similar figure than the other method. The main difference is it includes pensioners, but this should boost the US total (there are fewer of them, but they work more than in the UK) So it might be due to differences in definitions around ages, or something to do with the military.
Either way the Americans do still work longer hours than the Brits. But there isn’t much in it.