December 10, 2008 / 1:50 PM / 10 years ago

Crazy or lazy? The transAtlantic work ethic divide

ROME (Reuters Life!) - Americans are as work-crazy as they are made out to be but there may be less truth to the stereotype of the lazy European, a new book by economists suggests.

Photographers work during the IV Spain-China Forum in Madrid November 27, 2007. REUTERS/Susana Vera

In “Working hours and Job Sharing in the EU and USA - Are Europeans Lazy? Or Americans Crazy?,” economists study the portrayal of Americans as workaholic go-getters and Europeans as slackers who take long lunches and vacation through August.

The data shows Americans not only work an hour a day more on average than their European counterparts, they work at all hours of the day, and even on the weekend, said Dan Hamermesh, one of the co-authors and a professor at the University of Texas.

“I watch Americans and I think we’re crazy,” he said. “It’s not just that we work more — we work all the time. We also get fewer weeks of vacation and we don’t even use up all of it.”

And Americans are not shopping, cooking and cleaning less as a result of more hours in the office, meaning their total work levels are higher, he says.

Why Americans choose to be in this “low-level equilibrium” is unclear, but much of the transatlantic divide in working habits can be traced to differences in culture, history and social norms, says Hamermesh.

Then again, it may just be that there’s more to do in Europe in one’s free time than in America.

“It’s partly because (work) is just what we do in America,” he said, adding he found more things to do in a six-month stint in Bonn, Germany than in his work base of Austin, Texas.

“So I guess if you’ve got nothing else to do, you might as well earn more and buy things and send your kids to college, which happens to be very expensive.”

Europeans, on the other hand, seem to want to be given a chance to work more, the economists say, rejecting the popular economic theory that Europeans work less because they value leisure time more than their American counterparts.

Unions, higher taxes and government regulation of working hours deter Europeans from working as much as they otherwise would have, said Tito Boeri, who edited the book and is an economics professor at Bocconi University in Milan.

Data shows, for example, that Americans working for others worked more than their European counterparts, but self-employed Europeans put in more hours than similar Americans — punching a hole in the theory that Europeans value leisure more, he said.

“We do have institutions that prevent people from working more,” said Boeri. “And the issue is not simply of people not working long enough hours, but more that there a lot of people who are not working at all. This is particularly true of southern Europe, including Italy.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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