Day By Day

Monday, February 06, 2006

An Historical Perspective on Contrasting European and American Attitudes Toward Work

Much has been made in the press and in economic literature about the fact that Americans, on average, work longer hours than Europeans. This is usually seen as a recent development and a major reason Europe's economic growth lags behind that of the U.S.A. Now comes a new study by Michael Huberman of he University of Montreal and Chris Minns of Trinity, Dublin titled "Hours of Work in Old and New Worlds: The Long View, 1870-2000" that places the phenomenon in its proper context. [PDF here]

The authors present three important findings.

1) The disparity in hours worked between Europe and its "colonial" offshoots in the US, Canada and Australia was a long-term trend that appeared in the late Nineteenth Century and continued through the Twentieth.
Compared to workers elsewhere, Europeans had a stronger preference for leisure beginning in 1870. This trends clearly emerges after controlling for levels of income. Even at early stages of development New World workers had a predisposition tosupply more labor time. [p. 3]
This means that the standard explanations for the disparity, which rely on recent developments fail to fit the historical data.

2) Initial conditions in the late nineteenth century shaped institutional and cultural responses to changing economic political and economic environments ever since. Despite radical changes in institutional arrangements, the disparity holds constant over time. The authors take this to suggest that institutional arrangements represent a response to, rather than a determinant of the culture of work.

3) In seeking to identify the initial nineteenth-century conditions that account for the disparity the authors argue that geography [population density] trumped culture [religion] and human capital [education]. [p. 4] Essentially the argument is that greater population dispersal in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, meant that workers in those countries spent less time getting to and from work than those in Europe. This meant that European workers were more likely to adopt patterns of behavior and institutional arrangements that focused on lessening the burden of work than their colonial counterparts and that tendency has continued ever since.

Very interesting, with important policy implications. As the authors put it, when considering labor policies we must understand that "history does matter." More specifically:
It is problematic to claim that policy is transferable and will have similar effects everywhere. Because attitudes to worktime have diverged over a long period, we cannot be certain that workers of the world today are intrinsically alike and will respond similarly to the same incentives. [p. 18]
Some qualifications, though:

First, the proxies for culture and human capital are extremely crude. I would like to see some refinements there.

Second, given the high geographic mobility of labor in both Europe and America I would like to see what happens when workers move from one environment to another. Do recent immigrants from Europe bring with them European attitudes toward work, or do they accommodate to the conditions in their new homelands? There are also provocative questions regarding rural-to- urban migrants.

Third: The countries compared to Europe are all Anglospheric countries. It would be interesting to see if there are similar patterns in former French colonies. Also, does Britain conform to the general "European" pattern, or are there systematic differences? Do countries outside the Anglosphere with similar settlement patterns conform to the Anglospheric model?

So many questions....

Finally, long ago I participated in a study of "The Journey-to-work In A Ninetenth Century City: Philadelphia, 1850-1880." [T. Hershberg, ed., Philadelphia (1981)]. One of the principle findings of that study was that race mattered..., a lot. Racial discrimination constrained both housing and employment markets with the result that African-Americans had to endure a much longer journey-to-work than whites. In the light of the authors' conclusions we might expect that minorities that experienced residential and employment discrimination in the past might be more likely than the general workforce to adopt "European" attitudes toward work and labor institutions. This would be a fascinating question to investigate.

Damn..., this is fun!!!!! It's been years since I held a research, as opposed to a teaching, position. I should get back into the game.

So many questions......

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