Desire for more free time: Are Germans too lazy?

Many Germans work part-time – and the trend is increasing. Business representatives warn: Our prosperity is threatened. But the desire for more free time is growing.

Germany is a part-time republic. More and more Germans want to work less and less – even if that means a loss of income. Business representatives are sounding the alarm and demanding that more work must be done in Germany in order to maintain prosperity.

Is that correct? Almost 30 percent work part-time in this country – that means fourth place in the European Union and around 10 percent more than the EU average. In 2022 – these are the current data from the Federal Statistical Office – all employed people, both full-time and part-time, worked an average of 34.7 hours per week. The European average is 37 hours. The usual weekly working hours have decreased by 3.8 hours since 1991. At the same time, the proportion of part-time workers has roughly doubled.

While the average working hours of employed people are falling – also due to widespread part-time work – the volume of work, i.e. the number of all hours worked, rose to a record level in 2023.

This is mainly due to two reasons. On the one hand, more women are working than before. On the other hand, the employment of older people has also increased. “In 2000, 10 percent of 60 to 64-year-olds were employed subject to social security contributions – today it is 50 percent,” says Enzo Weber, head of the “Forecasts and Macroeconomic Analyzes” research department at the Institute for Labor Market and Occupational Research, in a recent interview ntv.de.

Desired working hours become smaller

So more people are working than before, but on average fewer hours. This is particularly problematic due to two related developments: a shortage of skilled workers and demographic change. Weber assumes that seven million workers will be lost by 2035 due to the aging of society. Three countermeasures could counteract this: more immigration of skilled workers, higher labor force participation, especially among women, and longer working hours.

But the desire for more free time is increasing. According to a study by the employer-related German Economic Institute (IW), the desired working hours of the youngest employees up to the age of 25 fell by a good 3 hours per week from 2007 to 2021 to around 35 hours. For those aged 26 to 40 it fell by around 2 hours per week to almost 34, and for those over 40 it fell by almost 3 hours per week to 32 hours. The IW study is based on regular surveys of tens of thousands of employees for the Socio-Economic Panel with its large social science database. The panel was asked about the desired working hours with the information that if the working hours were reduced, the wages would change accordingly.

It is not the case that less work volume necessarily means less wealth. Productivity advances can compensate for this. An example: In Germany, the gross domestic product per capita has risen sharply since the introduction of the five-day week. However, the dynamics of labor productivity – a measure of how productive an economy is – is declining in this country. Their development essentially determines material prosperity.

Nevertheless, work will continue to become more efficient in the future through advances in productivity, for example through artificial intelligence. But this cannot compensate for less overall employment indefinitely. “If all full-time employees in Germany only worked four days a week, we would lose twelve percent of our work capacity, says Weber. “One thing is clear: Less work capacity means less added value and less prosperity. As a result, the overall income of the economy falls.

“We have to weigh up”

You can increase productivity with artificial intelligence, says Weber. That brings progress and more prosperity. On this basis, “the decision can be made as to whether this wealth is enough for you and whether you want to work less. But what will not change through the use of AI: If I work more, I earn more money.”

For many people, however, it’s not just how much money they have that’s important. Your own health or time with your family also play a big role. Given the alternative between more free time or more material wealth, they often choose the latter.

“We should consider: Which model really makes sense for society?,” said Weber. “The goal cannot be as much material wealth as possible and as little free time as possible. We have to weigh up: How much working time do I want to use and under what conditions? And no one can make this decision for people; they can only make it themselves.”

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