The famed economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that his grandchildren would work a 15-hour week. If that’s the future, we’re getting there very slowly.
Canada has seen its average working hours shrink slowly but steadily for the past decade, according to data from the OECD, with the average number of hours falling from 1,775 in 2000 to 1,702 in 2010. The U.S. saw a similar decline, from 1,836 hours to 1,778.
But that doesn’t mean Canadians are growing lazy, or taking longer vacations, or even fulfilling Keynes' prophecy. It likely reflects the fact that a greater part of the workforce is now part-time.
Canada places roughly in the middle of the pack among the 34 developed countries that are members of the OECD. Some major economies, including Brazil and China, are not part of the OECD and are not listed in its survey.
The survey suggests there’s not much obvious linkage between the number of hours worked and how well an economy is doing. While South Korea and Chile topped the list with the longest working hours, in third place was Greece, where an ongoing economic crisis has not done anything to change the country’s long working hours. Greece’s hours have barely budged in a decade.
The shortest working hours are all to be found in Europe, particularly in affluent northern European countries. The Netherlands clock in with the shortest hours of all -- 1,377 hours on average per year, or nearly 20 per cent less than Canadians work. Germany comes in second (1,419 hours), and in third is Norway (1,414 hours).
Jon Messenger, a senior researcher at the International Labour Organization, told the BBC that the shrinking-hours phenomenon seen in many Western countries, including Canada, is the result of the rise of a part-time work force that has been supplanting the traditional full-time workforce.
"You have more and more people working part-time hours," says Messenger. "They're quite capable of supporting themselves, quite capable of producing what they need to produce, so it's just not necessary to work longer than that."
Messenger also noted that a country with long working hours isn’t necessarily producing more.
"Generally speaking, long working hours are associated with lower productivity per hour. Workers are working very long hours to achieve a minimum level of output or to achieve some minimum level of wages because frankly they're not very productive," Messenger told the BBC.
A 2010 report from the New Economics Foundation argues that developed countries have made enough productivity gains to work a 21-hour work week. And while some observers argue in favour of that, saying that it would reduce unemployment and halt the unsustainable growth in consumerism, other see the goal as unrealistic. Given additional free time, people will use it to earn more money, they say.
As Robert Skidelsky wrote in the Guardian: "People will continue to trade leisure for higher incomes."