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Have the Germans become lazy at work?

Insa Wrede
May 16, 2024

Germans have long been known for their diligence, sense of duty, reliability and productivity. Recent data suggests that Germans are working fewer hours. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

A man rests his head in his hands, having a nap at a desk, seen from above
Have the Germans become lazy at work? It's a matter of perspectiveImage: Monkey Business 2/Shotshop/imago images

A glance at current OECD labor figures can be startling. In 2022, the average American worked over 1,800 hours per year, while the average German worked only 1,340 hours. However, labor market researcher Enzo Weber from the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) in Nuremberg, Germany, dismisses suggestions of the once-industrious Germans now only wanting to enjoy their sweet lives.

"Germany has a very high female labor force participation rate compared to most other countries," Weber told DW, noting that the main difference to other countries was that about every second woman works part-time, which mathematically lowers the average annual working hours.

For example, if two men work 10 hours each in one country, the average working timethere is 10 hours — (10+10)/2 = 10. But if, in another country, two men work 10 hours each and a woman works four hours, the average working time comes out to eight hours (10+10+4)/3 = 8.

Speaking with DW, Weber also pointed out that the OECD figures "do not mean that less work is being done in Germany" — quite the contrary. "More work is being done because the alternative would be that these women are not included in the statistics at all," he said, adding that the OECD itself cautions that the data is only of limited use for international comparison.

Labor shifts and Gen Z

According to Weber, co-author of a recently published IAB labor study, the times when men worked full-time and women stayed at home are long gone in Germany. Currently, 77% of German women are employed, marking a significant increase in female workforce participation over the past 30 years, even though many work part-time.

A mother sitting at a table doing remote work while her child sits next to her drawing pictures
A shortage of places in child-care facilities has forced many mothers to work fewer hours to look after their childrenImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

And of those women who work full-time, nearly half would like to reduce their working hours by about six hours per week, according to the IAB survey. Among full-time employed men, some 60% said they would like to work about 5.5 hours less.

The desire to work less, among both men and women in Germany, has existed for decades but appears to have reached new highs with so-called Gen Z — the generation born between 1995 and 2010 that's begun hitting the labor market in recent years.

Gen Z has earned the dubious reputation of wanting high salaries and as much free time as possible. Weber, however, said this was a stereotype, adding that a successful working career is as important to the majority of Generation Z as it was to previous generations, as his findings have shown.

How to work less with fewer people?

But Gen Z's desire for less and more flexible working hours have, meanwhile, become mainstream demands of Germany's traditionally strong labor unions. They've gained more traction due to a massive skilled labor shortage and positive remote work experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gen Z and the workplace

As a result, current employees have more leverage and can push harder for changes at the workplace than workers did at the turn of the millennium, when Germany was in the grip of mass unemployment.

But how does "working less" align with the increasing need for skilled workers and the desire to avoid loss of prosperity? It's expected that by 2035, solely due to demographic changes, there will be 7 million fewer people in the German labor market.

One way to address the emerging situation is by boosting labor productivity. Weber believes it doesn't make sense to squeeze maximum working hours out of people. Instead, he has argued for improving the quality of work through training, investments in digitization — notably artificial intelligence — and the ecological restructuring of the economy.

Halting the slide in productivity growth

Weber also called for a so-called proactive qualification policy that avoids waiting until someone has been left behind by structural change and then begins to intervene with emergency measures. Instead, people should be empowered to take initiative and play an active role in their careers.

At the moment, however, German productivity growth is meager at best. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute has shown that between 1997 and 2007, the German economy experienced productivity growth of 1.6% annually, but halved to 0.8% between 2012 and 2019.

A nurse in a hospital moving a bed down a corridor
Services jobs like in care for the elderly and hospitality contribute only little to productivity Image: Marijan Murat/dpa/picture alliance

In that, Germany is no exception to other industrialized countries, where most of the new jobs also have been created in low-productivity sectors such as services. In addition, the low-wage sector, which is not known to be very productive, has exploded virtually everywhere in the past few decades.

At the same time, labor productivity has been growing elsewhere in the world. Driven mostly by progress in emerging economies, global productivity growth jumped sixfold between 1997 and 2022. The median GDP per capita surged from $7,000 (€6,500) to $41,000 over the period.

Nevertheless, IAB's Weber advocates for more flexibility in the German labor market, saying employees should be free to choose how much they work at different stages of their lives.

"We don't need a five- or four-day workweek; we need an X-day workweek and flexibility in work throughout our lifetimes," he said, adding that perhaps with new flexible work models, even retirees could be motivated to continue working.

This article was originally written in German.