You are hereThe atheist sloth ethic, or why Europeans don't believe in work

The atheist sloth ethic, or why Europeans don't believe in work


By Virgil - Posted on 09 August 2004

In Europe, nothing happens in August. It is not, of course, that everyone is on holiday. Many readers of this column will be among the unhappy few who are still slogging in to work. But notice the half-empty commuter train, the uncannily smooth flow of traffic at rush hour.Notice, too, that virtually no serious decision can be taken in the office throughout this month, because there is always at least one key executive on holiday. London in August is lethargic. On close inspection, a large proportion of the people in the city are, in fact, foreign tourists.

The impact of high summer on other European cities is even more dramatic. From Bastille Day, Paris is a Parisian-free zone. With the beginning of the Edinburgh Festival, most residents take to the hills, leaving their city to be occupied by a ragtag army of amateur actors.

Yet the same cannot be said of New York. Having just returned from what apparently remains the terrorists' favourite target, I can confirm that, despite the sweltering heat and multiplying mosquitoes, it is still business as usual in Manhattan. Only a select few of its inhabitants take themselves off to Martha's Vineyard; even among the super-rich, there is a preference for the Hamptons, which are within easier striking distance of their beloved workplaces.

Everyone knows that Americans have much shorter holidays than Europeans. While German, Italian and French workers enjoy, on average, more than 40 days of holiday a year, the average American has to make do with just two weeks. But this is only part of a growing transatlantic disparity in patterns of work.

There are, for example, many more Europeans out of work than Americans; over the past decade, US unemployment has averaged 4.6 per cent, compared with 9.2 per cent for the EU. Another difference is in labour participation. Between 1973 and 1998, the percentage of the American population in employment rose from 41 to 49 per cent. But in Germany and France, the equivalent percentage fell to, respectively, 44 and 39 per cent.

Then there is the familiar European penchant for strikes. Between 1992 and 2001, the Spanish economy lost, on average, 271 days per thousand employees as a result of industrial action. For Denmark, Italy, Finland, Ireland and France, the figures lay between 80 and 120. The figure for America was just 50.

Nor should we forget our friend the "sickie". It was reported in this newspaper yesterday that Royal Mail employees - one in every 17 of whom calls in sick on an average day - are to be offered a novel incentive to turn up for work.

From now on, those Stakhanovite types who turn up to all their shifts for six months will be entered in a draw to win a new Ford Focus. In America, they have a rather different approach. Workers who consistently miss work because they are feeling under the weather are given the chance to miss it on a permanent basis - by being fired.

Of course, people who go on strike or absent themselves because of illness usually return to work at some point. But that is not true of people who retire. Here, too, Europeans are working less than Americans. By 2050, according to UN population projections, the proportion of the European population aged 65 or over will rise from 16 to 28 per cent. America is ageing, too, but nothing like as fast.

But perhaps the most striking of all the differences between American and European working patterns, however, relates to working hours. In 1999, according to figures from the OECD, the average American in employment worked just under 2,000 hours a year (1,976). The average German worked 1,535 - 22 per cent less.

According to a recent American study, the average Frenchman works a staggering 32 per cent less. The journalist Madeleine Bunting has recently lamented that British workers are being pushed towards the American model, but the British worker is still working 12 per cent less than his American counterpart.

This gap between American and European working hours is of surprisingly recent origin; 25 years ago, it didn't exist. Between 1979 and 1999, the average US working year lengthened by 50 hours, nearly four per cent. But the average German working year shrank by 12 per cent. The same was true elsewhere in Europe.

How are we to explain this divergence? The obvious answer is European legislation such as the French 35-hour week or the recent British reduction of the hours worked by junior doctors. Another theory points to differences in marginal rates of taxation. But I cannot resist suggesting another possible explanation - one that owes a debt to Weber's famous essay The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which he wrote almost exactly a century ago.

Weber believed he had identified a link between the rise of Protestantism and the development of what he called "the spirit of capitalism". I would like to propose a modern version of Weber's theory, namely "The Atheist Sloth Ethic and the Spirit of Collectivism".

The most remarkable thing about the transatlantic divergence in working patterns is that it has coincided almost exactly with a comparable divergence in religiosity. According to a 1999 Gallup survey of religious attitudes, 48 per cent of people living in western Europe almost never go to church; the figure for eastern Europe is just a little lower at 44 per cent.

In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than one in 10 of the population now attends church at least once a month. Only in Catholic Italy and Ireland do more than a third of the population worship on a monthly basis or more often.

By contrast, more than twice as many North Americans as Europeans attend religious services once a week or more. And scarcely any Americans could be characterised as atheists, compared with 15 per cent of Europeans.

The claim that Britons are the most Americanised of Europeans does not stand up well in this regard. When it comes to religion, the British are west Europeans, not eastern Americans. Fewer than a third of Britons surveyed in a recent BBC poll agreed with the statement "My God is the only true god", compared with half of Americans. Fewer than a fifth of Britons say they would be willing to die for their beliefs, compared with 71 per cent of Americans.

I do not say that this is the sole explanation for the fact that London today is lethargic while New York toils away as usual. But there is surely something more than coincidental about the simultaneous rise of unbelief in Europe and the decline of Weber's work ethic.

If I weren't on holiday, I'd write a book about it.

Niall Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard. A full version of his recent lecture "Economics, Religion and the Decline of Europe" will be published later this year by the Institute of Economic Affairs

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