We need to work less, like those feckless Germans

Germany never really struck me as a haven for the bone-idle, but if this opinion piece in today’s Grauniad is to be believed, the old Protestant work-ethic seems to burn low over there. At least compared to the poor old Americans, who may live in the richest country on Earth but seem to have ended up working the longest hours in the developed world. And ended up with sod all annual holiday (vacation) allowance to boot.

Looks like the lazy Germans work only four fifths of the amount of time the Americans put in. Nevertheless, Dean’s comment here made me take a double-take

The most important point to realize is that the problem facing wealthy countries at the moment is not that we are poor, as the stern proponents of austerity insist. The problem is that we are wealthy. We have tens of millions of people unemployed precisely because we can meet current demand without needing their labour.

I spent about five minutes going WTF, this guy is totally full of crap, before coming to the conclusion that he is probably absolutely right. Now of course there was the same old same old in the comments, indeed the first one I saw was Chris

If I do less work I get paid less money.

You’d be solving unemployment at the cost of making those who have jobs much poorer.

No thanks.

Chris’s problem is that he feels that he can’t maintain his current lifestyle on less than what he currently earns. The solution, Chris, is to live below your means. Buy less shit, do more with less Stuff, and y’know, maybe see more of your family? It’s amazing how much really interesting stuff is nearly free – as Mr Money Mustache summarised with panache in Get Rich With – Nature

And yet I have a curious fellow feeling with those Germans. I’ve chosen to take their solution in a different way. Give or take a few months, I have retired 8 years short of the normal retirement age for The Firm, and had I run to term I would have had 37 years of working under my belt (from coming of age at 18 and after knocking out three years as an’ undergraduate and one postgrad year). That’s pretty close to a German-style 20% fewer hours, it’s just that I’ve packed them all in at the end. There was, in 2008, the option of going part time which was offered by The Firm in a German-style response to the recession, but I was already in the final sprint and lowering my income would have delayed my exit date. So for different reasons to Chris, I responded in a similar manner that I couldn’t afford it.

Where I differ from Chris is that I didn’t need the money to maintain my living standard. Indeed, what this story shows is one of the tragedies of our time. I saw a BBC programme a while ago called the Century of the Self with Adam Curtis, who showed some archive footage from the dawn of the 20th century. There was a real fear that the nascent industrial mass-production would be in serious trouble once people had got all the stuff that they needed.

Yeah, I know, stupid buggers, eh, how on earth could they ever have thought something so daft? But apparently it took some effort to find the path that took us to the place we are today, and the talents of a chap called Edward Bernays, who according to Curtis (quote is about 1 minute in from the start)

was the first person to take [Sigmund] Freud’s ideas about human beings and use them to manipulate the masses.

He showed American corporations for the first time how they could make people want things they didn’t need, by linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires

Now Adam Curtis gilds the lily somewhat, but he does have a point. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and I’d say that Westfield Shopping centre is the logical fruition of Bernays’ ideas – a place where it is virtually impossible to buy anything useful, a shrine to the supremacy of Wants over Needs. Is there really a need for Peppa Pig

Meet Peppa Pig, exclusive wristband only in advance extra

or pretty much any of the rest of the stuff on offer in the Westfield shopping centre? Breitling watches? McDonald’s? Massage Angels? Previous generations of Londoners managed with keeping their ostentation down to luxury departments like Harrods, we now need two Westfield shopping centres and Harrods to service London’s wants 😉

The problem may well be that we are wealthy – and we have ended up engineering society to that people like Chris feel they need to earn as much as he feels he requiress, so that he can spend that money to be able to service his job-house-home-car wants to the level that he is told he needs.

Now I’m not sure that this is really what the Guardian’s Dean Baker meant. The possibility that he doesn’t acknowledge is that perhaps German productivity is higher. However, his point is valid in isolation; you can adapt to varying load by varying hours as well as varying the number of people employed. From a human point of view it is a lot easier to cope with an expectation of up to a 20% variation in income compared to an expectation of full income with unexpected and uncontrollable outages of uncertain duration, otherwise known as periods of unemployment. You can adapt to a fall in income by cutting back on elective expenses like going on holiday. You can’t adapt to a loss of income without having savings or a passive income – I should know, after all I have electively prepared for a loss of income for up to eight years, and cutting back is not the route to success there, you have to forestall it or go under 😉

However, something that Dean Baker also doesn’t acknowledge is that there is a threshold effect. Any task needs so many man hours, but hiring 30 workers for one hour a week is nto the same as hiring one worker for thirty yours a week. The government needs to tax employment, via national insurance to provide unemployment benefits among other this. That is a hit on employment, making an incentive for employers to employ fewer people but increase the hours they work, and there are other disincentives to employing more people such as the cost of checking work permits and other social costs which are, unfairly in my view, loaded onto employers. It should be the Government that checks eligibility to work from the NI number an employer submits, not for the employer to do the grunt work ahead of time.

So I’m all for working less, like Germans. But if we are going to do that, we need to teach people not to rabidly live all the way up to their instantaneous income. Even at work, far too many people took their bonuses and because it was a unusual spike that month spent it on wants and toys.

A bonus is part of their pay, indeed shifting the balance from basic pay to bonuses is a way for the Firm to pay less (it wasn’t pensionable) and keep open an option of paying less in future (it wasn’t consolidated). I observed The Firm slowly increase the portion of pay that went to bonuses from a couple of percent in the 1990s to about 10% this year. People didn’t arbitrarily save up 10% of their income and blow it regularly on toys in the 1990s, so why they treated their later pay in such a cavalier fashion at the end beats me. But they did, and this tendency to live up to the peak of one’s instantaneous means is a large part of why unemployment is such a cause of great pain in recessions – there is no buffer to keep the wolf from the door.

In the German model the company takes over some of the responsibility of smoothing the peaks and troughs, and in general as we have seen with pensions in the UK, companies show a far greater capability to do strategic long-term planning than most individuals do. However, in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, companies are running as hard as they can away from taking any responsibility for their employees’ financial well-being, other than to provide them with a pay packet.


9 thoughts on “We need to work less, like those feckless Germans”

  1. The way I see it is that we must roughly work the same hours as cavemen. This means that one of two things must happen:

    (a) We must invent needs – such as iPod and iPads to keep us working to build these things so we can afford to buy them.

    (b) We must work less, accumulate capital and live partly off accumulated capital – say by retiring early.

    On some project I did once, I calculated the time needed to support the UK population in comfort and from that I worked out that 50% of working hours are spent on luxuries / inefficiencies. That sounds remarkable, but add up holidays and the inefficiencies created by house prices being pushed up by long working hours and that’s probably too low. If we all worked 60% as much, houses would probably cost 40% less.


  2. Let the population bifurcate into the unemployed poor and the working rich under golden shackles. Those in the know will choose to cut costs, retire early, and work part-time if at all. Let’s be like the old Southern gentlemen (in the US) living off our plantation wealth (stock portfolios).


  3. Congrats on the retirement!

    Curtis takes hypebole to a new extreme. Playing the doom music over “corporations found out how to make people happy”. I couldn’t watch any further. OH MY GOD THE CAPITALISTS ARE COMING TO MAKE US HAPPY.

    The longing for a world where only “wants” are satisfied not “needs” does seem to be a cry to roll back the industrial revolution. Because people were so much better off in 1700 than in 2012. Right?


  4. @Rob 50% on luxuries sounds low to me. It’s probably lower than my spend at the moment. I can’t honestly say the finest cod roe is a need 😉

    Take your point on house prices though. Of all the things we could blow our spare capacity on, feeling good about the numbers on a house sale seems barmy, compared to say holidays in the sun. Or even fine food and wine!

    @Richard – A Southern gent, eh, yes, I like it! Old money, indeed

    @Lemondy There’s a question of balance here, and I guess it finds it’s match differently for different people. It seems there’s a saturation point, however. Often I can easily afford something better, but when I ask myself would I get the extra enhancement of quality of life out of the extra, often the answer is no. It is this living intentionally that I think it’s easy to lose sight of, and then we end up buying crap we don’t need, from the balndishments of those capitalists.

    In my case spending more on decent wine and cod roe is worth it. Spending more on more house isn’t – not if I have to work longer to fund it. Learning to ask myself those questions before spending money came to me disturbingly late in life. I’d have preferred to have grown up into a world of more leisure and less Stuff as was sold me in the 1970s. I’d question whether Britons are happier in 2012 than say 1962. Geniune advances have been made – central heating, more reliable cars and TVs, the Internet, mobile phones. And yet there’s been a cost in general ennui, the unemployment, the job insecurity, the high levels of personal debt.


  5. Except that needs and wants are not so readily distinguished. In the comparatively simple societies of the upper paleolithic there is ample evidence for “wants” like painted shells being considered as important as “needs” like food.

    One of the benefits of capitalism is that no central authority makes the distinction, everyone can make their own as they see fit on a scale measured effectively in monetary terms.


  6. I really enjoyed the documentary, seems that consumerism a very interesting lens to examine history with. I’d love to work a 3 or 4 day week, but I’m a bit anxious to mention it to my boss in case I end up with a 0 day week.


  7. One of the nice things I can look forward to in my future job (hospitalist) is a week-on week-off shift schedule with 3 weeks of holiday thrown in on top. That means a nice 3 week block of vacation time every 4 months to spend cycling in the great outdoors.


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