Work Time, Free Time

The balance of work and leisure in Europe, Japan, and the US

One of the articles in It's About Time! (IC#37)
Originally published in Winter 1994 on page 42
Copyright (c)1994, 1996 by Context Institute

Not all of the industrialized world has the same balance of work and non-work time that we do in the US. In Japan, the corporate-warrior culture is being challenged by young people who want more from life. Meanwhile, in Europe, there is a move afoot to reduce work hours that are already substantially lower than those in the US. Halting the expansion of forced overtime is about as far as US unions have taken the effort to reduce work hours, but there are indications that the shorter work week could again become a goal of the American labor movement.

Running Out Of Time:
Germany And Japan

an interview with Vivia Boe, by Kim Bush

To find out about work time and leisure time in Germany and Japan, we turned to the producers of Running Out of Time, an hour-long documentary that examines what has come to be known as "time famine" in the US. Running Out of Time, a production of Oregon Public Broadcasting and KCTS-Seattle contrasts the long vacations and paid leaves enjoyed by German workers with the long hours worked in Japan and the US.

Vivia Boe is associate producer of Running out of Time, which will air nationwide this fall.

Kim: What was your reason for going to Japan and Germany in preparation for the production?

Vivia: We went to Germany to find a counterpart for the American single mother who plays a central role in the show. In Japan we were primarily interested in the phenomenon of karoshi – death from overwork – but we also wanted to learn how their overworked society compared to ours.

Kim: What did you turn up on your visit to Japan?

Vivia: In Japan we found out that karoshi is now the second leading cause of death after cancer. There are 10,000 confirmed victims, but some think the number may, in fact, be upwards of 30,000.

In Tokyo we contacted the Karoshi Hotline, set up by a group of lawyers in 1988 to help victims who were filing compensation claims with the government. The victims of karoshi death range in age from 34 to 61; they really do just drop dead after an aorta or blood vessel in the brain explodes.

Karoshi is the most extreme symptom of overwork, but it grows out of the corporate-warrior culture pervasive in Japan where a man is supposed to be a 24-hour champion for his company. In fact, there’s a commercial on TV for an energy drink with a very popular jingle: "Can you battle 24 hours a day?" Everyone in Japan knows it, and we were told that some companies sing it every morning.

Time for anything but work seems to be extremely limited. So much so that young families don’t even have time to visit their elders. An ingenious business has developed to meet this need. "Rent-A-Family" sends out actors to visit lonely parents. The company has a waiting list of 1,000 and appears to be very popular. It seems pretty bizarre, but actually these people are providing a very important service. The old people said they just wanted to touch the skin of a baby and that it had made their lives different to have lunch and visit the playground with the kids who were part of the rented family.

Kim: Did you see signs of resistance to the corporate-warrior culture, say, among the younger generation?

Vivia: I think that the younger workers and the wives of men who’ve succumbed to karoshi definitely have started to turn away from it. They seem to have reached their biological speed limit. I’m not sure how widespread it is but there’s a popular phrase among young people: "My time after five." But there’s tremendous peer pressure to stay at their desks, putting in what they call "face time."

Salaried men in their 50s and 60s are the real corporate warriors; you see them in packs drinking and not returning home until late at night, because if you come home too early, it means something’s wrong at work, and your wife and neighbors might think you’re not holding up your end. On the other hand, younger husbands are getting home for dinner more often than once a week. In fact, unions are promoting a shorter work week with the slogan "Let’s have a Japan where families can eat dinner together."

There are other signs that younger workers have had enough, including a growing interest in leisure activities, evidenced by booming markets for camping gear and other recreational products. There does seem to be a growing feeling in Japan that people deserve some time off work, that they should have a life of their own.

Kim: What did you find out about the German approach to work and leisure? Is it similar to that of the US?

Vivia: The differences are very striking. We discovered this quickly in our interviews with Diana, a German worker in her late 20s. She’s a single mother who was born in East Germany but currently puts in a six-hour day as a secretary/librarian with Schering, a large chemical company in Berlin.

She chose her company’s flextime option in order to spend more time with her little boy. The plan also entitles her to six weeks of paid vacation, approximately 15 paid holidays and 18 days of sick leave, which she and others use quite freely in order to have time for shopping since stores are closed in the evenings and on Sundays and open only until noon on Saturdays.

Kim: What’s the result of all that free time? How does Diana use it differently from her American counterpart?

Vivia: Well, first off she has several hours with her little boy every day, as compared to just minutes a day for Japanese and American workers.

Diana really did have a life outside of work; she studies languages, rides her bicycle, travels, and goes to movies – she’s a real film buff. She and the other Germans we met seem to have created a real leisure society in which they don’t live to work, but instead work to live. Even more important for her was that she never felt pressed, but had plenty of time for family and friends. We never heard this in the US. Never.

Kim: But is the German economy suffering as a result? We hear so much about productivity, comparing Japanese, Germans, and Americans

Vivia: Chancellor Helmut Kohl complains about the country being run like a giant amusement park, but what we observed was that when Germans are at work they work very hard. In fact, the statistics are on Diana’s side: Germans are much more productive than either the Japanese or the Americans. They don’t spend their time off recuperating so that they can go back to work on Monday, which seems to be the case in the States.

"Work Less And Everyone Works!"

by Kim Bush

Lavorare meno. Lavorare tutti. (Work less. Everyone works.) A familiar slogan in Italian workplaces, it echoes a growing sense among Europeans that one prescription for the region’s chronic unemployment might be a shorter work week. In government buildings and around bargaining tables, a four-day work week has become a hot topic of negotiation. On the other hand, most US companies remain committed to the 40-hour week plus increasing amounts of mandatory overtime.

Why a four-day work week in Europe? The strongest arguments grow out of Europe’s chronic unemployment problem. Since 1970, the number of jobs in European Community countries has increased by only 7 percent, while real economic growth totaled 73 percent.

A French advocate of the shorter work week, economist Pierre Larrouturou told the Christian Science Monitor: "Under current conditions [France] would need an annual growth rate of 5 to 6 percent to bring down unemployment, and we can’t count on that."1 Larrouturou and others propose that France reduce its work week to 33 hours and reduce salaries by 5 percent. They believe that such a move would result in the creation of up to 2 million new jobs as well as a 5 percent gain in productivity.

The French Senate approved a measure that would promote experimentation with a 33-hour week, but a similar plan was defeated in the National Assembly.

While the political debate inches forward, some companies and unions have acted on their own to shorten the work week. Subsidiaries of US-based Hewlett-Packard and Digital, for example, faced by the choice of major layoffs or sweeping reorganization of work schedules, chose the latter. As a result, no employee at Hewlett-Packard works more than a four-day week, although the plant is in operation seven days a week. Digital offered its 4,000 employees the choice of a four-day week with an accompanying 7 percent pay cut, and 530 employees opted for it, saving 90 jobs that otherwise would have been cut.

In Germany, Volkswagen recently concluded an agreement with the I.G. Metall union for a 28.8 hour work week – a 20 percent reduction in hours – coupled with a 10 percent cut in pay.

BMW’s Regensburg plant went to a four-day 36-hour week in 1990, but BMW did not reduce wages since they believe their productivity gains balance out the cost of hiring more people. Other companies in Europe, like the pharmaceutical giant Schering, have noted similar results.

Although the idea of a reduced work week is steadily gaining favor in many European countries, there are those who fear its long-term consequences. A German banker in a New York Times interview opined, "You do not resolve a problem by working less."2 A French middle manager worried, "You’ll have people consuming less, when what we need is higher consumption to prime the recovery."3

The reactions to the four-day week initiative among lower management and rank-and-file workers are also mixed. Some are afraid that the shorter work week is only a harbinger of continued cuts without protecting job security or wages.

Others welcome the change. Martine Desmond, a personnel manager for Digital who was one of the 530 to opt for the four-day week, told New York Times reporter Roger Cohen that, "I am more efficient in my work, less stressed out and speedy (off work), and have not seen my life style much affected by the pay cut."4


In the US, however, talk about a shorter work week has a less urgent tone. Some legislators, most of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus have introduced a bill to establish a government-mandated 30-hour week. Representative Lucien Blackwell from Philadelphia, the sponsor of the bill, says, "reducing the standard work week to 30 hours requires large corporations to hire more employees, promotes family-friendly workplaces, and helps move Americans off public assistance programs."

US employers, unlike their European counterparts, pay a large part of their employees’ health benefits. To avoid paying greater benefits costs for an expanded work force, they are more inclined to stretch the work week instead of cutting it. The result has been increased overtime for a downsized labor force and greater reliance on part-time and contingent labor.

The AFL-CIO speaks for most of organized labor when it points out that just by cutting out overtime 3 million new jobs would be created. Their official line is simple: until the 40-hour week without forced overtime is re-established as the national standard, there’s not much point in discussing a 32-hour week.

But there are signs that some union leaders are rethinking their tactical opposition to a shorter week. At the latest annual convention of the AFL-CIO in October, Lynn Williams of the United Steelworkers of America remarked that, the shorter work week is "becoming a higher and higher item on the agenda as we watch this alleged economic recovery unfold without creating enough jobs."5

His views were echoed by Vincent R. Sombrotto of the National Association of Letter Carriers, who told a New York Times reporter on October 11, 1993: "They talk about retraining [as a solution for unemployment], but retraining for what? As the population grows and we’re squeezed out of manufacturing, we have to think about how to stretch jobs to more people."6

Some newer dissenting voices in organized labor, notably the New Directions Movement of the United Auto Workers, have taken the debate one step further by making a shorter work week a part of their plan to save jobs. The UAW recently dusted off a slogan of the 1970s – "seven hour day for eight hours pay" – in negotiations at the Chrysler minivan plant in St. Louis and achieved a 35-hour week there in 1992.

The shorter work week also has advocates outside the labor movement such as the Society for the Reduction of Human Labor and the Shorter Work Time Group (SWTG). The SWTG proposes a 10 Point Plan for Shorter Work-Time, which includes a six-hour day, 30-hour week "full-time" standard with no loss in pay; longer paid vacations and more creative family leave policies; and stricter controls on overtime work. Their more general goals are to combat overwork and workaholism, and to convince the US public that less work rather than more is better for everyone and for the economy.


1. Howard LaFranchi, "Public’s ‘Furious Pessimism’ Over the Decline in Jobs Spurs Hot Debate in France,"Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 10, 1993

2. Roger Cohen, "Europeans Ponder Working Less So More of Them Can Have Jobs" New York Times, Nov. 22, 1993

3. Christian Science Monitor, op cit

4. New York Times, op cit

5. Peter T. Kilborn, "Labor Wants Shorter Hours to Make Up for Job Losses," New York Times, Oct. 11, 1993

6. ibid