Where in the world do folks work the hardest? A report released this spring from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a Paris-based group of 30 countries with market economies, offers some clues.
Where it's dark outside, it seems everyone has his nose to the grindstone. Meanwhile, in the sunny Mediterranean where weekday siestas are the norm, the workday is short and sweet. We crunched the OECD's collection of labor statistics and came up with a list that shows Nordic countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway as the hardest-working countries.
Though Europeans often deride Americans for their workaholism, the US barely makes the top 10 because of its lower employment rate, especially among young people.
To compile our list of hardest-working OECD-member countries, Forbes used the organization's 2009 collection of labor statistics and examined each country's official employment rate (the number of people employed as a percent of the total population) for three age brackets: 15- to 24-year-olds who might be in school or in their first job, 25- to 50-year-olds in the prime of their careers, and 50- to 65-year-olds preparing for retirement.
We ranked the 30 OECD nations for each employment rate category, as well as for their average per capita annual hours worked. Averaging the ranks for each statistic gave us a composite rank. From there, we generated our top 10. They represent the OECD nations that employ the most people, for the greatest amount of time.
Granted, these rankings change year to year, especially in tumultuous economic times. Since the OECD collected its data in 2007, many of the report's components are already outdated. ''This is the most rapid deterioration of the labor market since the 1990s,'' says the group's head of employment policy, Stefano Scarpetta.
Some of the data reflect cultural differences. Susan Fleck, a director at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics who specialises in labor market comparisons, believes a stigma against women's work keeps overall employment rates low in Mediterranean countries. Italy and Greece have Europe's lowest female employment rates, and come in 20th and 28th place in our overall hard-working list.
Policy also affects the data. In France, the government has long mandated a 35-hour workweek.
Conversely, the Nordic nations' high rankings derive from their governments' data collection methods. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys individual businesses for its annual estimates of income and employment, the Nordic governments require all employers to report specifics like headcount, hours and wages year-round.
''They will have a computerized list of the number of jobs available at every company'' that they actively use to match job seekers with jobs, explains Fleck. Knowing these details allows the government to fill jobs efficiently.
High employment arguably spurs spending and keeps Nordic economies growing. On the other hand, bureaucracy can stifle innovation. ''Each system has its pros and cons,'' says Fleck.
There are some surprises in our ranking. New Zealand, for example, comes in at second place, tied with Switzerland, chiefly because its tiny population of 4.1 million has created a labor shortage so dramatic that it alone pushes up working hours. Explains Sally Paxton, a former lawyer at the UN's International Labor Organization who now consults for companies on labor issues, ''Employers give more hours because they can't spread that work around to others.''
Paxton also finds it striking that Korea and Japan, so often lampooned for their competitive zeal, don't make our top 10 at all. Workweeks in these countries are long; Korea comes in first in this category with an annual average of 2,316 hours per worker. But, says Paxton, ''because a culture of seniority prevents hiring and firing at will, they are retaining an older workforce'' at the expense of the young.
Indeed, the employment rate among 15- to 24-year-olds in Korea is one of the OECD's lowest, just 26 per cent. (The Mediterranean countries also have low youth employment of 25 per cent and a preference for keeping senior employees on the job.)
Devil's advocates might argue that young people should be in school, not working, and that the employment rate for that group is further skewed by the fact that governments in many of these countries subsidize higher education. But that criticism falls flat: The Nordic A-listers have similar education policies to countries further down on the list. How do they keep young folks' employment rates high? By keeping students in part-time jobs. In Denmark, for instance, the youth employment rate is a striking 67 per cent. Opportunities for part-time workers also help Nordic nations boost employment rates among women.
Stay tuned for the OECD's survey of 2008 labor numbers, due out next year. Those statistics will start to reflect the effects of the economic crisis. Iceland, which tops the list currently, was so hard hit by the bust that it has declared national insolvency. It's interesting to note that in pre-economic crisis Iceland, the government actively recruited financial firms to achieve full employment, arguably adding to the leverage problem.
The bust has brought employment disaster to Spain as well. Already at the bottom of our list, it now faces record unemployment (a ratio of those working to those seeking jobs) of over 19 per cent.