So that 35 hour week means the French work less does it?


There is, sadly, a terrible misconception about the world of work. This misconception leads to, as ignorance of the basics so often does, really rather bad policies being enacted. The misconception is that the only form of work we do is outside the home, the labour that we perform in offices and factories for cash and lucre under the lash of The Man.

This of course is not true, we all also work in the home, unpaid. There's always the washing, the cleaning and cooking, the maintenance, the clearing of gutters and painting and so on. Some people enjoy these things, true, but then some also enjoy their paid work as well, and they are both work. Possibly the best description of what is work and what is not is the one used in time use surveys: work is whatever you could pay somone else to do for you*. You cannot pay someone else to sleep for you but you can to make your bed: you cannot pay someone else to eat for you but you can to cook, cannot to wash on your behalf but can for someone to wash you.

So in these time use surveys there are three basic classes of time: personal services, work (both inside and outside the home) and leisure. Those who have more leisure are those who are spending less hours in work, assuming that that personal part remains reasonably constant, as it does.

So what are the numbers for leisure in a country which deliberately restricts the paid for working week? Surely they have more than those who do not, no? Well, actually, no, France has an average of 4.28 hours of leisure a day for each adult while the UK has 5.08. The Americans, who everybody knows keep their noses to the grindstone, have 5.18.

The reason would seem to be that if people are denied the opportunity to work the paid hours they desire (possibly to then buy in parts of that unpaid household labour) then they will try to make up that desired income by unpaid household work. But the world of paid work, with its specialisation, leads to work being done more efficiently. Thus it is necessary to work longer hours inefficiently in order to reach the same desired outcome in material (ie, not just cash but goods and services) income. It is more efficient in the use of labour for the butcher to make the sausages in his factory than for every housewife to do so inexpertly at home, after all.

All of which leads me to a tentative and counter-intuitive conclusion. The laws which deliberately restrict the length of the working week actually increase the amount of hours of work done by those subject to them.


*This definition does cause problems when considering sex for you can most certainly pay someone to have sex with your spouse if you should so desire: fortunately in this civilised era the amount of time spent in a week actually having sex is too small for this to cause problems with the figures.