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Work and play in 5 infographics

Balancing working hours and vacation time looks very different depending on what country you’re in.

Taking breaks is a very important part of working. But vacation time wasn’t always guaranteed, and the average amount of time off that workers have today varies widely by country. Things have come a long way, though. 

In the 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution took shape in what’s now considered the developed world, workers put in long hours. In 1870, people in some countries worked almost twice as much as they do now and got no paid days off. But with technological advancements and growing labor rights, the hours began to shrink to levels that seem acceptable today.

Compared to industrialized countries, people in developing countries continue to work a lot more. Yet, the value created in terms of GDP per hour remains a lot lower than in the developed world.

Women, as is often the case, get the raw end of the deal. Around the world, women spend considerably less time on leisure than men as they continue to perform the lion’s share of household chores and care work, which remains largely unpaid. Here are five infographics that explain how we work and play. 

Holiday time throughout history

Evidence of people taking “vacations” — typically understood as a break from normal life — dates back to at least the Roman Empire, when inns and travel lodges allowed wealthy citizens to travel in the countryside. After the fall of the Roman Empire, vacations in Europe seemed to mostly die out until the Renaissance, though evidence suggests they continued among elites  in the prosperous regions of China and the Middle East during the early medieval period. Historians Michael Huberman and Chris Minns found that paid time off was rare prior to the 1920s. In the 14 countries for which Huberman and Minns had historical data, the average number of paid days off — including vacation time and national holidays — was only 13.8 in 1870. By 2000, it had more than doubled to 33.4 days.

Huberman and Minns distinguish between the “old world” — mainly Europe in the dataset that is available — and the “new world”: the Americas and Australia. They found the new world had considerably fewer vacation days than the old world in the 19th century — a trend that continued into the 20th century as well. 

By around the 1920s, political support for paid holidays had begun to emerge in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, before spreading westward into the rest of Europe. But such legislation was not yet implemented in North America, and the number of vacation days remained lower compared to Europe.

Since the 1950s, the gap between the new and old worlds has narrowed, but Europeans continue to enjoy many more days of annual leave than North Americans. Still, in both regions, workers have many more days of vacation than they did a century ago. 

Working time around the world

As the number of paid days off increased, the average amount of time worked has decreased. At a global level, the number of days the average person worked declined by two days per decade in the 20th century. 

In 1870, the average number of hours a worker spent on the job each year was 3,047, or nearly 60 hours per week. By 2017, the average had been reduced by half, to 1,631 hours. The increased number of vacation days accounts for part of the decline, while a large part is attributed to legal mandates on maximum weekly and daily work hours. 

Countries that industrialized early have the lowest average work hours; workers in the developing world continue to work significantly more. 

Countries with average working hours exceeding 40 per week are all in the developing world, with the exception of Hong Kong, which has a highly developed economy, and China, which the World Bank classifies as an upper middle-income country.  

A total of 20 countries have average work weeks of over 45 hours. At the highest end of the scale, the average worker in the United Arab Emirates works 52 hours a week. Most European nations have average working weeks of less than 35 hours. 

Beyond the differences among countries, disparities in working hours also exist within nations. Even in developed countries, people on the lower end of the income spectrum typically work longer hours. 

Productivity per hour worked 

But even though workers in some developing nations are working substantially more than those in industrialized nations, the value of those working hours remains lower. The chart above depicts productivity by world region as measuring an average work hour’s share of the gross domestic product. 

The productivity disparities are substantial even within continents. Workers in Western Europe, for instance, are twice as productive as workers in Eastern Europe by this measure. Within Africa, northern African workers are able to create more value, measured as GDP per hour of work, than workers in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Of course, it’s not that the workers are lazy. Labor productivity depends on a range of factors, including education quality, level and efficiency of the technology used, investment in capital and the type of work being performed. 

Overall, productivity in manufacturing is much higher than productivity in agriculture, for example. So in a country where agriculture is a major source of work, labor productivity will be lower than a country with a large manufacturing base.

Gender differences

Around the world, women work more than men and spend less time on leisure. The disparities are huge even in Europe. For instance, in Italy women spend around 280 minutes a day on leisure activities, while men have 366 minutes. Norway has the highest amount of leisure time and is the only country where the gender divide is almost equal, though leisure time is still lower for women. 

One of the major reasons why women spend less time on leisure is because they spend more time than men on unpaid work, including cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood, and taking care of children and the elderly. These activities are often not recognized as “work,” which is partly why they remain unpaid. According to some estimates, the value of women’s unpaid work amounts to as much as 39% of GDP in some countries. With the onset of climate change, women are spending even more time on unpaid activities. U.N. Women reports that in areas with water shortages, the task of collecting water usually falls to women. 

The future of the work week

Over the last 150 years, the world has made great strides in reducing the number of working hours, thanks to technological progress and country-level labor legislation. But wide disparities remain as workers in developing countries continue to work longer hours, and women all over the world work more than men. 

Vacation time in some countries remains in flux. The United States is the only developed country in the world that still doesn’t guarantee its workers any paid annual leave, while other regions, including the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, mandate upwards of 20 paid vacation days per year.

Thanks to the pandemic, some parts of the world have begun debating and experimenting with introducing a four-day work week instead of the standard five, with the goal of increasing well-being and productivity. The ADP Research Institute recently found that 71% of workers would like more flexibility as to when they work, such as compressing their hours into fewer, longer days. When it comes to work and play, evolution continues.

Kabir Agarwal

Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist from India who writes on climate change, business and the economy. He has contributed to the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Caravan magazine, Al Jazeera and most recently worked as a national reporter at The Wire – India’s leading independent news website. In 2018, he was awarded the Red Ink Award for excellence in journalism.