France: The Most Productive People In The World

A new survey from UBS (Investor Release – UBS study: «Prices and Earnings» 2009) has shown that the French continue to work the least amount of hours per year in the world. Once again, the French have blown away the competition.

People work an average of 1,902 hours per year in the surveyed cities but they work much longer in Asian and Middle Eastern cities… People in Lyon and Paris, by contrast, spend the least amount of time at work according to the global comparison: 1,582 and 1,594 hours per year respectively.

Upon seeing this data, some might criticize the French for being lazy, but that misses the point completely. The real message here is that the French are likely some of the most productive people in the entire world.

Think about it:

  • The goal for any company is to earn the highest profits/returns with the least costs (costs of raw materials, labor, utilities… the “inputs”). We easily accept this relationship as optimal and good.
  • Well, the same applies to people as workers: the goal is to earn the highest income for the least cost/effort (which is one’s labor, hours worked). Work, itself, is not an end. So, those who receive the highest incomes per hours worked have earned the best returns/profits and highest quality of life.

Nationmaster ranks France as #18 in terms of GDP per capita, at $36,500 per person, yet France works much less than most developed nations. They achieve their high standard of living while working 16% less hours than the average world citizen, and almost 25% than their Asian peers as per UBS. Plus, if you visit France you’ll also realize that their actual standard of living is probably much higher than GDP numbers would indicate.

Thus, dividing France’s GDP per capita by actual hours worked, one finds that the French are achieving some of the highest returns on work-hours invested. Labor Alpha, if you will.

We can actually calculate this Labor Alpha using statistics from Nation Master:

  • France has $36,500 GDP/Capita and works 1,453 hours per year. This equates to a GDP/Capita/Hour of $25.10.
  • America, on the other hand, has $44,150 GDP/Capita but work 1,792 hours per year. Thus Americans only achieve $24.60 of GDP/Capita/Hour.

This puts the French Labor Alpha at about $0.50 GDP/Capita/Hour over the US. It may sound small at first, but add that up across millions of people, and a few decades. Now you’ve built a lesson for the rest of the world to learn.

Winning isn’t about working hard. It’s about working smart… and less. The French know.


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3 responses to “France: The Most Productive People In The World

  • michaeleriksson

    Considering diminishing returns, this would not prove much. (Every extra hour worked will, on average, be less productive than the previous.) The US works more than 20 % more hours, but has an average productivity “only” 2 % smaller: Does not seem unreasonable. (Of course, we would need to know the “marginal productivity” instead of the average productivity to make a better judgment.)

    • spfaust

      Michael, you are correct from a certain perspective, one that is from a purely analytic, engineering perspective regarding a single process or utility-maximizing endeavor.

      Yet, this perspective leaves out utility maximization from a social perspective (and I am exploring the aspect that the French have greater utility for personal and leisure time with only a small sacrifice in earnings, but which also indicates a higher productivity or ROI [investment being the “people’s” labor time input and return being earned income per unit of that input]).

      Obviously we’re working with averages and not margins, but I’m fine with this condition as no one individual or “people” live at the margin. Life activities/processes at different points of progress are the inputs to create a whole existence, and no one is at the precipice of determining at once that they have reached diminishing returns on all utility-maximizing endeavors and will thus just stop… everything… working, eating, procreating, drinking, socializing, traveling, shopping…

      People experience life as a whole and thus may be better approximated by using an average. This is where people actually exist, at the average, not the margin. I believe most utility maximization models to be flawed because they unrealistically observe the margin of single processes/endeavors without then placing this measure in context with all the other utility processes/endeavors that make up an entire existence, each weighing in with different influence within each individual. In this realm as an entire being, people make their real-life decisions.

      Moreover, you would be spot on from the perspective of the employer or business, in that 20% more labor units are obtained for only a 2% diminished productivity. The owner of the unit hours, though, will have a very different perspective and should evaluate the situation by reasoning: Americans work 20% (labor inputs) more and receive very little in return (barely higher total earning).

      Thanks for writing and commenting… very enjoyable.

      • michaeleriksson

        Thank you for your very thorough reply.

        To avoid misunderstandings: I did not intend to discuss the relative merits of the different systems (ultimately this will vary based on personal preference even within the same country), but just to point out that the claim “France: The Most Productive People In The World” went without proof. The less someone works (within reasonable limits, on average, and all other factors equal) the higher his productivity will be. Reverse the hours worked and the productivity numbers will change accordingly.

        In fact, my own attitude is somewhat French in that I see work mostly as a means to finance my thinking, studying, writing, whatnot. (While the stereotypical Frenchman would of course go with “[…] my drinking, eating, womanizing, whatnot” ;-))

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