Do Rich Or Poor Countries Work Longer Hours?

There’s a common refrain in wealthier nations that their countries are richer because they work harder than poorer ones. This of course is an opinion and one which seems very suspect at best. So we looked into whether or not rich or poor countries work longer hours and the results were very clear.

People in poor countries work harder, longer and for less pay than their peers in wealthier ones. That is an indisputable fact.

According to the indispensable website Our World in Data, “Economic prosperity in different places across our world today is vastly unequal. People in Switzerland, one of the richest countries in the world, have an average income that is more than 20-times higher than that of people in Cambodia. Life in these two countries can look starkly different.”

When considering such differences in prosperity, a natural question is: who works more, people in richer countries like Switzerland or in poorer ones like Cambodia?

Looking at the available data, the answer is clear: workers in poorer countries actually tend to work more, and sometimes much more.

We see that in the chart here, with GDP per capita on the horizontal axis and annual working hours per worker on the vertical axis. 

Countries like Cambodia (which is the country in the very top-left corner) or Myanmar have some of the lowest GDP per capita but highest working hours. In Cambodia the average worker puts in 2,456 hours each year, nearly 900 more hours than in Switzerland (1,590 hours) at the bottom-right of the chart. The extra 900 hours for Cambodian workers means longer work days and many fewer days off.

They conclude definitively, that there is a link between national income and average working hours, not only across countries at a given point in time — as shown in the chart above — but also for individual countries over time. 

Since the Industrial Revolution people in many countries have become richer, and working hours have decreased dramatically over these last 150 years.

In the chart here we show this association between incomes and working hours over time, country by country. It is the same chart as above, except now countries’ single data points have become lines, connecting observations over time from 1950 until today.

The four highlighted countries exemplify how working hours have decreased at the same time that average incomes have increased. Germany, for example, moved far to the right as its GDP per capita increased more than 10-fold (from $4,644 to $47,556), and far to the bottom as working hours decreased by nearly half (from 2,427 hours to 1,354 hours each year).

This makes sense: as people’s incomes rise they can afford more of the things they enjoy, including more leisure and less time spent working.

The data clearly proves those who are lucky enough to live in an advanced economy work less hours, have the tools and types of jobs to produce more and as a result have a better standard of living. So it’s easy answer the question of whether rich or poor countries work longer hours. Poorer countries do, by a long shot.