Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Labor-Leisure Tradeoff: Asia/Spain Edition

Against the backdrop of the latest French strike, Michael Schuman's latest post at the Curious Capitalist blog is worth pondering (Time):

Can the Spanish continue to enjoy their wonderful lifestyles as the world changes around them? In other words, can the people of Europe – and for that matter, everywhere else -- find the proper work-life balance in the increasingly intense country-eat-country world we live in?

When I compare lifestyles in a rising Asia and a struggling Europe, the answer seems to be a resounding no. In Hong Kong, the subways are crammed with people furiously emailing or talking business on their iPhones. In Spain, don't expect anyone to respond to your emails on Friday afternoons, or take a phone call during their long lunches. In South Korea, many Koreans consider it inappropriate to use their allotted vacation days, to the point where the government has had to implore them to take holidays. During the hottest weeks of summer in Spain, good luck finding people in the offices after 3pm. In Hong Kong, you can do some serious shopping at 10pm. While visiting the town of Jerez in Spain, I had a terrible headache but couldn't find an open pharmacy for an entire Thursday afternoon.

After my travels in Spain, there was little question in my mind why Asia is leaping from strength to strength while Europe is mired in slow growth and unemployment. According to statistics from the OECD, people from emerging markets or nouveau riche nations generally tend to work longer hours. The Koreans worked more hours in 2009 than anyone else in the OECD (2,074), followed by Poland and Mexico. The Spanish, by comparison, worked 1,615 hours, roughly in line with the British and Portuguese. The poorer countries appear hungrier. They want what the Spanish and other residents of the most advanced economies have had for decades, if not centuries.