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New light shed on Swiss working hours

Times have changed since this photo was taken in Zurich in 1956 RDB

The hours put in by Swiss workers have decreased by one third since 1950, according to a study sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The authors of the study, Michael Siegenthaler and Michael Graff of the Swiss Economic Institute (KOF), have used new calculations which show that in 1950, the average number of hours worked per year was 2,400, as against 1,600 today.

Previous calculations had put the working year in 1950 at only 2,150 hours, which implies that along with the growth of the economically active population, the new data overall reflect a lower increase in labour input than previously thought. This, in turn means that, over the whole period, labour productivity has increased faster than assumed so far.  

The authors name three main factors to explain the change. Firstly, the working week has gone down from an average of nearly 50 hours to 42, and secondly, employees now get about five weeks of paid holiday a year, compared with two in 1950. The third factor is the great increase in the number of employees who are working part time – having half a day or more off each week. In the 1950s only about five per cent did this, whereas today it is more than 31 per cent.

The authors explain that employees have been able to obtain the reductions in their hours thanks to technological progress.

But they make clear that the drop in the number of hours does not contradict the fact that many people today feel stressed at work and suffer from burn-out.

“The number of hours as such doesn’t say anything about the intensity of labour, which has certainly increased because working conditions have changed, for example through constant availability,” they say.

How it was then

People entering the world of work today might find it hard to believe what life in the office was like five or six decades ago.

Agnes Zbinden, now 78, joined an advertising agency in Bern as a telephonist and secretary in 1963, and worked there for 25 years.

The work force was half men and half women. In the beginning, all the designers and copywriters were men, but over the years this changed as colleges started offering professional training for advertising assistants and women also took the qualifications. Even so, the advertising managers remained chiefly men.

At nine hours, the working day was an hour longer than normal in today’s offices – and extended by a ninety minute lunch hour. Zbinden started at 7.30 am and went home at 6 pm. But when they had long texts to type up, or booklets to bind, she and her colleagues didn’t leave on time.

“It went without saying that we sometimes had to work in the evenings to 10 o’clock, without overtime pay,” she told

“We didn’t complain. We had quite a different attitude to the firm. I wasn’t married: for me it was like my family.”

When she started, she had three weeks holiday, which later went up to four.

“We didn’t have the money for a lot of holiday, anyway. If you want to go away for four weeks, it costs a lot.”

Not that she was complaining about her wages: jobs in the advertising sector were relatively well-paid.

Part-time work was an option, although it was not common. In the late 1980s Zbinden was one of two people in her office who took advantage of this: she took Friday afternoons off in order to do household chores. Another colleague cut her hours in the office in order to help her husband in his veterinary practice.

As time went on, the stress at work increased, Zbinden said.

“More was demanded of us. In the beginning we simply had our clients, but later there was a lot of competition,” she explained. In fact, her firm eventually lost a major contract and went bankrupt in the early 1990s, an experience she described as almost a “life crisis” for herself, and one from which her boss never really recovered.

Faulty calculations

In their study, Siegenthaler and Graff point out that since the total Swiss population has grown considerably in the last 60 years, the total number of hours worked has also increased. But they say that the increase is not as great as once supposed, since the data used up until now had underestimated the hours actually worked in the 1950s.

Labour productivity is calculated in terms of the amount of gross domestic product (GDP) produced per hour of work. So in the 1950s, productivity was in fact lower than previously thought: the GDP should have been divided by a larger figure – 2,400, not 2,150 – to arrive at the hourly product.

This means that although the researchers found that the growth in productivity had been stable since 1973 at a rate of about 1.3 per cent a year – which is relatively low for a member state of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – the slow-down in growth was not actually as dramatic as economists had believed for a long time.  

The question is not of solely academic interest, as Graff explained to Seco – the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs – uses such figures in shaping Switzerland’s economic policy.  

“In the 1990s there was a major political discussion about Switzerland’s weak growth,” Graff explained. “Seco was one of those saying that it was essential to change things. Changing things meant economic reform: more flexible markets, opening up, and so on.”

The report is not suggesting that this was necessarily wrong, only that it was based on faulty premises. Nor is it suggesting that everything is rosy.

“In the last ten years, despite immigration and such like, pro capita income has not grown as strongly as one would have wished,” Graff pointed out.

But he stressed that the point of the study was not to suggest any specific changes in economic policy.

“I think if you asked ten people in Switzerland who know what Seco does, they would all say it should do something different. But each one would have their own opinion!”

The study was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and written by Michael Siegenthaler and Michael Graff of the Swiss Economic Institute (KOF).

They re-analysed the available figures, revising the data on which recent economic policy has been based.

They found that average working hours fell by one third between 1950 and today, from 2,400 to 1,600 per year.

A full-time worker in 1950 put in an average of 50 hours per week, compared to 42 hours now.

Holidays have increased from two weeks to some five weeks per year.

The number of part-time workers has jumped from five per cent to 31 per cent.

The study also found that productivity growth since the 1970s has been stable, contradicting the prevailing view that Switzerland underwent a productivity slump in the 1980s and 1990s.

However this growth was relatively low in comparison with other member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

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