Lazy Americans: During Our Prime Years, We’re Less Likely to Work Than the French

A French waiter, working hard.

Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Apropos of pretty much nothing this week, Paul Krugman decided to revisit the hoary old idea that, thanks to their extensive welfare state and burdensome labor laws, the French don’t work much. Lo and behold, it’s not really true.

The French, on the whole, do have a lower labor force participation rate than Americans, because as Krugman notes, they’re less likely to work through school and retire earlier. They also spend fewer hours on the job. But during their prime working years between the ages of 25 and 54, they’re also far more likely to be employed.

For the fun of it, I tossed Sweden onto the graph below, because nobody does social democracy quite like Stockholm, along with Canada and the United Kingdom. Turns out, they’re all beating us on the employment front too. And they have been since before the recession.

In the U.S., we tend to operate on the presumption that a generous welfare state will automatically sap people’s incentive to work. Conservative economists like Casey Mulligan certainly produce a steady stream of research claiming to demonstrate that’s the case. But then you have wonder: Why do we look lazier on these graphs than the French?