If there are not enough workers to complete the pending tasks in the German economic system and process orders, the existing employees must do more. They need more working hours for this, according to the theory of some politicians and business representatives. They support increasing the general working week to 42 hours, postponing the official retirement age to meet the shortage of skilled workers, and continuing to pay pensions.
The debate itself is not new, but it was recently revived by the director of the German Economic Institute, Michael Hauther. The economic researcher suggested introducing 42 paid hours per week. In Switzerland, employees have worked for a long time already, in Sweden the weekly working time is 41 hours. According to Hauther’s calculations, the German economy could “compensate for the loss of demographic workload by 2023” by adding overtime.
10 years of additional work required
Huether received notable political support from former SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel, who does not have much political opinion at the moment. The newspaper “Bild am Sonntag” quoted Gabriel as saying that the increase in unemployment was the reason for the reduction in working hours for more than 30 years. “Today we have the exact opposite problem: We lack people to work because the baby boomers retire and then the pill pops,” Gabriel says. His conclusion: the working hours must be increased again. In his opinion, German employees will have to do this paid overtime work over the next 10 years or so in order to “maintain prosperity in the Federal Republic”. Thus Gabriel joins a number of economists who have repeatedly asserted over the past decades that working hours must adapt to economic conditions.
So far, the proposal has been met with sympathy from employers. “We should all roll up our sleeves now and do our best to get out of these diverse crises,” Stephen Campeter, director general of the Federation of German Employers’ Associations, told RP-Online. Among other things, the issue of (lifetime) a new business time in mind. The head of the Confederation of German Industries, Siegfried Roswarm, has also called for an increase in weekly working hours, while being cautious about retiring at age 70. The latter is not easy to implement, the first is. A look at the working hours law confirms this. To apply a 42-hour week, collective agreements and employment contracts must be amended – but not the law itself, as this generally allows for a week of up to 48 hours.
Retirement at age 70 is not part of the coalition agreement
In order to increase the retirement age, the law must be changed. Government parties do not want to initiate such a change at the moment, because retirement at 70 “does not correspond to the realities of life for many people in Germany,” Federal Labor Minister Hubertus Hill (SPD) told Funke media group in May. One reason: some jobs – especially those that are physically demanding – can no longer be done without danger in old age. However, the retirement age will rise in the coming years: the current legal situation provides for an increase in the pension without deductions from the current 65 to 67 by 2029.
Trade unions are among the biggest critics of long working hours – and have been for decades. In the 1960s, they advocated a five-day week under the slogan “My father owns me on Saturdays!” Since then they have followed the slogan “more time to live”. “Longer working hours, whether within a week or at the end of a working life – are a flimsy attempt to meet the challenge of job security and a shortage of skilled workers on the backs of employees,” said Anya Bailey, a member of the German company’s board of directors. Confederation of Trade Unions, RP-Online.
Employees often actually work more than 40 hours
It is also questionable whether the official increase in working hours to 42 hours per week will really help to compensate for the understaffing due to the overtime that has already been done: as figures from the Federal Statistical Office show, the majority of employees in Germany are already working informally for more than 40 hours. According to this, 4.5 of the 37.8 million employees in Germany work overtime per week. Two-thirds of them work more than five hours a week.
According to critics of increased working hours, this puts pressure on employees and increases the risks of negative stress and burnout. In addition, the proposal is not suited to the times and needs of workers who pursue a life not dominated by work. Also, 42 hours a week is not family-friendly, which Ronga-Epiling believes could increase the shortage of skilled workers. The consultant and Generation Z expert wrote on Linkedin: “If business and politics do not want demographic change to continue or even increase in the future, they should do everything they can to create a family- and women-friendly work environment. Unfortunately, 42 hours per week and planned overtime are the opposite. That’s all.”
With a week of 42 hours, Germany will go in the opposite direction to other European countries. More than 70 companies in the UK are currently testing four days, 32 hours a week, after Iceland, which tested a similar working time model about three years ago. A total of 86 per cent of workers in Iceland now have reduced working hours, or at least the opportunity to do so. Employers in Germany have taken this path as well, such as the machine maker Wenzel or the 25-hour hotel operator.
He is the human resources editor. Her main focus is on the themes of diversity, equality, and work-life balance.