This is how long people across Europe can expect to work

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Simon Read, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Working lives are getting longer, with Europeans now predicted to spend an average of 36 years in the workplace.
  • Years spent at work vary between countries, with Dutch people having longer careers on average than workers in other parts of the European Union.
  • Longer lives and demographic changes are forcing managers and employees to think differently about retirement ages.

Whether you love your job—or dream of retirement—most of us want to know how long our working lives will last. The next generation of Europeans are expected to work for an average of 36 years, although there are big differences between countries.

Working lives in Europe have been getting longer since 2001, according to the European Commission’s data service Eurostat. They shortened slightly for the first time in 2020 because of COVID-19, but are now up to their pre-pandemic level.

The average figure of 36 years is based on future workers in the European Union (EU) who were 15 years old in 2021. But some of those teenagers are likely to work much longer.

Chart showing expected duration of working lives in 2021. Image: Eurostat

People in the Netherlands will be hard at it the longest, with an average of 42.5 years of work ahead of them. Workers in Sweden (42.3 years) and Denmark (40.3 years) can also look forward to long careers.

Romanians have the shortest working lives in the EU, with an average of 31.3 years. Italians (31.6 years) and Greeks (32.9 years) are also predicted to spend less time in the workplace.

Gender gap: the difference between men’s and women’s working lives

In most EU countries, men are likely to work for longer than women, with an average of 38.2 years for men and 33.7 years for women. The gender gap is closing though: back in 2001 it was 7 years: the latest data predicts it will be just 4.5 years on average.

Lithuania is the only EU country to reverse the trend, with women working 1.3 years longer than men. The biggest gap is in Italy, where men are predicted to work an average of 9.1 years more than women.

Closing the gender gap: Malta was the country where the difference between men’s and women’s working lives has changed the most. Image: Eurostat

Malta was the country where the difference between men’s and women’s working lives has changed the most: in 2001 women worked 22.3 fewer years than men: that has now reduced to 8.4 years.

Discover

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Gender Parity Accelerator model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in twelve countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Japan and Kazakhstan in Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and making recruitment, retention and promotion practices more gender inclusive.

If you are a business in one of the Gender Parity Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Gender Parity Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

But overall, Europeans are likely spend more of their lives in the workplace – and that will be true in other parts of the world too. Changes in demographics are forcing both employers and employees to rethink when it is desirable – or even possible – to retire.

An ageing world population

With people living longer, many will want to stay in work well past conventional retirement age. Others – whose pensions might not stretch to support a longer retirement – could be forced to put in more years.

Europe’s transformation to an ageing society is accelerating as a result of a falling population, according to United Nations figures. That could have a big economic impact.

Charles Goodhart, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics told the Financial Times that in countries with shrinking populations: “unless you get a productivity miracle, overall economic growth will fall”.

China’s population challenge

China is wrestling with big demographic changes too, with the population expected to drop, according to projections from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. As in Europe, the balance between the working age population and the over-65s is going through a massive shift.

While there are now 100 working age people in China to support every 20 elderly people, by the end of this century the same number of workers will have to support as many as 120 elderly Chinese.

Globally, the number of over-65s will double by 2050, a transformation which could see many of us add years to our working lives, as is already happening in most European countries. But the older population will bring changes far beyond the world of work, making it vital that we ditch outdated beliefs and stereotypes about ageing, and prepare to make the most of the opportunities we all hope longer lives will bring.

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