07 September 2023
UK public among least likely to place importance on work
The UK ranks low for the belief that work should always come first, even if it means less leisure time
The UK public rank among the lowest internationally for the importance they place on work, new data shows.
Of 24 nations included in a study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, people in the UK emerge as the least likely to say work is important in their life, and among the least likely to say work should always come first, even if it means less leisure time.
Correspondingly, the UK has one of the highest proportions of the population who think it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work – and this has risen considerably since trends began in 1981.
There have also been notable shifts in attitudes by generation, with Millennials becoming much more likely to say they’d welcome a decline in the importance of work, and much less likely to say work should always come first.
The study also looks at perceptions of people who don’t work. It finds only Sweden is less likely than the UK to say those who don’t work turn lazy, while the UK also ranks relatively low for the belief that hard work brings a better life.
The analysis was carried out as part of the World Values Survey (WVS), one of the largest and most widely used academic social surveys in the world, in operation since 1981.
The latest UK data was collected in 2022, with data for other nations collected at various points throughout the latest wave of the WVS, which spanned 2017 to 2022.
How important is work - and should it always come first?
Of 24 countries included in the research, the UK public place the least, or among the least, emphasis on work…
People in the UK (73%) are the least likely to say work is very or rather important in their life –albeit on a par with Russia (74%) and Canada (75%). Other western nations, such as Italy (96%) and France (94%), rank much higher than the UK on this measure.
The UK (22%) ranks 21st for agreement with the view that work should always come first, even if it means less spare time, with only Australia (21%), Canada (19%) and Japan (10%) either roughly as likely or less likely to hold this view.
The UK has one of the most favourable views of people who don’t work: only Sweden (32%) is less likely than the UK (40%) to say such individuals turn lazy.
The UK (60%) ranks 18th for agreement with the view that work is a duty towards society, and several peer countries, including Norway (86%) and Germany (74%), are notably more likely to hold this opinion.
…and they are among the most welcoming of a future where work is less important to our way of life:
The UK (43%) ranks fifth for the belief that it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work – above the likes of the US (29%), Italy (27%) and Norway (21%).
And 19% of the UK public think it would be a bad thing if less importance were placed on work, with Canada (18%) and Australia (20%) the only countries where such a small proportion feel this way.
Compared with 40 years ago, Britons are now more likely to say it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work
Between 1981 and 2022, the share of the British public who said it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work rose from 26% to 43%.
This opinion has gradually become more widespread in several other western nations too. For example, over a similar period, the proportion holding this view rose from 25% to 41% in Canada and from 30% to 45% in Germany.
However, at the same time, Britons are more likely to agree that work is a duty towards society than they were around two decades ago. When trends on this question began in 1999, 49% of Britons agreed with this view. In 2022, this had risen to 59%.
But on other measures, there has been little change in attitudes: 76% of Britons said work is important in their life in 1990, compared with 73% in 2022. And from when trends began in 1999 to 2022, the proportion of Britons who agreed work should always come first has declined only slightly, from 26% to 22%.
There are big generational differences in views on how much we should prioritise work
Most generations’ opinions on whether work should always come first have remained relatively stable, but Millennials have become much less likely to agree with this view over time: in 2009, 41% felt this way; by 2022, this had fallen to 14%.
Both Gen X (17%) and Gen Z (19%) are similarly unlikely to think work should be prioritised above all else, but Baby Boomers (28%) and the Pre-War generation (43%) are more supportive of this view.
And in 2022, 52% of Millennials said it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work – up from 31% back in 2005. Over same period, views among the two oldest generations went in the opposite direction, and they are today considerably less likely to hold this view than other cohorts: a third of Baby Boomers (34%) and a fifth of the Pre-War generation (22%) think this would be a positive development, compared with around half of Millennials (52%), Gen Z (52%) and Gen X (50%).
The UK ranks relatively low for the belief that hard work usually brings a better life
Among a smaller sample of 18 countries, the UK ranks 12th for the belief that, in the long run, hard work usually brings a better life. 39% of people in the UK lean towards this view – notably below the US, where 55% hold this opinion, but above Germany, where 28% feel this way.
There has been little change in Britons’ views on this issue over the last three decades, although the proportion who think that both hard work and luck are equally important for success rose from 40% to 49% between 1990 and 2022.
Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:
“The UK is among the least likely from a wide range of countries to say work is important to their own life, that it should be prioritised over spare time, that hard work leads to success, or that not working makes people lazy.
“Attitudes to work are important to understand, but we need to avoid simple but wrong explanations that suggest they are responsible for relatively low productivity levels seen in the UK, which will be much more about skills development, technological and other investment, and availability and use of national assets. Underlining this, there are some countries, like Germany, that have pretty similar views to the UK on the importance of work and balancing work with leisure, but much higher productivity.
“What comes through in this data is more of a steady drift towards a greater focus on getting work-life balance right, rather than any big change in attitudes, which is not necessarily bad for productivity.
“There are, however, very different views between generations in the UK, with older generations more likely to say work should be prioritised, even as it becomes less important in their own lives as they move into retirement. Millennials, in contrast, have become much more sceptical about prioritising work as they’ve made their way through their career.
“There will be a number of explanations for these shifts, from the nostalgia that tends to grow as we age, in thinking younger generations are less committed than we were, and the long-term economic and wage stagnation that will lead younger generations to question the value of work.
“But the data also shows a long-term shift in preferences for work-life balance across a wide range of richer countries, where over the last 40 years across many major economies, more now say that it would be a good thing if less importance was placed on work.”
2022 UK data comes from a random probability sample of 3,056 adults aged 18+ interviewed by Ipsos through a mix on face-to-face and online survey methods. Data has been weighted by region, education and age interlocked with gender to be nationally representative.
For analysis of trends over time, data is nationally representative for Great Britain due to a lack of available trend data from Northern Ireland, and is based on surveys of 1,000 or more people aged 18+.
Samples for other countries are all nationally representative and made up of at least 1,000 people. Information on the sampling methodology these nations is available via the World Values Survey Association website.
Data produced for this research is used in wave 7 of the World Values Survey, which included around 90 countries and ran from 2017 to 2022. See the full report for the precise year each country was surveyed. The report focuses on a cross-section of 24 countries selected based on the availability of reliable and weighted data and then narrowed down, focusing on global coverage (based on the UN's standardised country coding system), regional coverage and population size. This selection gives coverage of 12 of the 17 UN M49 geographic regions across 24 countries, representing almost 50% of the world's population (source: World Bank). Not all questions are asked in each country in every wave of the study, and so the number of countries compared on each question can vary.