A global study shows that people’s attitudes to work-life balance vary across generations and cultures – with the UK one of the most laissez-faire. Gemma Harris reports

A recent study of 24 countries carried out by the Policy Institute at Kings College London has shed light on how the people of the UK view the significance of work, indicating that the British public places relatively low importance on their jobs compared to other nations.

The study is a nod to changing mindsets, shifting priorities, conflicting views, and on-going debate surrounding whether one should “live to work or work to live.”

The study reveals that 73 per cent of British people state that their work is “very or rather important”, a figure on par with Russia and Canada. In contrast, 94-96 per cent of people in France and Italy say work is “very or rather important” to them.

The UK (22 per cent) ranks 21st for agreement with the view that work should always come first, even if it means less spare time, with only Australia (21 per cent), Canada (19 per cent) and Japan (10 per cent) either roughly as likely or less likely to hold this view.

Over the years between 1981 and 2022, those in the UK who said it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work rose from 26 per cent to 43 per cent.

Overturning the notion that hard work brings a better life, from a smaller sample of 18 countries, the UK ranks 12th for the belief that hard work usually brings a better life. Approximately 39 per cent of people in the UK subscribe to this notion, significantly below the US (55 per cent).

Also notable within the survey is the generational shift, with Millennials less likely to agree that work should always come first, with 52 per cent agreeing it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work.

In 2009, 41 per cent of Millennials believed work should come first, but by 2022, this figure plummeted to 14 per cent. In contrast, Baby Boomers (28 per cent) and the pre-war generation (43 per cent) are more likely to prioritise work.

Professor Bobby Duff, the director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London and principal investigator in the study, explains that Millennials “have become much more sceptical about prioritising work as they made their way through their career” due to “the long-term economic and wage stagnation that will lead the younger generation to question the value of work”.

The UK has one of the most favourable views of people who don’t work: only Sweden (32 per cent) is less likely than the UK (40 per cent) to say such individuals are lazy.

The conundrum of a work-life balance versus productivity is also discussed. “What comes through in this data is more of a steady drift towards a greater focus on getting the work-life balance right, rather than any big changes in attitudes, which is not necessarily bad for productivity,” says Duff.

The study serves as a snapshot of changing attitudes toward work in the UK. In a world where the quest for a more harmonious work-life balance continues, it underscores the evolving priorities and values of the British public, particularly among different generations.

The analysis was carried out as part of the World Values Survey (WVS), one of the world’s most extensive and widely used academic social surveys, since 1981. Ipsos collected the nationally representative UK data from a sample of 3,056 adults in 2022.