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Is Spain’s late-night lifestyle a precious part of our culture – or should we be more like sensible Sweden? | María Ramírez


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Spain’s employment minister and deputy prime minister, Yolanda Díaz, described the late opening hours of restaurants and bars, earlier this month, as “madness”. “A country that has its restaurants open at one o’clock in the morning is not reasonable,” she said. Hospitality industry figures and conservative politicians responded with outrage. “The deputy prime minister thinks she lives in Sweden instead of Spain,” a furious restaurant owner in Barcelona told El País, pointing out the late sunset in her city. That day, 6 March, the sun set in Stockholm at 5.29pm, and in Barcelona at 6.48pm. In Stockholm, restaurants typically close at 11pm; in Barcelona, restaurants and bars are allowed to open until 2.30am on weekdays, and until 3am at weekends.

Spain is not Sweden in many ways. In 2022, in Sweden, the GDP value of a worker’s hour was $75, compared with $53 in Spain, which is below the European average. GDP per capita is almost double in Sweden. The standard working week in Sweden is one hour longer than in Spain. Overall life satisfaction is higher in Sweden.

Díaz’s remark about opening hours is part of her broader push to have Spaniards work less and better. It is not a new debate: it started in earnest a decade ago with a bipartisan consensus that now seems to be gone, even though some companies and younger workers are on board for change, and behaviours are shifting slightly.

The unique (or crazy) working hours and eating habits in Spain are outliers in Europe and beyond. Working days often start early in the morning and finish late in the evening, leaving little room for personal life, particularly in cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, where long commutes are part of the daily routine. On average, the peak time for people to eat lunch in Spain is 2.30pm, and the most popular time to have dinner is 9.20pm, according to an analysis from El País using Eurostat data.

Spaniards get less sleep than their European neighbours, and that was true even during the early months of the pandemic lockdown. Stores in big cities remain open until 9 or 10pm, resulting in businesses operating on a 12-hour nonstop basis. Restaurants serve food past midnight. Full-time employees work more than 40 hours a week, above the European average.

Physicist and expert on time usage from the University of Seville José María Martín-Olalla argues that Spanish schedules do not significantly differ from those in Italy or France; rather, they are shifted later by an hour due to Spain’s adoption in 1940 of an “incorrect” time zone. That was a political decision by the dictator Francisco Franco, who by decree added one hour to Spanish time in order to be in sync with France, Germany and other continental European countries. Geographically, Spain should align with the time zone in Portugal, Ireland and the UK (GMT), with earlier sunrise and sunset times.

Current habits are influenced by this deviation from natural light patterns, but they are further complicated by a working day that is unevenly spread. True, the long lunch break is becoming less common, particularly among younger workers, more used to quick lunches brought to work, where kitchens and lunch spaces are now features of office life.

Still, meetings and decisions are driven by a midday gap that is sometimes filled with the proverbial two-hours-or-more working lunch, especially for people in managerial roles. Even without an extended break, there is a natural push towards a working day well beyond the typical 9-to-5 you see in other countries.

According to Prof Anna Ginès, director of the Institute for Labour Studies at Esade University, one in three people in Spain works past 7pm and one in 10 is still working at 9pm, with these figures not including those on night shifts. This is a challenge to mental and physical health, as well as to the Spanish economy, which is marked by low productivity.

Cafes and restaurants in Salamanca, Spain. Photograph: Ian Dagnall/Alamy

There are also wide variations in working patterns. Public servants usually work shorter and condensed shifts (8 to 3 is very common), and disparities exist between full-time and part-time workers. There is a gap between big cities and small ones, where even supermarkets close at lunchtime, and a significant proportion of inhabitants are public servants or retirees.

The employment department has been working on time usage legislation since last year, with an expert commission recommending measures such as encouraging a workday that ends at 6pm, advancing TV prime time (which currently begins after 10pm, including on public broadcasters), and rethinking retail and hospitality closing times. There is no word on press conferences and public statements, which are too often scheduled for late evening hours or holidays.

In the past, politicians from across the political spectrum were prepared to embrace change. In 2016, the employment minister under the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy proposed similar measures to those now advocated by Díaz, even considering a decree to revert Spain’s time zone back to GMT. “We want our workdays to finish at 6pm and to achieve this we will work towards striking a deal with representatives from both companies and trade unions,” Fátima Báñez said at the time.

But in the current political climate in Spain, issues such as long workdays, late-night bar openings and even sunset easily become another excuse for partisan fights and hyperbolic rhetoric.

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Predictably, the response from populist rightwinger Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the president of the Madrid region, to calls for reform was uncompromising: “Spain has the best nightlife in the world, with streets full of life and freedom. And that also means employment. They want us puritans, materialists, socialists, without soul, without light and without restaurants. [They want us] bored and at home,” she complained on X. Ayuso famously rebelled against national lockdown measures in Madrid, a ground zero for death and illness during the pandemic. For her and the conservative mayor of Madrid, “freedom” means noisy bars until the early hours regardless of neighbours’ complaints.

In offices, including newsrooms, younger generations are driving demands for change and better work-life balance. They don’t always succeed amid resistance from better paid, older, often male bosses.

Even if work culture is changing to some extent, low salaries and burnout still go hand in hand in many industries. Large corporations can play a role in changing this, and some already do. Inditex, the parent company of Zara, offers more free and flexible time to its workers. There are examples of smaller companies too, such as a mattress producer in the town of Ciudad Real that shortens the work week in exchange for participation in group physical exercise sessions during office hours.

To address inequality and exploitation in certain industries, there is a need for bolder legislation too. In workplaces, minds are already changing, but socially polarised politics remain an obstacle to even debating options. Díaz faces an uphill battle as partisans drown commonsense debates.

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