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Titanic Sinkings 3: The Exquisite Corpse

The Gloriously Relaxed European Work Ethic

A journalist named Kevin Drum, who lives in California, writes a great blog about American politics and policy that you can read here.  Recently the poor workaholic posted something about those odd Europeans and their love for vacations.  It's pretty short, so I'll quote it here in full:

Matt Yglesias [another U.S. blogger] points out today that although French GDP per capita is considerably lower than America's, it's mostly because they have "fewer workers, working shorter weeks, and taking longer vacations." Higher unemployment is also a factor, but basically Matt is right: the French have simply chosen to work less and have more leisure than Americans do.

I wonder how many Americans would make that choice if they could? I used to hang out with a bunch of Swiss guys (who eventually bought the company I worked for), and although the Swiss have a reputation for being pretty industrious, they basically thought we were insane for taking only two weeks of vacation a year.

I pretty much agreed with them — although more in theory than in practice. Like a lot of people, I never even used up my two weeks of vacation a year, and when I left the company I got a big check for unused vacation pay. And I was far from the worst. I had people working for me that I literally had to force out the door because they had accrued 300 hours of unused vacation time and would start losing it unless they took some time off.

Still, I wonder: If you had the option of taking an 8% pay cut in return for getting six weeks of vacation per year instead of two, would you do it? I'll bet a lot of people would.

As I'm sure my dear fellow-countryman Drum realizes, the vast majority of Americans don't have this choice.  We educated professionals have a lot of freedom to structure our time how we wish.  But how many American Wal-Mart employees could go to their boss and say: "Jeez, I'd like to spend more time with my kids.  Can I take all of August off and give up the wage?"  The answer is: "Sure, in some other job.  I'll give you a friendly incentive to find one in two words: you're fired!"

No, my friend, you'll need to move to another country, one like Germany, to overcome your workaholism.  I was never a real workaholic American, but nevertheless I once worked for four years in American without ever taking a substantial vacation.  Perhaps it goes back to my mother.  Among many wonderful pieces of advice she gave me, she also delivered maxims like this: "The work you do is the rent you pay for the space you occupy."  Saying a sentence like that out loud in Germany could get you referred for mental health treatment.

I admit, there's enough of the workaholic in me that it took me a while to adapt to the German work ethic.  I still do 3 or 4 hours of work on the weekend, just to silence my workaholic conscience.  But other than that, I am delighted with the work/life balance here in Europe.  Here are some pieces of advice for my fellow Americans who choose to move to Europe:

  • Don't brag to other people about how hard you work.  If you go up to someone in Europe and say "I work 10 hours a day, six days a week, 51 weeks a year.  Look how much I achieve!" you'll get the same reaction you would in America if you said "I wash my hands exactly 169 times a day.  Look how clean they are!  Look!  Look!!!"
  • Learn your environment.  Take into account how much work you can really expect from Europeans.  Don't expect anything to get done in August, don't expect a response to your email the same day.  If you really need to get in touch with someone while they are on vacation, or on the weekend, you won't be able to.  Which means not that they are being irresponsible.  It means you don't really need to get in touch with them.
  • Change your standards.  Realize that when someone complains about being horribly overworked, even though you know they are working about 40 hours a week, accept it.  By their standards, they are working very hard.  Helpful thought-experiment: Europeans pay about $5/gallon for gas.  Wouldn't you want them to display compassion for you when you complain about paying $2?

But the most important lesson is: enjoy your free time!  Pay attention to the people you are with, and you'll notice that they do things with their free time.  They spend lots of time with their friends and family, they pursue hobbies much more complex than catching up on all the episodes of Sex & the City, they visit museums, read complex books, drink a whole lot, go to parties, fairs, and circuses, and take lots of vacations.  Imitate them.  And then decide whether you'd really give that all up to make $5,000 more a year.  If the answer is still "gimme the $5,000," move back to the U.S.

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