A little too Tierlieb
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.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Norbert

Here is an article about a new study according to which Germans work "every bit as hard as Americans do", with the difference that Americans "do more market-based work, and Germans do more home-based work." The authors point to the fact that Germans/Europeans have a smaller service sector, because they tend to do more things themselves (cooking, gardening, DIY) for which Americans tend to contract someone else. This is, according to the study, the reason why there is a larger service sector in the US. Don't know yet what to make of it...

me

Well, let me start off by saying 8%? Heck, if I could get 6 solid weeks off per year, I'd be willing to give up TWICE that...without question OR hesitation.

I really don't understand this whole european work ethic thing in the sense that, I work for Germans here in America. These people, evidently, must be from the twilight zone or something. It's absolutely horrible. I've never hated anything so much in my life. My work week is MANDATORY 45 - 50 hours, no matter if I even have a task to do or not. That's right, if I've had nothing to do for the past 5 solid weeks, I still have to come in for a minimum of 9 hours every single day. Oh yeah, and I only get 5 DAYS of vacation per year.

That's not the worst of it either. Some of my coworkers work 10-16 hour days, 7 days a week. I have no clue why nobody even raises an eyebrow to this at my office.

I have no life anymore because of these people. I used to play the guitar. USED TO. I even have my Bachelor's degree in guitar performance. I don't even remember simple chords anymore. I used to have friends. USED TO. I have close friends that I've known for years that I haven't had the opportunity to see or even speak to, since I started working at my company two and a half years ago.

So, once again, just to make it clear: If I could get 6 solid weeks off per year, I'd be willing to give up TWICE that...without question OR hesitation.

Anybody in Europe need a dedicated computer programmer?

Juno

Give your self a break..Have a vacation and enjoy your life with it...=)

Andrew Hammel

KS wrote:

"Add into that the fact that everything seems to cost more in Europe, and I wonder how anyone there gets by at all."

First of all, I've noticed that the amount of time spent working is determined by social structures; the whole society is set up around the idea that you'll work a moderate amount, because there's a broad social consensus that working large amounts of time is psychologically and socially harmful. That will never be the case in the U.S., so life in the U.S. is filled with decision-points in favor of more work (you get the keys to the building when you take the job, so you can come in on the weekend, boss gives you a blackberry, you get chastised for not responding to email quickly enough). That ain't happening in Europe.

As for affordability of life, I second Natasha's explanations. I don't have a car here in Europe, and I don't miss having one at all. Luxury or expensive purchases are indeed expensive here, because of the value-added tax, but basic necessities are relatively cheap. Housing and food are subsidized, and the government pays you to have kids.

Plus, Germans are skinflints. Life costs less for them because they make sure it costs as little as possible. Bargain-hunting is a national obsession. Credit cards are practically unknown here, and virtually all Europeans have a horror of going into any significant debt. People routinely put down 40 or 50% of the purchase price in cash when they buy a house or car, just to avoid having too much debt. Germans save so much it hurts their economy; in fact economists study this behavior because it's irrational.

natasha

Sorry about that last, didn't realize I couldn't use HTML here or I would've put the 1st and 3rd paragraphs of my comment in quotes to indicate that they were from previous comments.

natasha

The problem here in America is compounded by the fact that in more and more places, you can't roll over unused time from year to year.

Yes, because some bright bulb decided that unused vacation time gets written into the books as a financial liability. It was all downhill from there.

Add into that the fact that everything seems to cost more in Europe, and I wonder how anyone there gets by at all.

I'm guessing that they manage because health care is generally either free or very cheap, not nearly as many of them own cars (no car payments, insurance, gas or repair bills) and their spending habits tend more towards savings and less towards uncontrolled impulse shopping. Changing those three variables in American life would produce, I think, a much different range of what we considered affordable.

Anjali

Have worked in the US and Europe - can't agree with you more. Had the toughest time adjusting to European work attitudes, but now I love it!

I think it goes beyond the 40 hour mentality - Americans take their work too seriously and carry ownership to the nth level. The reason people end up working weekends etc. is also because even at very junior levels it is drummed into their heads that they are responsible for delivering the results. Whereas in Europe, people treat work more as a job. Something they do to earn money but it's not their entire life. So, if a deadine happens to come in the way of a vacation, so be it. Someone else can take care of it, while in the US, your boss might actually expect you to re-schedule your vacation plans.

Anyways, i am glad i am finally in a place that values work-life balance. Sometimes, my client will actually tell me to go home and not work so hard. Sweetest words I have ever heard! :)

KS

If I had the option for more vacation time, of course I'd take it. If I could without penalty.

I think the reason most people don't take all of their vacations is twofold.

One, they have so much work to do that they can't afford to take time off or they'll be hopelessly behind when they get back.

Two, just because they have the vacation time doesn't mean their boss is going to be happy about them taking it, and they don't want to endanger their job by taking the time that ought to be theirs, so they don't.

And, of course, if you can afford to give up a percentage of your paycheck, then you're one of the lucky ones anyway. Even 8% of someone's paycheck may be too much for them to give up, and it may have nothing to do with the fact that they're greedy. The fact is that six extra weeks of vacation isn't going to pay the bills; few people work because they want to but because they have to. Add into that the fact that everything seems to cost more in Europe, and I wonder how anyone there gets by at all. Are the salaries substantially higher than they are in the U.S. or something?

Steve Snyder

The problem here in America is compounded by the fact that in more and more places, you can't roll over unused time from year to year.

The comments to this entry are closed.