I want to cap off my month-long series about jobs and careers with a discussion of work-life balance, and how America workers compare with their European cousins.
Before I begin, I should make it clear that I am not an expert in European labor laws or standards. I’ve not even visited Europe yet, let alone worked in any of its countries. Surely the laws vary from country to country, and an individual’s experiences vary from employer to employer. I will limit my comments to observations about work-life in America. As for anecdotal evidence of life in other countries, I’ll link to those sources directly.
In Pursuit of the American Dream
I have consistently criticized the so-called American Dream on this blog. It promotes consumerist culture and induces people to crave status-affirming stuff that brings little or no actual value to their lives. Pursuit of the American Dream has convinced millions of Americans to go into debt for a higher education so they can afford to go into even more debt buying lavish real estate, high-end vehicles, and other such trinkets.
Don’t get me wrong – a home and a vehicle have plenty of utilitarian value. But we Americans don’t often seek that which is practical and pragmatic. We buy things that are too big, too superfluous, and too expensive for our actual needs because an industry of marketing executives have actually convinced us that we NEED a four bedroom mansion, an eight passenger SUV, and thousands of cable TV channels that we will never watch.
In the immortal words of Tyler Durden…
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.
It would be bad enough that we waste money and go into debt for frivolities and excess stuff. But in a cruel twist of irony, many of us work ridiculously long hours in demanding, time-consuming jobs in order to support our unnecessarily lavish lifestyles such that we don’t have time to enjoy the fruits of our labors.
Technology & Multitasking
Technology was supposed to make our lives easier. Motor vehicles allowed us to travel further distances in shorter times. Cell phones meant that we weren’t tethered to our homes to wait for important phone calls. The Internet gives us access to information faster than flipping through an encyclopedia and allows us to connect to other people 24 hours a day.
Now, our phones can do so much more than make and receive calls. They can send e-mails, check traffic and weather, take photographs and film, manage our finances, give us access to news, and so much more.
These advents were meant to free up time for us. Instead, our corporate overlords recognized that we could accomplish more in less time. Their expectations changed – they were no longer content to have their employees be as productive and efficient as they were in the olden days. Because you could do more, you were expected to do more. You are expected to multitask. Many are expected to be on call 24/7. You are expected to check your messages, even when you’re at home and off the clock. And why? Because you can.
The Stigma of Relaxation
As the ability of American workers to be more productive rose, the tolerance for those who chose to “have a life” fell. People who seek to leave work at work and “cut the cord” are branded as lazy, and lacking in dedication and ambition. More and more, Americans feel guilt and stigma for taking vacations or personal time off. We will often sacrifice the hours we are allowed in exchange for the appearance of being a better employee, in the hope that someday such perception will pay off.
When we do take a vacation, they are two week sprints toward the most luxurious, status-affirming resort we can afford. These vacations are seldom relaxing and put us into even more debt. Moreover, the cruises and resorts isolate us from the local culture of where ever it is that we choose to spend our vacations. The people we meet are not the local natives, but other white folks like us, spending $12 on a cocktail that we sip in a gated swimming pool.
We are constantly exposed to mirror images of ourselves, and seldom get the opportunity to see that there are different lifestyle available out there in the world.
Examples of European Work-Life Balance
I don’t know that many hardcore travelers (yet), but of the few I do know, most of them are European. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Europeans have different values and attitudes toward the balance between work and life, and their labor customs reflect it.
Americans aren’t familiar with long-term budget travel… because we don’t do it. Of the thousands of travelers I meet in my time away, only two are Americans traveling for a year.
When the competing commodities of time and money collide, our nation’s choice is to sacrifice free time to earn additional money. But other rich countries make a different bargain – trading their money for a wealth of leisure time. French and Germans, for instance, work 25% less than us.
And maybe because our trips are short, they’re celebrated for extravagance and priced too high to be enjoyed for long. This is the type of vacation we’re conditioned to covet – it’s a two week lobster claw oasis in a 50 week desert of cubicle, ex-ing out the days in anticipation of our status-affirming trip.
France has recently instituted policies permitting employees to unplug from work when they’re not at work.
In some countries, people are required to take time off to achieve a healthy mental balance. Work week hours are capped, employees are not expected to check messages after hours, and lunch hours are more sacrosanct.
Four to six weeks’ paid vacation are common for many workers.
Many countries and companies provide work schedule flexibility that helps families meet personal obligations.
A Better Way?
Life is short. Too short. In a few weeks, I turn 36 years old. At my age, I’m no longer willing to sacrifice my ability to live and enjoy life for the prospect of a few extra dollars in my savings account.
Of course, I need to earn money in order to fund my travels and my haunt crafts. But we can’t be so obsessed with the pursuit of money that we forget to live life.
Unfortunately, American culture has been conditioned to covet the American Dream. And even if American labor clamored for a better work-life balance, corporations exert much power and influence in our society. It would take a tremendous rebellion and insurgency within this country to effect the sort of change needed to bring us to the European model.
The prospects of immigrating to another country on my own seem daunting to me now. But as I meet and form relationships with other people, immigration bureaucracy will seem like less of an obstacle. Likely, I will one day soon leave America to seek a life somewhere else where people know how to live.