I was raised believing there was one good work ethic: you work hard. While we call this the work ethic, it's actually only a work ethic. Europeans have a different one. They choose to work roughly 25 percent fewer hours and willingly make roughly 25 percent less money. While this may not be good for business, it is good for life. Choosing to work less is part of “family values” in Europe; meanwhile, here in business-friendly America, working less is frowned upon…almost subversive.
A Greek friend of mine spent twenty years working in New York. Only after he retired and returned to Greece did he realize that not once in all those years in America did he take a nap. Back in Greece, if he's sleepy in the afternoon, he takes a snooze. Europeans marvel at how Americans seem willing, almost eager, to work themselves into an early grave. In many countries, European friends have told me proudly, “We don't live to work…we work to live.”
Europeans understand the trade-off. Because they choose to work less, most Europeans don't strive for the material affluence that their American counterparts do. European housing, cars, gadgets, and other "stuff" are modest compared to what an American with a similar job might own. It's a matter of priorities. Just as Europeans willingly pay higher taxes for a higher standard of service, they choose less pay (and less stuff) in exchange for more time off. Imagine this in your own life: Would you make do with a smaller car if you knew you didn't have to pay health insurance premiums and co-pays? Would you be willing to give up the luxury of a big flat-screen TV and live in a smaller house if you could cut back to 35 hours per workweek and get a few extra weeks of paid vacation? For most Americans, I imagine that the European idea of spending more time on vacation and with their family, instead of putting in hours of overtime, is appealing.
I have an American friend who runs a very small movement called Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org). Its mission: to teach Americans that we have the shortest vacations in the rich world, and it's getting worse. His movement's national holiday is October 24th. That's because, by their estimates, if we accepted only the typical European workload, yet worked as long and hard as people do in the US, October 24th would be the last day of the year we'd have to go to work.
With the pressures of globalization, Europe is having to rethink some of its “live more, work less” ideals. For example, the Spanish government is funding incentives to keep workers from going home for a midday siesta, which most agree hurts productivity. And I have a theory that in Ireland (where sales of Guinness is down), the number of pubs is shrinking at the same rate that the number of cafés is increasing, because that society is ramping up its productivity. Drinkers of heavy stout are shifting to lighter lagers, and drinkers of lager are shifting to coffee. Replacing beer with caffeine is a symptom of our faster-paced, more competitive world.
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You are reading "Europeans Work Less", an entry posted on 29 July 2009 by Rick Steves.