January 03, 2005

Work and the Holidays

Mark Steyn ran an interesting little column about the difference between European sensibilities and those here in the U.S. with respect to work. He points out that the European phrase "over Christmas" has come to mean between Christmas and sometime in mid-January, and that the entire affair takes nearly three weeks. He points out that for many here in the States, the next working day is a real working day, even if it's the 26th of December. I might argue with that, in that a lot of offices shut down or perform only essential functions between Christmas and New Year's, but there is an underlying principle that is correct.

I was just at the annual party of a Pasadena friend who calls his January function "Back to Reality," meaning that his soiree is the official dividing line between "the holidays" and "the real world." This always occurs on the first Sunday after New Year's Day, which means that it happened today, though the New Year's Day floats were still on display in Pasadena, which didn't help people in getting to his house. Many assumed that "Back to Reality" would take place the following week, but this friend is an engineer: January 2nd it was. My point being, there might be a little wiggle room on either side, but for most Americans with office jobs, the absolute maximum time off in the winter is probably two weeks, and for many it's closer to two days. For some, it's one day, Christmas itself.

My husband tells me that the 6th is a good, traditional last moment for taking down the Christmas decorations in the Catholic world, though I was always told the day after New Year's. I'll accept the later time as the real deadline, because that's my way. Again: there's a matter of interpretation, but there are eventually Real Limits. (Except for me: I got sucked into a 70-hour/week job one January and didn't box up my Christmas ornaments that year until late June. I've sewn a scarlet "Noel" onto my clothing, though, so people will know my shame.)

But the fundamental difference between the European approach and that of Americans is in our conviction that at some point "the piper must be paid." Even the entertainment industry, which on a superficial level resembles the European aristocracy—doing next to nothing between Thanksgiving and the second in January—takes that time after months of working schedules that would kill any number of Europeans (and I say that with love). Those whom many regard as the American answer to aristocrats, actors and actresses, work 12-hour days when they have a project, and sometimes spend the weeks or months in between projects in a state of nervous collapse. It just ain't the same as the European attitude that says we're entitled to six weeks' vacation every year, and someone ought to pay for it.

The French and Germans, who average 40 days vacation a year, assume the reason Americans don't take holidays is because they don't get them. In fact, it's very hard persuading Americans to take the ones they do get. In rural states, most federal holidays -- Presidents Day, Martin Luther King Day, etc. -- go unobserved except by banks and government agencies. It was all I could do to persuade my assistant not to come in on Christmas Day -- ''just for a couple of hours in the morning in case there's anything urgent,'' she says pleadingly.

''There won't be anything urgent,'' I scoff.

''What about all that European research you wanted me to chase up?''

''Those deadbeats won't be back in the office till the week before Valentine's Day.'' Since lunchtime on Dec. 23, every business in Europe has been on an answering machine.

So there's your difference right there: we have a drive here, a desire to get things done right. To put in the time to make it so. And it makes our economy stronger than those in Europe, which are roughly comparable to our more disadvantaged states (think Arkansas, Mississippi—nothing against these places, but not the model of economic development London and Paris should be emulating).

Steyn again:

In 1999, the average ''working'' German worked 1,536 hours a year, the average American 1,976. In the United States, 49 percent of the population is in employment, in France 39 percent. From my strictly anecdotal observation of German acquaintances, the ideal career track seems to be to finish school around 34 and take early retirement at 42. By 2050, the pimply young lad in lederhosen serving you at the charming beer garden will be singlehandedly supporting entire old folks' homes. If tax rates were to be hiked commensurate to the decline in tax base and increase in welfare obligations, there would be no incentive at all to enter the (official) job market. Better to stay at school till 38 and retire at 39. That's why America's richer, and why, though the Europeans preen about their kinder, gentler society, customers of Amazon.com have pledged more money to disaster relief in the Indian Ocean than the French government.

It's horrifying because it's true. Finally, Deacon's quote at Power Line that turned me on to Steyn's column in the first place:

Europe has a psychological investment in longer holidays: The fact that they spell national suicide is less important than that they distinguish Europe from the less enlightened Americans. Many aspects of European life are, indeed, very pleasant: jobs for life, three-week Yuletides, etc. But they're what the environmental crowd would call ''unsustainable development.'' Despite the best efforts of lethargic Scotsmen, it can't be Christmas all year round.

Nor would I really want it to be. Europe has a problem. A big problem. They are on an economic bender that will eventually produce one hell of a hangover.

Posted by Attila at January 3, 2005 01:25 AM

My husband tells me that the 6th is a good, traditional last moment for taking down the Christmas decorations in the Catholic world, though I was always told the day after New Year's.

I unplugged the lights yesterday, but taking them down is going to have to wait for the use of a ladder we don't have. Maybe I'll price 'em at Home Depot today, since we do plan on having Christmas decorations again next time... ;-)

Posted by: McGehee at January 3, 2005 07:44 AM

Perhaps I should comment, since I've actually worked in Europe.

Every single one of my UK friends (and these include civil servants) were back at work last week, and are back at work today. One of my best friends over there is former BBC; he used to comment (in good humor, but seriously) that he hardly had to work at all at this hard-driving American company compared to the hours he put in at the Beeb.

When I was working with Scient Paris (which was previously a French company that Scient bought, so "American culture" didn't apply), when they had a project, they killed themselves to get it done. The same was true of Scient UK engineers; they would work themselves silly to hit a deadline. They worked so hard, at times, that I had to send them home for their own health.

The engineers I worked with in Germany were much the same way. Yes, they got a lot of holidays, but, they lacked absolutely nothing in dedication compared to US employees.

Every European I interacted with (admittedly, a class that was largely confined to professional types, but we're not comparing Wal*Mart employees here) had tremendous pride in their job and their ability to accomplish work. I find absolutely no ring of truth in the idea that Europeans simply don't care about their jobs, or that they don't work hard to pay for their holidays. They know how good they have it, and they work to make it happen. Let's not confuse, for example, the British reflex against tooting your own horn with lack of pride in accomplishment; the British have always valued energy.

Europe does have a huge problem, that just about every industrialized country in the world (including the US, although not as severely) has: A falling birth rate. That's the economic time bomb that's waiting to go off. Europe's rate of growth is lower than the US, and that's a real problem and one that shouldn't be handwaved away with "quality of life," but let's not get too cocky, here. In 2050, we're all going to be facing the same problem.

Taking the fact that Europeans get more holidays that we do in the US and generalizing it into conclusions that infantilize Europeans seems, to put it mildly, unsupported by the evidence.

Posted by: Christophe at January 3, 2005 08:21 AM

Christophe sounds like he knows whereof he speaks, so I’m disagreeing less with his facts than with his emphasis.

I’m sure there are plenty of hard-working people in Europe, just as there are plenty of idlers in the U. S. That being said, my own impression visiting the place was that there was less of a work ethic in Europe, and friends who have been there agreed. This may well be more of a problem in certain sectors of the economy, like retail business and personal service.

The difference in growth rates between the two economies is small but real, and compound interest will sharpen that difference over time. The demographic difference is more stark than Christophe admits, and goes to the heart of competitiveness between Europe and America. Right now Europe’s biggest point of leverage is the ability to impose uniform regulatory and antitrust standards on U. S. companies, as the price for access to a huge share of the global consumer market. That share will decline both relatively and absolutely over time. More immigration might help the problem, but at the cost of worsening some already pretty serious problems—a sort of continent-scale Kosovo doesn’t seem unimaginable at this point.

I’m gonna go along with Steyn and our hostess: Europe may be partying now, but by 2025 they’re going to be coping with a he77 of a hangover.

Posted by: utron at January 3, 2005 09:47 AM

If work ethic was all that it took to make a country succeed, we wouldn't have to talk about Japan's "lost decade."

All major economic units impose regulations and restrictions on imports. Europe is far from unique in this regard. The PRC essentially mandates theft of IP as a condition of doing business there, yet we don't hear howl about how the PRC is "regulating US business."

In 1901, there were widespread predictions that the British Empire would end up devouring the whole world; after all, who could compete with the industrialized, efficient, militarily-indefeatable, world-straddling British? I would strongly advise against hubris when attempting to study the future.

Posted by: Christophe at January 3, 2005 11:03 AM

I wasn’t really howling, Christophe. The EU can legitimately set standards for products sold in Europe, and market forces make it cheaper for American companies to follow a single set of EU standards than to follow one standard there, one standard elsewhere. I just think those forces aren’t trending in Europe’s favor over the long term. The PRC is a much more unfair business environment, and it will be interesting to see how the growing clout of that market plays out. (Not in a good way, I’m guessing.)

And the point about hubris is well taken; we’re not all subjects of the Queen, and Japan isn’t the new superpower. Most predictions about the future (including mine!) attach too much weight to one set of factors, positive or negative, while ignoring other factors that might complicate the picture. Maybe I’ve been reading too much about Europe as the “new superpower”—I just finished T. H. Reid’s book—but I suspect the future is going to be a little tougher and more complicated than that. And that goes for us Yanks, too.

Posted by: utron at January 3, 2005 12:04 PM

Hey--I'm not commenting on the dedication of individuals. I'm commenting on the difference in work ethic between large populations who feel entitled to six weeks of vacation a year, and those who begin at 0, work a year or two at a new job, and work their way up to 2 weeks, finally nabbing three weeks after years and years at a company.

And the amazement I felt when France passed a law forbidding its citizens to work more than 30 hours a week, under any circumstances. There is something truly shocking about the government telling people that they may not work more than a certain number of hours, even if they need the money.

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 3, 2005 12:21 PM

Well, to paraphrase Lady Thatcher, there's no such thing as a population. It's a bunch of individuals. I have to say that I saw no lack of work ethic among the individuals I had contact with. I think it is a fallacy to say that someone who gets x days of vacation a year is automatically a harder worker than someone who gets x+1 days.

Setting aside the whole "feeling entitled" thing (if my company gives me x amount of vacation, I feel entitlted to it, regardless of what x is, and regardless of the country), the argument seems to be:

1. Europeans work shorter hours than Americans.
2. Europe's economic growth is slower than America's.
3. Europe should have economic growth that is equivalent to America's, or bad things will happen.
4. If Europe worked as many hours as America, it would have equivalent economic growth.

Therefore, Europe is a bunch of doo-doo heads for not working as hard.

#1 and #2 are facts.

#3 is arguable, although I'm not going to argue against economic growth a priori. But the thing that will really kill Europe is the low birth rate, not the slow economic growth rate. Unless one is willing to posit an argument that somehow relates the low birth rate to the amount of holiday that Europeans get, I'd have to say that it isn't part of this discussion.

#4 is highly debatable. Germany had years of very high growth while working not as many hours as Americans. Japan worked itself to death (literally) in the 1990s, to no avail.

Thus, I'd have to conclude that the intellectual part of the argument is, at best, unproven.

The other part of the argument is where it really becomes clear that America was founded by Puritans. C'mon, isn't "sin" what we are really talking about here? Of all the sins, sloth was the worst to the Puritans, and that's still a fundamental part of the American religion. They expect time off? Hah! They should earn it by working as hard as we do.

It might be a satisfying argument, and it is entertaining to watch America point fingers at Europe while a certain very large nuclear power rises unchecked behind us, but this isn't an economic argument. It's a theological one.

Posted by: Christophe at January 3, 2005 01:08 PM

I'm sorry; I haven't had enough tea today. You're talking China, or India?

The discussion hinges on causality, which is, of course difficult to prove under the best of circumstances and close to impossible to prove when we're discussing work ethics on two different land masses as they relate to economic activity.

I believe part of the fascination Americans/Canadians/Australians have with Europeans—both in the UK and on the Continent—is that they are our cultural (and often biological) cousins, so there may be more of a desire to gossip about them.

Two more little things:

1) The concern is not so much that Euros are "doo-doo heads," but that if they experience a huge economic crash it absolutely will affect the world economy in the same way Japan's recession has been a drag on the world economy.

2) Some people feel that the population-growth problems in most of the West may simply be solved by immigration. The debate then becomes about how this is handled, and to what degree the "host nation" is changed by these immigrants, versus changing them.

It's almost 3:30 in the afternoon, and I'm typing this in my bathrobe. Thought you'd want to know that. ;)

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 3, 2005 03:23 PM

One thing I've observed is that there are a fair number of people who put in a lot of hours, but also waste a lot of time (and waste other people's time while doing it)

Ideally, people would focus on getting the job done, and work more hours when necessary, but not make a fetish of it.

I think that historically, being an aristocrat usually mean not exerting oneself unduly, and this attitude of emotional distance from work has something to do with Europe's problems...I'm by no means saying that all or even most Europeans are like this, but I do think that the aristocratic worldview probably continues to influence European work culture.

Posted by: David Foster at January 3, 2005 04:19 PM

Saved me the trouble of asking you what you were wearing. :-)

I'm referring to China, although India has some possibilities. China, not being a democracy, doesn't have to worry about details like how much people might actually *want* to work and things like that, and anyone who thinks that China isn't aiming to replace the US as the East Asian hegemon has a very shaky grasp of history. The PRC is gunning for the US. Nothing personal, it's just what great powers do.

Of course, an EU-wide recession would be a bad thing. A US recession would be a very, very bad thing, and I hope that no one is naive enough to assume that the US has been given a special pass to avoid economic cycles and is now immune to recession. Heaven forfend that we stop wanting as much stuff made in East Asia as we do right now; that could turn into a vicious cycle very easily.

But modern industrial economies are very strong, and work themselves out pretty well. (My apologies to those people who have, or will have, lost jobs, had lives ruined, etc., by this "economic cycle" ... there's a reason it's called the dismal science.)

I don't think that European work hours are, by themselves, the reason that Europe's economy sputtering. The French hours law is idiotic, no question. (And, worse than being idiotic, it's been pretty much ignored in many industries.)

Since you didn't ask, I'll say that the main reason is that Europe delivers far too many social services through employment, and thus makes hiring and firing needlessly complex. (Note that my issue is not with the social services per se, but the delivery mechanism.)

It is also far too bureaucratic to start a business (France and Germany are the worst offenders; the UK is pretty good, better than some US states), which inhibits people from just throwing themselves into it.

The US also has about the most debtor-friendly bankruptcy law in the world (short of regimes that are out and out corrupt), and that is either a symptom or cause of a culture that encourages risk-taking in business.

But I just don't buy the "Americans are made of sterner stuff" argument. It's not a moral issue, it's just math. American exceptionalism seems to be the dominant mode of thinking over here, and I think it is worse than wrong: it's unwise, because it lures us into lazy thinking that somehow, just being American is enough.

Posted by: Christophe at January 3, 2005 04:44 PM

If you'd asked, I would have given a much better answer ;)

I can't imagine thinking that just being American is enough--either for the country's foreign policy, or for the life I lead (or expect from those I consider my socieconomic "peers").

And I recognize that both: 1) there are some tremendous social pathologies over here that limit what people can/will do in their own lives, and 2) there are large numbers of driven, creative, innovative people on every country and continent.

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 3, 2005 07:19 PM

Sorry, but I must reply to Christophe's very first post. I, too, worked in Europe and have a very different opinion.

I spent six weeks with a colleague in Belgium putting in a new computer system. Every day at 10:00 everyone left the floor, no matter what they were doing. They went to the breakroom. Everyone, from General Manager to data entry.

Same thing at 2 in the afternoon.

The breaks weren't long, but no one missed one -- ever.

At five the place was deserted. We had to leave because they locked the gates and we wouldn't be able to get out.

We wanted to work one weekend and it took an act of God to make it possible. It took half a day getting the approvals and making the arrangements -- we had to coordinate with the weekend guards to make sure they knew it was happening and this fantastic event was actually OK.

That weekend we waited two hours for the guards to remember that we needed to get into the building.

I walk out of the building and if I'm on a big project I am still thinking about it when I go to bed. They walk out of the building and you are lucky to have them thinking about it sometime next morning.

These are not stupid people, or lazy people. They do, however, have a totally different attitude towards life than we do.

Our deadlines for European projects are never met. Someone will get pregnant and have to have the next six months off and no one bothers to tell us, or something else will come up and it's "oh well, maybe next time".

We are in the process of centralizing the ERP systems for countries around the globe in our American office. Not because this is the only place that can do it, it's the only place that will.

And, Christophe, it is not the number of hours that is worked -- it is the "git 'er done" attitude of Americans that ensure that our economy drives the world's.

Posted by: AlphaPatriot at January 5, 2005 09:32 PM

A lot of this is anecdotal, so limited in its usefulness. But I remember when my husband's boss' boyfriend was living in London, and wanted cable installed, it took months to schedule it--and their process for making it happen was hierarchical and inefficient.

When our friend called to complain, he was told, "I can tell by your accent you're American; you expect things to work."

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 5, 2005 11:12 PM

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