Archive for September, 2010

I make no secret of the fact that I’m a slacker.  I think it even says something about it in my “About Me” section.  I take a sort of impish pride in my slacker status, but it’s starkly apparent how uncomfortable this makes other people (at least here in the U.S., which is where I spend most of my time).  People look at me like I’ve just outed myself as a pedophile or ax murderer, nervously murmuring something along the lines of “well, surely you don’t mean it”.  I think it’s especially disconcerting for people to hear this “admission” from the father of three kids.

But it sure looks like Germans (and, more broadly, Europeans) are doing a lot of slacking–even those who have kids, one presumes–and enjoying a high quality of life in spite of it (in fact, in part because of it).  We could stand to learn a lot from them.

Now, this is not exactly breaking news: any member of the American intelligentsia (and I count myself one of that set) has seen any number of mentions of this disparity over the years.  But what makes this article (an interview with an author who is hawking a book on the subject) different is how it shatters some of the conventional wisdom about why the disparity exists.  To wit:

There aren’t any historical or cultural reasons for it. Americans famously had more leisure time than the Japanese back in the 1960s. I would say if you did a survey of most people who are in their late 50s or 60s, they will tell you that they take fewer vacations than their parents did. Now why did that change? It wasn’t because of the Pilgrims. People work hard in America, but there was a period where leisure time was increasing. I quoted Linda Bell and Richard Freeman in an article they wrote about what happened during the ‘90s. There was nobody to stop you from working longer. There was no government check, there was no union check as there is on excessive work as there is in Germany or elsewhere in Europe. These institutional checks are gone. So people feel like lab rats: “If I work an extra 10 minutes over the person in the cubicle next to me, then I’m less likely to get laid off.”

So what it comes down to is a more subtle version of the classic capitalistic method of squeezing more productivity out of workers: inexorably turning up the speed on assembly lines, raising quotas bit by bit, or having a sales contest in which first prize is a new Cadillac El Dorado, second prize is a set of steak knives, and “third prize is you’re fired”.

Another element of this great divergence between Europe and the U.S., which is not directly mentioned in the article but which is near and dear to my heart, is paid maternity/paternity leave, and work/life balance more broadly.  When it comes to parental leave, it’s not just that the U.S. simply lags behind other nations; we are in a whole different category from everyone else.  A USA Today article sums it up well:

With little public debate, the United States has chosen a radically different approach to maternity leave than the rest of the developed world.

That was written in 2005, but sadly nothing has changed since then.  This is in fact one of my greatest disappointments with Obama and Congressional Democrats (whom I generally support strongly): that they didn’t do something about this.

For low wage employees to get time off with their babies is going to take a government mandate or at least a strong role for unions. Low wage workers  just don’t have enough clout on their own to pressure employers to change their policies.  And in the current employment climate, even workers who have degrees or skills that are more in demand at higher wages are apt to be reluctant to insist on work/life balance when someone else will gladly take their job, balance be damned.

But before the “Great Recession” hit, there were signs that millennials in particular were beginning to insist on more work-life balance, and companies were slowly, grudgingly beginning to respond.  I’d expect to see a return to this dynamic once unemployment rates drop to normal levels.

This is, of course, the same generation that has been supporting Democrats so strongly, and who accepts the idea of activist government far more than older generations.  In a sense, they are looking for the U.S. to more closely resemble Europe, which is just what drives GenXers (my own generation and sadly the most conservative of them all) like Glenn Beck into conniptions. 

Seen through this lens, the Millennials and Boomers who wring their hands over their perception of Millennials as lazy may be just another expression of the older set dragging their heels and whining about moving in the 21st century Europeans already inhabit.  So I frankly rejoice that every year, Millennials join the ranks of the workforce and the electorate, replacing the Boomers and their elders who are holding us back.  It’s not going to be a smooth transition, that much is clear; but our society will be better off in the end.

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