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TOM KEANE

Europe’s not lazy; Americans make the wrong trade-off

An aerial view of sunbathers on the beach in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, where the average work week is 29 hours.

AFP/Getty Images

An aerial view of sunbathers on the beach in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, where the average work week is 29 hours.

Those silly Europeans. Life on the continent seems a concerted effort to avoid work. In France, the legal workweek is 35 hours.The Netherlands is down to an average of 29.Sweden’s pushing for six-hour days. China, India, and other upstart nations have to be loving this. It’s a lot easier to beat your competitors when your competitors aren’t trying that hard.

And then comes a widely publicized topper: France has passed legislation banning work-related e-mails between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. Oh, la vache! How lazy are these people?

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As it turns out, that story was an Internet version of the telephone game: It began with a germ of truth and then mushroomed into exaggeration. It wasn’t a law; it was a labor agreement. Only about 250,000 workers were covered. And there’s no mention of hours of the day. Still, wouldn’t it be nice?

For an enormous number of workers there’s no such thing as quitting time. The line between work and non-work has blurred so much so that the line has essentially disappeared. Leaving the office may be a change of place but not a change of status: You’re still on; still expected to respond to e-mails, texts, and posts; still assumed to be available for a discussion or a review. And that’s not only true after hours but weekends and vacations too. You go off grid at risk of reproach.

“I wasn’t able to reach you Sunday. Is everything OK?”

“I was at the beach.”

“So?”

The French may have a good work-life balance, but they also have an unemployment rate over 10 percent.

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“Swimming.”

“The whole time?”

It’s easy to blame technology. Computers, tablets, and smartphones: Our devices are always with us, everyone knows it, and there’s no compunction about reaching out. As a result, we’re working more. White-collar workers with smartphones are now dealing with work-related matters an average of 13.5 hours a day — 72 hours a week — according to a study last August by the Center for Creative Leadership. For many, including blue-collar workers as well, jobs have become a 24/7/365 proposition (with perhaps time off for sleep).

That’s why, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 29th out of 36 nations on a measure it calls work-life balance, in line with such not-so-fun places as Turkey and South Korea. Meanwhile, European countries rank far higher, arguably happier and healthier. We in the United States are grinding away, while the Europeans drink wine, discuss philosophy, and do other things that would make ordinary Americans blush. Is it time to follow their lead?

In the past, the United States kept workweeks in check by requiring that anyone working more than 40 hours be paid overtime. But there are broad and growing exceptions to that rule for white-collar employees and those in various professions (doctors and teachers, but also the tech savvy). The self-employed are exempt as well. The Obama administration is making an effort this year to get more covered, on the theory that the white-collar exemptions “have not kept up with our modern economy,” but it’s an uphill battle.

Why? Many people seem to enjoy structuring their workweeks as they want; offices, daily commutes, and a rigid 9-to-5 schedule seem so last century. Moreover, long workweeks are often a competitive necessity. Lawyers work all sorts of hours in part because their clients expect it. If they didn’t, they’d lose business to someone else. Similarly, the United States is all too aware of the global challenges it faces. The French may have a good work-life balance, but they also have an unemployment rate over 10 percent and per capita incomes well below Americans’ ($37,567 versus $52,547 in 2012).

Most important, though, work and individual accomplishment are part of our culture. Cadillac’s controversial ad for its luxury ELR makes the point and mocks Europeans to boot: “You work hard, create your own luck, and you got to believe anything is possible,” the ad says. And as for things money can buy? “That’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.” Perhaps someday Americans will decide to trade off a little wealth for some more free time. Until then, keep checking your smartphone.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com
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