Saturday, July 08, 2006

Europe And America: Both A Contrast And Comparison

Note-This post was inspired by this recent comment by my good blogfriend Super Frenchie (whom I disagree with quite frequently):

...an American might make more money than a European. So what? If you feel like working 50 hours a week with 9 vacation days and 3 sick days a year until you're 70 so you can afford a big truck with big wheels and impress your neighbor, fine. To each their own enjoyment. I'll take my 35-hour a week, 8-week vacation schedule and a smaller car any day, thank you very much!


When the discussion of the cultural and social values of Americans and Europeans comes up, many people (on both sides of the pond) fail to take many things into consideration. We are in many ways very similar, and in many ways, very different.

It's no secret that Americans have borrowed a lot of European culture throughout its short history. One only needs to drive through a New England state to see the English, New Orleans to see the French, and up (or down) the Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California for the Spanish, influences in architecture.

If that isn't enough, take a look at the menu of some American homes. European-style dishes and cooking are still used by many people. Everytime you eat a casserole (of any kind) you can credit the French, for that invention. When you have a traditional meat and potatoes meal, you can trace it to the Germans, the English, and even the Spanish. Sure, we have put our own signature to it, in many ways. We have modified it, somewhat. But overall, the influences are still there.

So, let's take Frenchie's defense of the defense of the French work week, for instance. There are reasons that many Europeans feel the way Frenchie does and there are good reasons that Americans think nothing of working longer hours to gain more.

When European settlers came to America, most of them left Europe with nothing, but what they could carry. They left a certain world for uncertainty, for certain reasons. When they arrived they had to fight, claw, and scratch to make ends meet. Whether we speak of the pilgrims on the Mayflower, the Irish, or the Italians that came through Ellis Island in the 1800s, all of them had to rough it out.

There was no nanny state in those days, to depend on. There was no welfare, no entitlements, and no manor to join. If you wanted to eat, you had to hunt or work. So, it should come as no surprise why many Americans, still find it hard to rest and relax. Their tendency to overwork, came out of necessity, and has been handed down throughout the generations.

Those that came to America worked for themselves, initially. If they wanted a dwelling, they had to find a piece of land, cut down some trees, and build it. The fruits of their labor were theirs, to keep. They never had a lord of the manor to deal with. Now as time went on, people came into wealth and the processes of capitalism came into being, here. Communal living, such as existed in Plymouth Rock in the 1600s, was not to be forever. People that amassed wealth by working harder and catching a break or two (here and there) were rewarded with more fruits than others.

Europeans are the way they are, for good reasons too. Those that remained and didn't flee their homelands for a life in America, have faced their share of grief, too. Just take a look back at medievel times and you will see that under feudalism, the workers were exploited for years, under many despotic monarchies. Their needs were met (barely) by most manor lords, but they worked long hard hours. Most of the fruits of their labors went to the lord of the manor and they were left with, what was left. They owned nothing, there was very little upward mobility. They worked hard throughout their lives, then they died (usually at a young age, compared to today), with nothing to show for it.

So, the Europeans were content for many years to live under the feudalistic system (mostly because they knew of little else), but eventually they got restless and revolted. After the Renaissance had broken the grip of the Vatican's control and feudalism was dying out, the Europeans discovered a new lifestyle, one that involved pleasures.


The arts flourished. There were new discoveries in science and there was a new world discovered. There were those that came to settle the new world out of greed and were looking for ways to make more money for their monarchies. Monarchies at the time were competing for the resources, under the period of mercantilism. Others were just rying to escape that world.

But those monarchies were still despotic and eventually the people of Europe got restless again. The catalyst was the birth of the American nation. But wars and disputes followed, and Europe was still a political mess for years. Two world wars followed a series of smaller wars that seemed to always be plaguing the continent.

For 60 years now, the Europeans have enjoyed peace. They are now ready to take it easy and enjoy some of the fruits of that peace. Besides the War of 1812 and the Civil War, Americans have had not had to fight a war on their own soil. They have worked to support foreign wars, WWI and WWII saw a boom in certain industries, with WWII putting women to work in record numbers, for that day. To defeat Nazism, they had to.

Europe (on the other hand) had its homeland destroyed. It had to be practically rebuilt from the ground up. While Americans had to sacrifice a lot, meaning rationing of commodities, Europeans had seen everything they had, laying in rubble. Having enough coffee and sugar was the least of their problems.

With all of that said, here's the point I am trying to make. We are different today, because of the paths we have taken since the time of the settlement of the American continent. We are the same today, because for the most part, our roots are the same. (See: Footnote below) The thing that makes the Europeans and the Americans unique is, despite our differences we stand united when the chips are down. I only wish more Europeans would realize that the chips are really beginning to turn downward, now. Having visited and lived in Europe, I do not want to see that beautiful land lay in ruins, anymore than I want this one to be destroyed.


(Footnote-American Indians and Black Americans are two groups that didn't originate in Europe. As we all know, blacks were brought here by force, by Europeans, and were exploited by those of wealthy European heritage, to minimize the work load, so that the Europeans could have more leisure time and work less. This was a practice that was allowed to exist, even after the birth of America and until after the Civil War. American Indians really got the shaft, in that they were pushed back further and further out of their land, to make way for American expansion. But these issues, could and would deserve their own posts.)

10 comments:

A.C. said...

This is a pretty complex issue, but I think you've nailed the American mindset, at least for a lot of us. My Mom and Dad always tried to instill a work ethic in us by using their parents as examples-- of how hard they 'had to' work just to make it. But on par that's a good thing.

A 35 hour week sounds great but there must be tradeoffs, such as decreased national production. It's also possible that a sense of entitlement and compacency could set in. Add this to the need for increased immigration (because many native Europeans aren't having as many kids) and as we saw in the Paris riots, things can get pretty mixed up.

But it's a good topic. Will be interesting the see the perspective from overseas.

ms. miami said...

Their tendency to overwork, came out of necessity, and has been handed down throughout the generations.

lasunsett- i would say that the value placed on work was a necessity for some, but an effect of religious interpretation for more.

americans, more than any others and due to the particular european groups that settled here, have chosen to believe that god "prefers" those who work hard.

taken further, the idea that god "blesses" the righteous (unfortunately interpreted in material terms in our history), was thrown on its head in the u.s. to also indicate that those not "succeeding" monetarily "deserve" their lot in life, but i digress...

as for the 35-hour workweek, there are plenty of studies to indicate that working longer hours does not necessarily increase productivity.

in any case, i should hope that there is more to life than productivity...

LASunsett said...

AC,

But it's a good topic. Will be interesting the see the perspective from overseas.

I am sure we will see what the overseas brigade will have to say, as soon as they get wind that this is posted.

But it is the weekend and the recreation time is in full swing, right now. ;)

LASunsett said...

Ms. Miami,

i would say that the value placed on work was a necessity for some, but an effect of religious interpretation for more.

taken further, the idea that god "blesses" the righteous (unfortunately interpreted in material terms in our history), was thrown on its head in the u.s. to also indicate that those not "succeeding" monetarily "deserve" their lot in life


I would say you are right.

The Puritans were certainly of that mind. And I would add, this is precisely the kind of people that it took to settle a new land. There always have been and always will be workaholics. The Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists (and some others) still teach and believe this social doctrine.

I do not buy into the fact that material wealth is a sign that God is well-pleased.

If we look back to the Gospels (I forget which ones, exactly), there is a part that Christ taught that it was "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to get into heaven". That passage is also misinterpreted by other groups to say that God does not favor wealthy people.

Me?

I think the sun and rain shines on the fields of both, the just and unjust, alike. (That is is one of the Gospels, too)

as for the 35-hour workweek, there are plenty of studies to indicate that working longer hours does not necessarily increase productivity.

I do not know of any specific studies on this, if you do please post them or direct us as to where we may find them. The one study I would use to refute your statement though, is the fact that the US outproduces almost all (if not all) EU countries per capita. In fact if you look at the continent numbers vs. the US you will see that Europe with 550,000,000 people does not keeps pace with the US, with a little more than half that.

in any case, i should hope that there is more to life than productivity..

I agree.

superfrenchie said...

About productivity:

Yes, France leads the world in productivity per hour.

It's about 3% higher than in the US.

That's fairly easy to explain. If you're gonna work just 7 hours a week, you're gonna be more productive.

See here and here.

But since a French worker clocks almost 300 fewer hours per year than his American counterpart (1,543 vs 1,825), American productivity overall is obviously higher.

The cost of course is those 300 extra hours.

superfrenchie said...

Of course, I meant 7 hours A DAY, not a week.

We like our time off, but still...

PS: Note that the 300 hours a year difference is more than 7 full weeks, or almost 2 months!

A.C. said...

I'm a little fuzzy on your workweek laws, Frenchie. I assume they are mandated on ALL employers, but do you have overtime rules if companies need extra work done in short time frames?

superfrenchie said...

a.c.:

It's fairly complex because every company is free to negotiate with its employees how it wants to implement the 35-hour workweek. It also depends on the company size.

Some popular formulas:

* 7 hours a day, 5 days a week
* 39 hours in 4.5 days and a half a day of rest.
* 39 hours a week, and 2 off days a month.

Why 39? That was the law before the 35-hour law (since 1982).

Overtime after the 35th hour is paid 25% extra up to the 44th hour. After that, it's 50%. The maximum is 48 hours, per an EU law, applicable to the entire EU.

unaha-closp said...

That's fairly easy to explain. If you're gonna work just 7 hours a [day], you're gonna be more productive.

Maybe.

It is also very hard to fire a Frenchman and so equally difficult to justify hiring a Frenchman. So what tends to happen is the employers automate production as much as possible to maximise production out of existing workforce.

In Anglo countries investing in equipment that will last 10 years is a longterm capital cost, that must be weighed against the risk of losing the work to use that equipment and result in a big loss when the equipment is resold. Anglo countries tend to utilise existing equipment more by hiring new employees to increase number of production shifts. In France the equipment cost over ten years is the same but also much lower than the cost of a new employee (who may well last upto 40 years with the company costing more and more each year). A French single shift operation will always maximise the productivity of it's shift, rather than add another shift. Therefore productivity is higher in France.

This does however make production costs higher in France.

superfrenchie said...

unaha-closp: //Therefore productivity is higher in France.//

Certainly a valid argument for why hourly productivity has always been high in France. But not a valid one for why hourly productivity went even higher after the implementation of the 35-hour workweek.

Hourly productivity went up 2.32% per year in France after the 35-hour workweek went into effect. In the EU for the same period, it was 1.44%, and for the OECD, it was 1.95%. Further, before the 35-hour workweek in France, that number was only 1.63%.

The hiring/firing situation had not changed. Only the number of hours worked had changed.

Numbers here. Sorry, in French.