Wednesday, May 23, 2007

No-Vacation Nation.

One of the great contributions of the American culture to the English language is the word «Workaholic», a fascinating notion which makes an analogy between work and addiction to alcohol. In essence, it usually carries negative connotations, after all it means that over-work can be a disease, just like alcoholism.

Tellingly, it was first coined in by an American psychologist in the 1960s (but ultimately gained popularity in the 90s). Even more significant is the fact that this words does not translate into most other languages and certainly not into French.

Not only is the word “travailolique” ('travail' being French for work and 'alcoolique', the word for alcoholic) unknown in the contemporary French language, but the whole notion is even hard to grasp in the French mindset.

A recent study seems to confirm the gap between how the French and the Europeans view their priorities and how the Americans view theirs:

The Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. compared government policy on paid vacation time among OECD nations, and the chart says it all:

The main point is that the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.

One objection though: while it is true there's no federal regulation on the subject, one also needs to consider state laws. Precisely this does not mean that American workers get no vacation at all, but they get very little compared to the rest of us: almost 1 in 4 Americans have no paid vacation and no paid holidays.

According to government survey data:

  • the average worker in the private sector in the U.S. receives only about 9 days of paid vacation and about 6 paid holidays per year (which is less than the minimum legal standard set in the rest of world's rich economies excluding Japan)
  • lower-wage workers are less likely to have any paid vacation (69%) than higher-wage workers are (88%).
  • part-timers,are far less likely to have paid vacations (36%) than are full-timers (90%).
  • Only 70% of those employed in small establishments have paid compared to 86% in medium and large establishments.

European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirement of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries.

The situation of France is interesting as it is at the other end of the spectrum (as you can see on the chart).

From their first month of employment, workers in France are eligible for annual leave, which accrues at a rate of 2.5 days per four weeks’ work, or 30 days per year (from June 1 to May 31). Workers may take up to 24 days of this leave at a time, but at least 12 of these days must be taken between May 1 and October 31. Workers receive extra leave for deciding to take a portion of their leave outside of the summer season: those who take between three and five days’ leave off-season receive an extra day’s leave, and those who take six days’ leave off-season receive two extra days.

There are 11 public holidays, but only one, May 1, must be paid. 12 Finally, French law guarantees additional, unpaid leave for community work: up to nine unpaid working days of leave for representing an association, and up to six months’ unpaid leave for “international solidarity” trips for service abroad.

It must also be added that the official working-week in France is of 35 hours. So does this mean that the French are wine drinking, cheese-eating layabouts and the Americans are hard-working disciplined enterprising people? Well, not necessarily. (except that, yes, the French eat cheese, and drink wine!). For instance,

French workers remain among the most productive in the world, ahead of Britain, Germany, the United States and Japan, according to the European statistics agency Eurostat. (Forbes)

From a more pragmatic perspective, it makes sense to me that some time off is necessary for humans to be efficient. We have all experienced it: you are probably better at your job if you get some time off – you can recharge your batteries and get a refreshed view, with more critical distance. Now of course, the French are under stress to get the same work done in less time. But on the other hand, getting so little time off as most Americans does not seem a very efficient way to do business, even strictly from an economic perspective.

In France the 35 hour workweek has been controversial and in fact, the law has been substantially weakened and exceptions have been carved.But even the new president who was elected with the slogan “Work more to earn more” has no intention of getting rid of it completely, even though he says he intends to make some adjustment and make it more flexible.

Now of course, it all depends on what kind of society you want to live in. What do you value most: time or money? Most likely, you need a little bit of both – it is just a question of how much.


At 22:48, Blogger On en parle said...

These last years it appears that French who are students or young new workers hope a better life with time to spend with family and friends making what they want instead of working like dogs to earn high wages. A better life rather than slavery at work as none job is from now on guaranteed but public servant.


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