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September 26, 2004 - Is the route to sanity to do as little as possible?

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Is the route to sanity to do as little as possible in your job while saving yourself for your real life outside the workplace?



A few years ago, after a second bottle of dry red Tuscan wine, or perhaps a third, with my conservative friend and his wife, we fell into a discussion of the American work ethic, and the way the French seemed to approach work.  There is a difference.  This was after my fourth trip to France, and he and his wife had just returned from one of their trips to Tuscany.

I recall we discussed the idea of whether one worked to live, or lived to work – and that seems to be the basic disconnect.  He said the French just don’t take work seriously.  They define themselves by their personal lives, not their careers.  This was irresponsible.

So he was going on about how the six to eight week summer vacations and the thirty-five hour workweek made France an economic loser.  I countered with something about the French doing well with some things – how the Falcon jet built by Dassault in Toulouse had the major share of the executive jet market (our Coast Guard alone has forty of them) and how Vivendi had managed to buy up Universal Studios and their theme parks and music businesses (oops – that didn’t work out) and so on and so forth.  He wasn’t buying it.

He said look at their productivity.  I countered with the odd fact that on a unit-of-value-per-hour-worked basis the French workers’ productivity far outstrips that of Americans.

He countered with the idea that they have to be productive each hour because they start work at ten in the morning, take two-hour lunches, and have innumerable three-day and four-day weekends all year round.  And he added, as he is the CEO of a thriving software company, if someone applied for a job with him and asked about vacation benefits, well, that applicant would never be hired – as that was a sign that the applicant didn’t take work seriously, and had no ambition.

I seem to recall that when I worked at Hughes Aircraft in the eighties and nineties – which later became Hughes Electronics, then Hughes-Raytheon, then a new part of General Motors, then DirecTV after shedding Raytheon, then sold by GM and now part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – the fellow who ran the communications lab (satellite payloads and top secret communications gizmos) was famous because in twenty years he had never taken one day of vacation, ever.  By California state law we had to pay him a big chunk of change for that.  My conservative friend was impressed – this was the kind of hard worker and ambitious go-getter that made America great.  (The fellow was Japanese, by the way.)  I was appalled.

So we didn’t agree.  I asked what was so damned good about productivity?  He looked at me like I was from another planet.  And we had even more wine and let it pass.

That all came back to me last week when I came across an item in the International Herald Tribune and my friends on line started discussing it.

Meanwhile: Workers of the world, unite and don't work!
Michael Johnson - The International Herald Tribune - Friday, September 17, 2004

First of all, know that Michael Johnson is the author of "French Resistance: The individual vs. the Company in French Corporate Life." And he opens with this -


A few years ago I co-authored a book called “Workaholism: Getting a Life in the Killing Fields of Work.” It sank like a stone. Maybe the title was too clunky.

More likely, my timing was off. Both Europe and the United States were living through a mild spasm of anti-work rhetoric in the 1990s, but it was nothing like what is happening today in France and Britain. This new wave goes far beyond downshifting and life balance.

Two best sellers reflect this tune-out culture: Corine Maier's "Bonjour Paresse" in France and Tom Hodgkinson's "How to Be Idle" in Britain. Both authors advise that the route to sanity is to do as little as possible in your job while saving yourself for your real life outside the workplace.


So, in essence, this is a book review with personal anecdotes.

Johnson, who has been a manager in both the UK and France, says that when he arrived in London he was told that "one must not be seen to be striving."  And he says that in France, "dodging work and responsibility in my company was an art."

Johnson too says the key difference between Americans and the Brits and the French is that there the work ethic is that work life and private life are separate, and friendships tend to be unrelated to professional life.

But here’s the real key -


In the French publishing firm where I worked, employees simply did not buy the argument that their work might be inherently worthwhile and essential to the success of the firm, the source of their sustenance. They resented the fact that shareholders took home unearned income from their daily work.

This disconnect creates a standoff between leaders and the led.


As well it might.

Johnson notes that French workers demand precise job descriptions so that management cannot take advantage of their energies.  And that means "initiative and extra hours are out of the question."  And he quotes a fellow who worked for him in France saying - "We want you to tell us exactly what you want us to do, and we'll do it if we feel like it."

Well, that makes a manager’s job a bit harder.

Corine Maier's "Bonjour Paresse" is mentioned in little detail, although he notes she is "a chipper professional economist with a disarming subversive streak."  The book is intended to help you "use your company instead of letting yourself be used by it."  And the book does refer to recent polls that indicate only three percent of the French are willing to give themselves to their work whereas seventeen percent are "actively disengaged" - their attitudes are so unconstructive as to "approach sabotage."

Maybe my conservative friend was right.  And too, Maier is scheduled for a disciplinary hearing at her job later this month.  Perhaps she should not have written this book.

But the bulk of Johnson’s item is dedicated to the UK, where "Margaret Thatcher's self-help culture has eroded since her departure from public life, allowing the old slacker malaise to creep back into daily life."

Johnson covers the nascent "chav scum" movement – the Kevs, steeks, spides, ratboys, skangers, stigs or scallies.  Who?  The workers who don’t give a damn.

Read it.  It’s quite funny.

And Johnson says we are safe over here -


On a recent visit to the United States I watched for signs of erosion of the bootstrap culture Americans have always been proud of. I browsed the shelves at Harvard's Coop bookstore, finding nothing at all on downshifting. Finally I asked the manager where he was hiding these books. "Can't help you," he said. "We're mostly about upshifting here."


We are?  Well, a bit of this was discussed previously here.

But what about our president, the top American?

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, muses about that -


Geez, reading about all these French and British slackers gives me pause to worry about the state of the world! In our country, folks with no sense of responsibility and who don't believe in showing up for work, at best, all tend to end up voting Republican, but at worst, are elected President!


Why, then George Bush, by this reasoning, what with the long vacations and inattention to anything like hard work or the silly details of the job, and his life-long history of goofing off and avoiding real work, would be, well, sort of... French?  What a concept!

Don’t tell anyone.

Nico in Montréal, the most French of cities in North America, says the American work ethic is an anomaly, and even the Canadians don’t quite get it -


Lots going on in this article, but the work ethic Johnson talks about an American phenomena.

It is the willingness of many young Americans to do what it takes, and go where they need to be, to have their career. People are constantly on the move across the country. This shows they are keen and, probably secondly, know no one in the city they live in, or rather, near.

A further point is that for every unemployed worker in the US, there are probably two over-worked ones, willingly participating to sacrifice their private lives for productivity gains for companies that would just as soon cast them out than go over budget on toilet-paper.

Most of my American (and even Canadian) friends think it odd that I would choose where to live, then figure out a career or just get a job. Having been "right-sized" a couple times myself, I have stopped trying to include work-mates into my private life. As long as I still live and work in the same city my professional circles are still there and growing with each new job. They are held together by the odd email chain, cinq-a-sept, or run-in's on the street.

At the end of the day, the question is why this “corporate idealism” when most know that American business is more than ruthless when it comes to 'right-sizing' and casting off devoted workers who make the workplace the center of their worlds.


I too have been “right-sized” a few times.  One takes care of oneself.  Making your job the center of your world?  That way lies madness.  I agree with Nico.

And the people who have worked for me – I was a senior systems manager – have become my friends, but always after they left or I left the job.  Work is work.  Life is life.

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, has a response to Nico -


I have no problem with picking a place to live first, then picking a job. Cool enough! Hell, that's what I've been urging Alan to do for years. Then again, I suppose it'd be hard to move to Paris without a work permit, then find some job that suits you.

But the idea of getting hired to work for a company, then trying to get away with working as little as you can, sounds not only like it takes way too much effort, but also insures you'll spend the whole day staring at the clock and wishing you were somewhere else.

And also, the idea of working in an environment in which all your co-workers frown on you if you are "seen to be striving" sounds too much like spending an eternity in hell, turning big rocks into little ones. God help you if you'd actually want to work your way up into management.

And to live in a whole country where this passes for a "work ethic"? How could it avoid having shoddy goods and services? No wonder we see so many things here that were made in China, and very few made in Britain or France. When I first moved to St. Croix [US Virgin Islands], I thought I would like this whole concept of "island time" and the relaxed attitude toward work, but that was before I had to stand a whole two hours or so in line one day (with only one other person in front of me) to get a driver's license.

The truth is, although I'm definitely no flag waver and don't know if the United States is (as all those bean-dip-for-brains conservatives brag) "the greatest country on Earth," I keep getting reminded that, in spite of all its problems, I'd really rather live here than anywhere else.


Well, I’m the Alan that Rick mentions, and I know getting a carte de sejour to work in Paris isn’t likely – and Hollywood really is pretty fine.

And in two weeks I start work for an HMO – with the task to expand a department and staff it up, to build a nationwide claims processing suite of applications.  And I hope it is not “too much like spending an eternity in hell, turning big rocks into little ones.”  And I will be in management.  I think the idea is to do a fine job, and help others do a fine job, but not take it too seriously, as work is not all of life.

But that aim – doing well but knowing there is more to life – goes against the grain of life here in the United States.  Should I stumble there are a thousand, and maybe many thousand well qualified others waiting to take my place, unemployed and unhappy, and more than willing to sacrifice family and health and all spare time to the organization.  It is well to remember them.

They may be foolish, given what they can realistically expect in return – mostly nothing.  What one gets for disregarding one’s family and undermining one’s health must come from within – a sense of worth based on career and title and, in my trade, elegant, flawless software.  Hey, if that is what defines your worth in this world, well, that is your choice.

But there are other criteria for defining your worth in this world, to yourself.

And as for whether the French or the Americans are using the “right” criteria is an interesting question, but finally personal.  Rick is right to point out the limitations of what he calls “island time” – that laid back vaguely French way of living life in the moment and savoring friends and family, but getting nothing much done.  And Nico is right to point out the empty shallowness of giving your all-too-short life over to a corporate career, for a handful of dust, and, more often than not these days, a pink slip.

Perhaps the answer is to be a CEO like my conservative friend.  From the top the choices are easier.  But I do know some petty burnt out CEO’s who endlessly think of chucking it all.  I know one in San Diego who buys a lottery ticket for each drawing so she can, maybe, one day, sell the company and get some sleep.  Maybe being on top isn’t always the answer.

So I dream of Paris – I lived with Rick’s family in the Virgin Islands for three or four months and I’m over that particular dream – but you make the compromises.  You do your best.


Reactions –

From Joseph, who used to do film stuff here in Hollywood but now lives in France…


Two items:

Despite the impression pandered in the US media, France is not working toward becoming more socialist; quite the opposite. Sure maybe thirty years ago, but it's been running the other way for quite a while.

I submit an exhibit: Recently, the French government sold a large portion of it's holdings in France Telecom, thereby relinquishing majority control. Quelle dommage. It seems they sold about a sixth of their sixty Billion stake. More is apparently sure to follow. This made me wonder what the complete portfolio of the republique came to, and particularly in relation to the current fiscal deficit. Perhaps Ric Erickson [see MetropoleParis] has a figure at his fingertips, but I invented a figure of about 350 billion euros. If the holdings are in this range, that seems a significant kitty in comparison to the budget deficit. This is the interesting part. While the US has to go even deeper in to debt to meet it's obligations in the future, France may merely have to sell the family silver to cover the shortfall imposed by the looming demographic catastrophe. This one's a no-brainer. Guess which country is going to have the greater tax burden in twenty years time?

Alan, you may want to look for an article from the IHT about eight weeks ago, FP/ATF, about why Europe doesn't have to compete with the US, and why taking so much vacation time is logical; leisure is a luxury good, and as people become more wealthy, the consume more of it. Adam Smith would have approved. Everyone seems to understand this except Americans, who seemingly can never get enough of anything, so long as it's tangible.

By the way, whenever Americans want to pick on Europe for it's "socialist policies", long vacations and generous welfare state, why is the devil always France (Rick has already guessed, no doubt - it's the enemy within) when GERMANY, (ya die vaderland, suck it up, German-Americans) is a better example of this by almost any objective measure.


The IHT item?  That would be the International Herald Tribune, the Paris daily essentially run by the New York Times, and the item Joseph refers to, I believe, is this:

Work and leisure in Europe
[ no byline ] - The International Herald Tribune - Friday, August 20, 2004

The opening -


Those vacation-loving Europeans are not pulling their weight in the effort to reignite global economic growth, Americans often grumble, and the International Monetary Fund seemed to agree in a report issued earlier this month. By calling on Europeans to jump-start their economy by working more, it intensified the trans-Atlantic debate over the increasing divergence in work patterns. As their society has become wealthier, Europeans are working less, while Americans are working more.

The longstanding debate over whether Europeans are too easygoing or whether Americans work so hard they miss out on enjoying the fruit of their prosperity - more leisure time - is an interesting one…


Yes, but the author asserts the real issue the IMF is raising is persistent high unemployment in western Europe, and the odd work rules that make that inevitable.

Key paragraphs:


The answer for Europe, in other words, is not necessarily to turn its back on its own culture's balancing of economic productivity and leisure. Americans, as a rule, may derive more satisfaction from working longer hours, though recent social research suggests that one of the reasons Americans work almost one-fifth more hours than Europeans do is a fear that if they don't, someone else will take their job. Surveys show that Americans would prefer to work less and have more time to enjoy leisure and family.

… Europe's problem is not that its workers work too little, but that the system that protects them also makes sure that the unemployed stay that way. High minimum wages, high payroll taxes and laws that make it excessively hard to dismiss workers discourage hiring, and the people who lose out are usually those who weren't around when the rules were written, such as the young, immigrants and mothers returning to the workforce.

… As for the question of working hours, the answer may be simply to give people more choice - to let them find their own balance of work and leisure, now or later - but give them more responsibility for funding their retirement years.


You get the idea.

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, does respond to Joseph, of course -


Joe, nicely put.

I think I agree with everything you said, including that "vacation time being a luxury worth living for" stuff, but especially the wisdom of a nation holding a portfolio in reserve to hedge against budget deficits that might come back to bite the country in its collective ass sometime down the road. Perish forbid a U.S. president should look to France - or any other country, for that matter - for better ideas on doing anything, but I have a feeling that a hypothetical President Kerry would do just that, once past the election and emboldened enough not to fear being caught speaking French in public.

Still, I should clarify something you probably already knew, that I wasn't attacking France for its (maybe imagined) "socialist" ways; in fact, I only used France and Britain as examples because those were the two countries addressed in the article I was responding to. In fact, not so much France, but what the guy said about working in England -- and even post-Thatcher, non-"socialist" England -- is something I myself have heard often from some of my friends who live there.

All I meant to say was, although I have little problem with grunts who do their work and get paid for it and go home at the end of the day, I just wouldn't want to work in an environment where there was peer pressure to slack off. I myself would prefer working in an environment where there's freedom to enjoy what I do for a living.


Along with the hypothetical President Kerry, then, we now have this hypothetical workplace full of folks who enjoy their work and still have a life outside the workplace.

Such places are few, and far between.

When I worked for Perot Systems one of their mantras was that at Perot Systems all folks loved their work, and got up each and every day eager to get to the office and do more of it.  And Perot Systems made sounds about the importance of vacation – that you had to take your vacation as earned, so you didn’t neglect your family and yourself in your enthusiasm.  That was the Perot way.  But H. Ross Perot got old and retired, and turned the company over to his son, who saw just how cutthroat the economy was becoming.  Something shifted.  My regional position was eliminated, along with two others, for one manager directing work of forty people in three states remotely from Phoenix - and I was given a project to manage – then was laid off as the overhead was high and the customer wasn’t paying Perot enough for all the work.  Fifty of us left in the first wave of that – all projects abandoned – and then another fifty got their pink slips a few months later as maintenance service to the customer was cut to the bare contractual minimum.  Perot then trained me on HMO billing systems and assigned me to manage an implantation of this software here – and the client suddenly canceled the contract and sixty of us were left with nothing to do. The only thing left?  A high priority contract in Boston – and that meant full-time travel, sixty-hour weeks, living out of a suitcase in a hotel on Tremont, and getting home for a day and a half every third weekend.  So being somewhat French in my attitude toward work, I resigned.  The cost to my own life was far too high at that point.  I suppose I wasn’t dedicated – and wasn’t committed to the career and to success.  Or I wasn’t buying into the new Perot Systems definition of success.

Shame on me?  I made my choice.  No regrets.

And perhaps in two weeks I will be working in the sort of environment the now elderly and frail H. Ross Perot once envisioned.  We shall see.






Ric Erickson of MetropoleParis tells us what working in Europe is actually like, in the specific -


Rick in Atlanta makes the observation: "All I meant to say was, although I have little problem with grunts who do their work and get paid for it and go home at the end of the day, I just wouldn't want to work in an environment where there was peer pressure to slack off. I myself would prefer working in an environment where there's freedom to enjoy what I do for a living."


Only the lucky have jobs they enjoy.  I guess I'm lucky but I'm sure I would enjoy it more if I were paid for it.


Even if the lucky have jobs they enjoy, they may not last forever.


This applies to the unlucky with jobs they don't enjoy too.


There are, obviously, many different kinds of jobs and many different kinds of employers.  I think the differences according to nationality are less than are being supposed.


Although, looking back, the most relentless drivers I remember were American managers.  But that was Yellow Pages and that's how they are.  Another was an East German who ran a successful sign shop in Munich.


Freelance editorial work doesn't last long if you don't meet the deadlines.  Here, the French are no different than anybody else.  And like everybody, every first-time art director says, 'If you do this too-much work very, very quickly, then you'll get lots more.'  Usually, the first one will be the last job you get.  Freelance, you pay your own lunches, your own holidays, your own everything.  And, after ten years of collaboration when they no longer make commands, if you try to get them to officially lay you off, they'll say, 'You'll get no more work from us.'  And you don't, and you don't get unemployment either.  And a few years later when you apply for the state pension - what ho! - the rotters deducted the employee's share but didn't send in their own.


I will say being on the staff of the newsmagazine has its good sides.  On Fridays they lolled around, reading the comics.  But on Thursdays when they had to close the issue, it had to be done no matter what or how long, and the mgt supplied a decent buffet so nobody had to go out to eat or drink.  Since it was French, it was like a Christmas dinner.  They took me out to lunch about once a year.


Driving a Bulgarian lift truck at Siemens in Munich, in the winter with snow on the ground, its batteries would run down about 60-90 minutes before the shift end.  They didn't want it left stranded in a snow drift so I'd nurse it back to the barn, which was heated.  They'd tell me to sit down and relax; maybe even give me a schnapps.  Outside, getting dark, the Spanish guest workers would be still dragging loads around.  Then I got promoted to a German lift truck and had to drive the whole shift.  On Christmas Eve of 1969, the meister asked me to load the last truck for Berlin.  It was four hours overtime, and the driver wanted to see his kids that night.  He gave me a cigarette before he left, and all the shops were closed.


In Hamburg, I was talking to guys in a small Gruner & Jahr unit for three weeks.  They finally decided I couldn't understand German well enough.  It was a Friday and I had 20 marks left.  I walked across town to the Springer Haus and the guard there told me to phone personnel.  They couldn't make me out, so they switched me to a guy with a Polish name.  He told me to come upstairs.  In his office he asked me if I wanted a drink and pulled out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and filled two glasses.  After talking a while He called in his art director and we BS'd some more.  Finally they said, 'Come on Monday.  We'll pay you by the day, whatever you work, 400 DM a week.'  It was slightly less than what I'd gotten in Munich in a month.  I stayed five years.  The Polish guy left five months later; after an office party that lasted two whole days.  Besides cases of wine there were three kegs of beer.  They called the way I spoke German 'Rikkydeutsche.'  It was a great place to work, until the Munich business in 1972, and the oil shocko.  It was grimmer after that, and we had to tighten our belts a bit - and slow down on drinking 'on the haus' at the bar across the street.


The oddest job I had was as a bike dick for the City of Vancouver.


There were three of us inspectors and we went all over the city looking for bikes without licenses and for stolen bikes.  I think our recovery rate was about 95 percent.  We had records for a quarter million bikes, but we couldn't do anything about bikes taken out of the city.  We couldn't catch Ikky Toews either.  His racing bike was faster that our bike dick car, an old Anglia 3-speed.  I got assaulted while serving a summons once.  The city closed the unit down because it cost $25,000 more than it brought in, and I became a planning assistant and worked on the redevelopment of a block in Chinatown.   One of the houses was Speedy Transfer, a place where you could buy booze on Sundays.  When I came back after the first time in Europe, my block was leveled.  But Speedy Transfer had just moved across the street and left its porch light on so I could find it.


I didn't really like the go-go Yellow Pages job.  I did mock ads for the salesmen.  It was boring.  The good ones made more money with them but I didn't.  I traded the job with a magazine guy and he got a raise from Yellow Pages.  I bought a new car and then learned from the guy I traded with that the new boss at the magazine wasn't a great fan of paying wages.  It was the only time I was ever fired. 


I thought things might be greener in Europe, or more fun. It was 35 years ago that I sailed away from Montreal on the Alexandr Pushkin, with a one-way 3rd-class ticket.  The first time I did it, it was on the Italian Line's Cristoforo Colombo, also one-way 3rd-class.  Now, it's too expensive to come back the same way.


Yes, there is theory and much talk about the work ethic and what it means, and there is the fact of work.  Ric brings all the talk back to earth.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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