Who’s paying for that?

Yesterday there was a social event at our building. Everyone in the building was invited to a barbecue on the rooftop, and it was really nice. It was also my first time meeting most of my neighbors. We chatted a bit, and in general people realize pretty quickly that I’m French. (People usually compliment me on my “good” English, but the accent is still there it seems).

We started talking vacation. One of my neighbors is a 67 year old teacher. He still works, although not as much as he used to, but still. We compared the amount of vacation people get in France, compared to what we usually get in the US. With my current employer, I have 13 vacation days, 5 personal days, and 6 national holidays. That’s a total of 24 days. Back when I was working in France, a looong time ago, I had 25 vacation days, 11 national holidays, and thanks to the 35h work week, an additional 20 days. Yup, a total of 56 days vacation, more than double what I have in the US.

I think I need to explain the 35h work week (note: it’s 37.5 now I believe), because it is largely misunderstood outside of France. The way it worked, at least when I was there, is not that people actually work 35h a week. However, if/when they work more (which is commonly the case for engineers and managers), they get to convert the overtime into vacation days, instead of additional pay. So, someone working 40h a week accumulates 5h of extra vacation, that is, almost a day. In other words, every other Friday was basically vacation for me.

To be honest, it was very frequent as an engineer to work more than 40h a week. Most companies just have an agreement with the unions to just get an amount of extra vacation days per year, assuming a 40h work week  🙂

Back to the discussion with my neighbors, I ended up saying my parents were annoyed that I could “only” take 2 weeks a year to visit them. I even feel that taking 2 weeks in a row is frowned upon here, while in France it is not uncommon for some people to take 3 weeks off in summer.

After hearing about the insane amount of vacation we get in France, my friendly neighbor jokingly said “well no wonder these countries are all in trouble. Who’s paying for that? We are!”.

He was clearly joking, but I think this was still reflecting a sentiment that is widely spread in the US: we are a successful country because we worked hard for it, and other countries are being lazy, constantly slacking off.

Don’t get me wrong: People in the US work really hard in my eyes. My colleagues don’t seem to make a difference between their private life and their personal life. They will take work phone calls while on a vacation. This feels crazy to me, but I’ve lived in Japan for 10 years now, so I’m doing this too. If anyone works harder than the US, it’s Japan. My parents are shocked that I don’t seem to mind working 60h weeks these days (I do mind, otherwise this blog wouldn’t exist).

I digress again. My point was, I don’t think the success of a country is solely relying on how hard its people are “working”.

Other blogs have done a great job at explaining, over and over again, that a “job”, in many cases, doesn’t have a strong meaning for the future of mankind. It is in fact very likely that the result of your 45 years of “work” will be totally meaningless on the scale of mankind’s history. You’re a cog in a machine, you could easily be replaced, and the fact that you work  32 more days in a year than the stereotypical French employee is probably insignificant at the scale of your company.

For your personal happiness, however, it does a lot of difference. I’d be much, much happier right now, and probably less motivated to quit my job, if I had 56 days of paid vacation a year instead of the 24 days I have right now.

Another point that annoyed me was the impression that person had that somehow, the USA are “paying” for other countries to be lazy. Let’s be careful and not reverse stuff here. As a matter of fact, the rest of the world is paying for the US’s insane over-consumption*. I’m sure this is a well known fact, but the US is the world’s largest debtor. Just like for the stock market, this is a sign that other countries trust America to be able to generate long term value, and I assume it can be seen as a good sign. But it is also a sign that this whole country has been living way above its means.

Would you say of a person who spends the equivalent of twice their paycheck every month, and have to take a second job, that they “work hard and pay for other people’s laziness”? Or would you say that this person needs to rethink their lifestyle? If anything, the US debt situation looks a lot like Greece’s situation, except no country in the world would have the financial power to bail the US out!


* That’s not the whole story of course. the US started becoming a debtor during the cold war as military expenses went through the roof. One could argue that all Western nations have a duty to share the financial burden here.

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