Diary of an Expat, Part 74
Working stuff again
So it is currently ten degrees below zero outside.

If you're thinking: "Oh, hey. That sounds like some grade-A bullshit" that's because it is. It has been snowing off and on, and now this has frozen into something horrible. The cobblestone streets of Berlin lend themselves well to this; everything becomes an icy mess and you spend a lot of time on your ass, staring up at the sky and wondering how you got there.

For kids, this doesn't matter, because then you just plop your kids on a sled and drag them to school that way. For the rest of us, it becomes a little more frustrating. I had kind of been hoping not to wear long underwear and mittens after the vernal equinox.

Most of my coworkers have no idea what I'm talking about, because most of them are on vacation. This year, we have been asked to take all our outstanding vacation by the end of March; as it happens I haven't really had the chance to do this, but a lot of people are quite religious about this. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, they should be.

I've talked in the past about the curious relationship Americans have with work. It is not, strictly speaking, that Americans are a ridiculously industrious people; mostly, it's that they work longer hours, and generally with less return on that investment.

The real problem is that a lot of Americans conflate hard work with virtue, and then do not realize that there are diminishing returns associated with it. Working forty hours a week does not actually make you a better person than working zero (where by "work" I naturally mean "something that someone signs a check for"); certainly, working sixty hours does not make you better than someone who works forty.

The Germans and French are a pretty good case in point. In general they work around forty hours — legally, in France, that's supposed to be 35, but this has been watered down somewhat in recent years. They come into the office, they do their work, and they go home. The result, incidentally, is a profound weakening of their economies: of the 500 biggest companies in the world, only 69 are French; 37 are German. France finishes a shameful 6th place globally in GDP by hours worked, Germany at an even worse 8th (the US, for the record, comes in at 4th).

Part of the issue is self-sabotage on the part of Americans. American labor is still largely an artifact of the manufacturing world; there are fewer science and computer engineering unions, although it is arguably in these fields where destructive working practices are more common. Americans, having forgotten the achievements of labor unions in the first half of the 20th century, have now convinced themselves that unions are a drag on their performance.

For giving up the protection of collective bargaining, they have accepted in trade the carrot that by Working Real Hard they can totally get ahead and be successful, which is pretty much a crock. Or, if you take it at its face value and accept that success is identified solely with bank balance, it's merely depressing.

Germans tend to have actual hobbies, and strong family relationships, which are empowered by the fact that the labor protections incumbent in German law and tradition establish a healthy relationship between employee and employer — as opposed to the American one, which is substantially more... well. Servile, for lack of a better word (the better word is "feudal").

One interesting consequence of this is that I have never, ever heard a German come up with a bullshit rationalization about how they're more than their job, or that a job is just something you do, not something you are. That's understood. Germans don't enjoy their work any less than Americans do, and they're not shackled to it — but it's also a given that it lacks ownership over them.

It's the Americans I know who are compelled to mutter such platitudes, but the reality is that when your economic system is so unhealthy that uncompensated overtime and absurd working hours are regularly called for and expected it's incorrect. When you're working 60 hours a week — that is, a clear majority of your waking hours — no, in fact, you have pretty much let your job come to define you.

Yes, yes, I know. It's expected, and if you don't do it you'll be fired, etc. etc. etc. You know what the great thing is? You live in a democracy. The first step is realizing that "at-will employment" and gutting unions are not measures taken by people who are your friends. And if they are going to be your adversary, than it's time to be adversarial.
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