Work week divides us from them

September 24, 2000|By LOUISE BRANSON

VIENNA, Va - Great job. Good salary Health club membershhi. In an area that is a near-mecca for restaurants. The girl - that's ne - had arrived. America really a as, I thought, the land of riches and opportunity.

Or was it?

"So you can start next month?" asked the editor.

But as we walked through the offices of the publishing company, something suddenly struck me. It was past seven at night and everyone. it seemed. wcs still at their desks.

"Oh," said the editor, "didn't I mention we work a 50-hour week?"

A joke? Hardly.

It was my initiation into one of the starkest divides between my native Britain and America: the attitude to work. A. divide expressed from the opposite perspective by a friend in London whose firm has been acquired by an American company which is about to send in some American supervisors.

"Bloody Yanks," he muttered. "Think they can come in here and dictate their ways to us. Take all the fun out of life. He envisioned his pub lunches - not to mention early dinner every night with his twin girls - evaporating into a Dilbert nightmare in which he is chained to a desk in a cubicle 24/7.

"That's America, right? he asked. "Don't know how you can live there." Extreme, perhaps. But his views capture what many Europeans think: That Americans work too hard and too seriously and never stop to smell the roses. Unlike Parisians, say, who spend hours over coffee in bistros talking of nothing in particular, or Londoners chugging down warm beer in their beloved pubs or Spaniards taking a two-hour siesta in the afternoon.

The International Labor Organization concluded last year that Americans put in the longest working hours among industrialized nations - an average of 1,966 in 1997 (the last year studied), up 23 hours from 1990. Even the hardworking Japanese -- the Japanese, for heavens' sake! - came in with 63 hours less. And most Europeans are left in the dust, with little more than three-quarters of that.

So are Americans, I wondered, strange and different? What is it that makes the worlds richest and most advanced country put in such slave-labor hours?

I polled friends in the Washington area. It was like asking about sex 50 years ago. Not to be discussed. If you must, pretend everything is just fine. Brag, even.

Like two consultants, married with no children. They work such long hours, they said, that they have not gotten around to completely unpacking in the town house they moved to more than a year ago. "Our only real time together is Sunday morning," she added with a touch of pride. "We haven't had a vacation in years, but I just love being on top of my work."

Or the professor who admitted he takes time off to be with his girl friend in another city every weekend. He defended his behavior fiercely and at length, explaining he works to might or beyond throughout the work.

Some closer friends felt safe enough to express dissatisfaction --particularly women with children. Like an accountant friend who daily gets in at five, putting in a 12-hour day. She feels guilty, she said, if she leaves early to attend a son's baseball game or parent-teacher meeting.

Another friend, a paralegal, defensively described how she had arranged to have an extra two weeks' vacation this summer to be home with her children. She reminded me of a Weight Watchers dieter confessing to scarfing down a tub of chocolate ice cream.

These people would be judged insane by the average person in Britain, where four or five weeks' vacation a year is the norm (none of this two weeks and working up), along with generous time off, complying with European Union law, for such things as sick leave and emergencies. A 50-hour week - or anything much over a 40-hour one--is considered extreme and dangerous.

There is a Catch-22. All work and no play may be a cardinal sin, but envy abounds at America's roaring economy and the ubiquitous Americana from McDonald's restaurants to Hollywood movies.

And in a glolializing world, the signs are that America's work attitudes and habits may become the First Worlld norm. The so-called "nanny state" in most of Europe-- which gave generous free health care and unemployment benefits - is being drasticaIly scaled back. More American-style work pressures and anxieties are creeping in.

But there are signs, too, of change in America. The American dot.com millionaires, financial security assured, seem to be turning away from so much work and toward more fulfillment. Some admit freely to sleeping eight hours at night and are taking time off to do such things as sail or eat fine food.

What is needed, perhaps, are new international work standands combining enough work with enough play. Not that it would catch on easily everywhere. This summer in Paris, my family and I wanted to take a sight-seeing boat along the Seine. We arrived 20 minutes before it left. The ticket seller, closing up her register, refused to sell us tickets.

"But why?" I asked, incredulously. "I have the right," she said huffily, as she flounced off, "to a private life." The near-empty boat left without us. " This would never," I called after her angrily, 'happen in America."

Louise Branson is a British-born writer and journalist living in the Washington area.

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