Application of the Critical Theory

Europeans live the good life that Americans find no time for
by Bruce Stanley
October 10, 1999

MILAN, Italy - Vittorio Giulini manages three clothing factories, oversees 300 employees and leads a national trade group of fashion manufacturers.

An American executive with similar duties might expect to work 60 hours a week, plus a frequent weekend.

Not so for Giulini, of Liola Spain Milan. He arrives at his office at a civilized 9:30 a.m. and knocks off no later than 6:30 p.m. He limits his work week to five days.

"Saturday and Sunday?" he asks in disbelief. "Never."

Few Americans flinch at working overtime if it means a bigger paycheck. Those striving to build more prosperous lives willingly endure long hours and short vacations.

But millions of Europeans share Giulini's unwillingness to forfeit free time, even if it means missing out on an economic boom like the one that has enriched so many Americans this decade.

In Europe, dinner each day with the family and a month on the Mediterranean each summer are part of a lifestyle too precious to sacrifice for the mixed rewards of U.S.-style capitalism.

"I don't think industry suffers from that. In the end, you've got people who are content and happy in life and do their jobs properly when they're at work," says Roxanne Suratgar, a market analyst for the Italian oil engineering company Snamprogetti.

According to the World Bank, the United States had an average per capita gross national product of $29,080 in 1997, the most recent year for which data is available.

The richest of Europe's biggest economies was France, with an average per capita GNP of $22,210, followed in descending order by Germany, Britain and Italy. These data were adjusted for differences in exchange rates to compare actual purchasing power.

A recent study suggests, however, that a major reason for the higher U.S. income level is simply that Americans work longer hours than Europeans.

Americans averaged 1,966 hours of work in 1997, according to the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency based in Geneva. That's 235 hours more than the British, the hardest-working Europeans, and 310 hours, or nearly 39 working days, more than the French.

Further, Europe is closing its productivity gap with the United States even as most Europeans put in fewer hours on the job.

In France, businesses are beginning to cut their work weeks to 35 hours in response to a new law introduced by the Socialist led government. Americans, by contrast, worked almost three days more in 1997 than in 1990, the ILO said.

These findings suggest that while Americans might own more cars and bigger homes, they have less time to enjoy them. So, who's really richer?

Giulini doesn't hesitate to answer: Europeans.

"The quality of life is higher," he says, "but it's not because we are better than Americans. It's because we have 1,000 years of culture behind us. You can't put a price on that."

Skeptics might dismiss rustic villas and Roman ruins as lifeless scenery best suited for postcards, but Italy's teeming cafes and entrepreneurs give the place a very contemporary buzz.

Work habits in Britain are somewhat closer to those of the United States, especially in internationally competitive industries like banking. Bankers and lawyers in central London's financial district work as late into the night as their counterparts on Wall Street.

By contrast, professionals in Milan, Italy's commercial hub, usually are heading home by 6 or 6:30 p.m., says Suratgar, the market analyst, a Briton who has lived in Italy for the past decade.

In much of Europe, citizens accept relatively high taxes in exchange for governments that provide vibrant cities, first-rate public transportation, free universities, and bountiful social services.

Besides state benefits, European employees generally enjoy more job security than workers in the United States. Further, according to an American executive in Berlin, non-managerial staff in parts of Europe tend to be better educated and more efficient than in the United States.

Try not to forget that the upper 5% of Americans gained the most from the so-called "economic boom" during the nineties.