Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Arbeit Macht Sie Frei.



My first impression of America, upon landing in LA, was just how tired everyone looked. From first day of our visit to our last, this overall perception of worn out people was everywhere in the US. It was obvious that everyone was working quite hard, but it was also obvious that they had been working quite hard for a very, very long time.

The other thing that surprised me is just how many people were working two jobs. Now it’s quite common in Australia to see young people working two jobs to get ahead, but what surprised me is just how many older people (40’s and above) were working two jobs. It appeared that a lot of the older people were working to stay afloat, and not to fall between society’s cracks; there seemed to be  this invisible whip continually lashing them. Americans, in my opinion, were very hard workers.

What also surprised me is just how many older people were working in the “hamburger flipping” type of industries ( A phenomenon that is beginning to appear in Australia as well).   In Australia, and in my experience of Europe, these jobs are considered workforce “entry level jobs” and are still the province of younger people, whilst in the U.S., the majority of the service staff that I met were above the age of thirty. They were all working what I would consider anti-social hours and all of them looked worn out ..... and trapped.

The overall impression it gave me, was of a worn out society that was barely holding itself together. I must confess it shocked and saddened me. Everyone seemed overworked. Everyone also seemed grimly resolute to the task. It appeared to me, that to most Americans, this was the only way things could be.

One of the most interesting conversations I had was in the bowels of the Hoover dam. Whilst being taken through an access tunnel, our tour guide asked us we were all from. Two groups were from Australia and another from France. We got into a discussion about vacations and explained to him, that on average, Australians get four weeks paid leave a year. I think the French said that they got five. He clearly looked pained at our responses. He told us that he only got one week and that his employers were trying to take it away from him. He was clearly an intelligent man and wanted to travel but was unable to do so due to his work commitments. It dawned upon me at that time that perhaps one of the causes of American insularity is the simple fact that many Americans simply do not have time time to leave their country, trapped by the obligations to their employers.

Now in Australia, I see a lot of small businessmen who work just as hard and I have seen that look of work-weariness before. I know the toll that it places on human beings. My experience has taught me is that everyone seems to have a work threshold, that once crossed, becomes socially and personally destructive. A man is not only a means of production, but he is also meant to be a husband, father and a member of the community.  A healthy man balances all these duties, and healthy society gives him room to balance them. Men devoting all their times to work have no time to devote to the other obligations in their life.  Men working long hours become harsh and irritable, they make mistakes, they opt for quick snacks instead of proper meals, working hard for their families, they don’t ever spend time with their them, eventually finding themselves alienated from the ones they have devoted themselves to.

It appeared to me that whilst America had fully internalised the Protestant work ethic it had neglected any concept of the right to leisure. Labour laws,  in the end, are a reflection of society’s values. In America, it appeared that leisure was perceived as either an opportunity cost amongst the go getters, or an frivolous luxury amongst the miserly. And amongst those who would like to take some time off for a rest, it appeared that American culture offered them no legitimacy. It was a society that seem geared toward the primacy of work and production and you were either with the program or you were not.

23 comments:

Cranberry said...

Glad to have you back, SP. I hope your extended holiday was overall a good one.

It's refreshing to see observations about America and her people from an outsider. I think you've nailed our perceptions of work and the harried feeling we have here. At the moment I am not working outside of the home, but prior to marriage and family I held jobs in industry, the non-profit sector, and in education. In private industry, I started as an assistant and worked up to project manager for product development in four years. Four years of very few sick days, one-week vacations, perhaps the odd long weekend here and there to ski or go to the beach. We were not given automatic vacation or sick time; we had "paid time off" or PTO, which we earned on a percentage basis of our hours worked in a given week. Once enough PTO accumulated, you could begin using it. It seemed fair enough, and I was young and ambitious so didn't really care at first, thinking I would save my time for a good jog about Europe one day. However, we were not permitted to carry our earned PTO over; we were paid for it, but not permitted to save one year's time to use in the next year or combine it for a longer vacation. I was also on-call 24 hours a day, not by choice. I went in early and stayed late, because my clients were in far flung places in Asia and Europe and often needed to conference at odd hours. They gave me a phone and a computer which made me accessible until 9 or 10 pm every evening, even at home. I burned out quickly, and inside of four years of my early, precious twenties I was sick of the rat race. I left that job to take a huge cut in pay to work for a social research firm - same thing though. Expected to be available at all hours of the day, PTO, no long vacations, and a horrible female boss to boot. I lasted two years. Teaching was even worse for other reasons; education in America is a whole topic that needs years of writing to cover its flaws and fallacies.

During those crazy times, I also worked two jobs, to get ahead of my student loans (I wish I'd know then...) and keep up a certain lifestyle. I fault myself for that, for I was truly drawn into the material aspects of a certain appearance and lifestyle required to "get ahead" in my job. I was determined to live independently and show that I'd "made it." It was all illusion and error, and I suspect that attitude is part of what is driving the exhaustion of the people you saw during your travels.

My husband is a blue-collar worker, a welder, who got out of the corporate rat race as well. He was a manager for a large telecom who took a layoff when the opportunity presented itself (it was that or move to another state). He went from making lots of money to nothing as he entered school to become a welder and worked hard to perfect his skill. He is seldom unemployed and works his 40 hours, sometimes with overtime, and is able to come home feeling tired but relaxed. His corporate job left him harried and spent after 60+ hours and being on-call during his personal time. So I will add another comment about what drives the harried feeling: we don't work productive jobs, we push paper and answer calls and send emails and attend conference calls, but seldom see, in real time, the result of our work. And always there is the looming need to write performance summaries or performance objectives, and to have your performance reviewed, and the stress of not knowing just how productive you are relative to your peers. Our work and performance is not based on anything we can quantitatively measure, only on the qualitative judgments of others, and that can be a frightening thing to consider.

Ulysses said...

As a nation, we are despondent. Prior to the bursting of the economic bubble, we had more spring in our step. Now we're more collectively pessimistic. Working toward a future is much different from just working.

I get four weeks of vacation, which is more than some other white collar people get, but they don't get that little. There is a split between white and blue collar.

Cranberry said...

Blogger ate my original comment.

Good to have you back, SP. I hope your holiday was restful and that you did not come away from America with too poor an opinion of us :-)

It's refreshing to get an outsider's view of America and her people from time to time.

I misspent my early, precious twenties chasing a career and climbing the ladder, purchasing the material goods I thought I needed to maintain the appearance and status to keep moving forward - a dangerous trap I fully acknowledge I walked into blindly. After four years I was ground into fatigue and apathy for my job. I moved to a new industry and lasted only two years; I moved into teaching and lasted three before marriage and family became my priorities (thank God for my husband and that we agree that wife and mother is a "career" and that we've both rejected the materialism that defined our single lives, in favor of a modest but happy existence for ourselves and our kids!).

Same for husband: he left a management position at a large telecom to become a blue-collar welder. He no longer spends 60+ hours at a desk and even more hours on call. His 40 hours, with occasional overtime, are done each week and he comes home tired but relaxed, and happy to see us. Much better than the griping, snippy, overworked people we were in our corporate lives.

Americans have something they call PTO, for "paid time off." I think this is where most companies are moving in terms of vacation time. It's accrued based on how many hours you've worked, and you can't use it until you've banked enough in many cases. Both of the corporations for whom I worked had a limited carry over policy, so you could only take a few hours of PTO with you. You would be paid for time accumulated but not used, but you couldn't save PTO so as to take an extended vacation the following year.

Many become used to a certain lifestyle; many do not know how to downsize; many do not want to trade large living spaces and nice towns for older homes that need some TLC where all of your neighbors might be working class rather than college educated. We work ourselves into fatigue and apathy so we can prove that we are successful, energetic, and involved. Greater irony I've seldom seen so plainly.

Cranberry said...

I would also add that, by and large, work doesn't produce anything immediately tangible or quantifiable (at least most of my work did not). I suspect it is the same for many office drones out there. You spend a lot of time on the phone, sending e-mail, in meetings and conference calls, always talking about next steps and tasks, but it feels like no real momentum towards a goal is ever made - perhaps people in sales or management positions, or scientists or software engineers, get quantitative feedback on a regular basis, but most of us are not doing those jobs.

I think husband is happy because he can point to a piece of concrete material everyday and say "I made that happen." Evidence of his work right before his eyes, and no one can take it away from him. Living with the anxiety of writing performance objectives, having performance reviews, and knowing your job might hinge on someone's qualitative observations of your job, absent quantitative evidence, can be stressful.

This is not to say that most jobs don't have markers to indicate progress, but oftentimes they are abstract or so far into the future that their value is not immediately appreciated.

Simon Grey said...

"It appeared to me that whilst America had fully internalised the Protestant work ethic it had neglected any concept of the right to leisure."

Malachi 3:5 comes to mind right about now: "And I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness...against those who exploit wage earners..."

Walenty Lisek said...

"It dawned upon me at that time that perhaps one of the causes of American insularity is the simple fact that many Americans simply do not have time time to leave their country, trapped by the obligations to their employers."

There's a far more basic reason than that: most of us just don't have the money.

"he is also meant to be a husband, father and a member of the community"

But we don't have communities any longer! Well I'm only half joking, but seriously, community life has broken down pretty badly in a lot of America.

GK Chesterton said...

We do have one of the strongest work ethics in the world. However, as I posted before I think "insularity" is the easiest critique to make and the one that most likely misses the mark.

We are big. We are diverse. We have two giant oceans and only two countries that border us. We have also been independent for a very long time and for a sizable portion of that time we have been a Great Power (and now _the_ Great Power). So we aren't so much insular as much as we don't need to go to another country to see something new and different. A New Yorker is very, very, very different from an Alabaman.

As to haggard looking older people working dead end jobs two notes:
1.) You were in LA where an often ill educated illegal population distorts the economy (and due to _enforced_ language barriers is forced into perpetual submission http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Is_it_illegal_to_speak_Spanish_in_an_English_workplace_in_California)
2.) And we're coming off the worst economic decline since the Great Depression.

I get 4 weeks PTO a year, plenty of personal time (I'd argue that I actually work 35 hours a week) but I've been blessed with a very valuable talent that allowed me to ride through the recession easily. Most denizens of LA haven't.

I will add that of all the states California (and I am a Californian) is in the worst shape right now. We've been the sociological innovators and that has cost us dearly. We are drowning in debt and have a real unemployment rate that is probably nearing 25%.

While I love that you spent money here, I wouldn't recommend a vacation in our borders outside of Yosemite and Disneyland. Go somewhere else. Idaho, Wyoming, Maine, and Virginia all spring to mind.

Brandon said...

"It dawned upon me at that time that perhaps one of the causes of American insularity is the simple fact that many Americans simply do not have time time to leave their country, trapped by the obligations to their employers."

This is also the reason for American anti-intellectualism and crass lack of true culture. The pragmatic utilitarianism of the business world mixed with the exhausting lack of leisure leads most people to seek some of the most degraded forms of escapism in their miniscule off time. My blue collar father is a prime example, he is worked to death, comes home, eats, collapses in front of the TV,falls asleep and repeats the same process 6 days a week. I asked him why he has no intellectual interests or never even reads a book and he replied somewhat contemptuously "some of us work long hours at a career and when we come home we just want some entertainment".
"Entertainment" is telling here. It means just mindless escapism from the hell of the week. Some turn to drugs and alcohol for their "entertainment".

I tell you, SP, the domination of commercial interests and Puritan work ethic has destroyed all vestiges of true family and community in America. We are a Cesspool.

Will S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will S. said...

Canada is alas far too much like America in its overdoing the Protestant Work Ethic thing, and not as enlightened as Australia, Germany, and other places, with regards to longer vacation times, etc. (Or Spain, and other countries, with their siestas; we too have hot humid days here, in our summers; why not borrow something from their example?)

Black Death said...

Hours worked per week (from 2008 OECD data, 2http://www.billshrink.com/blog/4724/working-around-the-world/):

USA 35
Canada 33
Iceland 35
UK 32
Mexico 36
Germany 27
France 30
Australia 33
South Korea 44
Japan 34
Hungary 38
Czech Rep. 38
Poland 38

So the USA numbers don't seem very remarkable to me.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Black Death

I don't know about the other countries, but the 33 hours given for Australia doesn't ring true to me witht he things I see "on the ground".

Link 1

The problem is that the average also includes part time workers.

This link shows that the average hours worked by a full time male employee is 45.6. Oh, by the way, the data is from the OECD.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Cranberry

I honestly don't have a poor opinion of Americans in general. I felt that most people were generally good natured, hard working and just wanted to get ahead and be happy. I honestly felt that your leadership, both cultural and political, is failing you and that your lives are far harder than they should be.

Like you Cranberry, I jumped off the career bandwagon. I had several "patrons" in medicine who wanted me to pursue a medical specialists career. I jumped ship because of the corrosive effect it was having on both me and my family. I was turning into a grumpy, overweight miserable bastard because of my work and fortunately had the good sense to leave my expected career before it destroyed me. I remember several years later running into one of my plastic surgeon colleagues who pulled me aside. "You know Slumlord" he said, "You did the right thing. My career has cost me my wife, I spent too much time away from her with my career and we grew apart, she left me a year ago."

I understand your husband completely and feel that he has done the right thing. Physical labour produces a different kind of tiredness to mental labour.

I would also add that, by and large, work doesn't produce anything immediately tangible or quantifiable (at least most of my work did not). I suspect it is the same for many office drones out there.

That's so true. For our work to be meaningful we need a sense of physical accomplishment, something no end of paper shuffling can do.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Walenty.

Community's are being destroyed everywere. For there to be a community there needs to a sense of shared experience and "commonality". Unfortunately the twin social trends of social atomism and cultural plurality both undermine the sense of community at its core. Modern economics fuels these destructive trends.

GKC

One of the other impressions I had of the U.S. was that provided you had achieved a certain amount of financial independance then life was pretty good to you. American culture tended to "bless" the sucessful in a way that European and Australian culture didn't. There seems legitimised culture of disrespect toward the wealthy in Europe and Australia that just didn't seem present in the U.S.

As for U.S. "differences" please see my reply in my previous post.

Oh, and it was just the migrants that looked tired in the U.S. It was the White people as well.

GKC I'm quite aware of the U.S financial situation and of some of the mainstream Californian issues. This is why I haven't tried to base my view on my Californian experiences. I travelled to California,New York, South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada. What I'm trying to do is distill my overall impressions.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Will S

I don't think it is just Canada. It is happening in Australia and the culture is creeping into Europe as well.

The first thing I want to say is that there is such a thing as a Good American culture, but its constantly a war with and internal Bad American culture. Americans are people of the the "ideal" whereas Europeans tend to be very "pragmatic". America has given her sons and spent her treasure for idealistic reasons in a way that no other country has, perhaps maybe revolutionary France and the Soviet Union. I am still convinced that America has the internal desire to "do good" even though its sometimes clumsy and naive in efforts.

Most countries seem highly resistant to "good Americanisation" but highly succeptible to bad Americanization once certain events occur. When a country looses its religious/aesthetic sense and becomes materialistic the issue then for the country becomes one of goods provision. The American system of production triumphs over all others since it is the system most capable of providing the country's materialist needs.

Now the siesta, for instance, is profoundly un-American since it is a subordination of economic imperative to human comfort. A siesta is opposed to business efficiency but enhances the quality of human life. A culture which prioritises human life will simply say no to the business which violates the siesta. A culture which values the dollar will have no difficulty violating the siesta.

The Social Pathologist said...

@ Brandon

I think there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in all the Anglosphere countries, still, I'm less critical of the U.S in this regard than perhaps yourself. Most of the heavy lifting with regard to Conservatism is coming out of the U.S. I'm not really a fan of the strains of conservatism that are emerging from it, but I've got to applaud the effort. If you really want to find a brain dead conservatism or anti-intellectualism you've got to come to Australia or Britain.

Still, you're correct. Exhausted people look for "quick intense fix" leisure activities. Active leisure is something they're too tired to do.

Dale said...

I am American, and have done some traveling (Canada, China, UK). Not suprising I didn't see much difference in Canada )as a kid we would go there shopping in the evening). China is much like the US, the UK is totaly alien, the only place like it I've seen in the US is Colonila Williamsburg (deliberately tries to act as if it is still 1770), although the UK operates in many eras between thos of Hadrian and Edward VII.

Brendan said...

I get four weeks of paid vacation and generally take a bit more than that unpaid if I want to. This is very much a blue collar vs white collar divide (and within white collars, a "ruthlessly ambitious" vs. "less so" divide). It's very true that blue collar and lower white collar people in the US have a pretty crappy life, in my opinion.

I don't mind the work ethic. I don't worship work myself, but due to my ability I have been able to "get away with" working somewhat less than others while still keeping pace. I am not in the "ruthlessly ambitious" category, however, by personal choice. If I were, I would work more hours and take less vacation time, because it would be less important to me.

America is a very diverse place -- moreso than Australia is based on my three visits to Australia. How life works in the US very much depends on your situation and your location -- regional and class differences are huge here, and hav a substantial "on the ground" lifestyle impact. That can be very hard to pick up based on a relatively short stay here.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Brendan

The U.S. left me with the impression that if you were in the top 15% of society then you were quite comfortable.

You're quite right, regional variations in Australia are trivial. Even with my limited tour of the U.S. it was quite obvious that the "attitude" in South Carolina was different to the attitude in Arizona. Many of the people we met in Arizona seemed to be "refugees" from the other states which had higher taxes and less social mobility/work. However in South Carolina it appeared that whilst people were very polite, there was an "establishment" culture which was difficult to enter into, unlike in California (L.A.) where the people were the people seemed rude and self important.

I think the point in trying to understand the United states is that it resembles more a stew than a soup. A soup has one overriding flavour, whilst a stew has an common flavour with lots of separate flavoursome parts.

Mike T said...

The U.S. left me with the impression that if you were in the top 15% of society then you were quite comfortable.

Generally that's true. However, the problem with the top 15% is that most of us spend our money frivolously instead of on making for permanent quality of life increases. For example, my wife and I are both software engineers and thus have great salaries and benefits. My family tends to think we're crazy because once we finish getting our cash reserves in place, we're planning on dumping most of my wife's salary into our mortgage. They can only see the lost cash that could be spent on other things instead of the fact that after a few years the mortgage would be paid off or so close to paid off that our long-term stress level would be obliterated. They've tended to jump from bigger house to bigger house instead of buying reasonable sized houses and paying them off.

knightblaster said...

I think the point in trying to understand the United states is that it resembles more a stew than a soup. A soup has one overriding flavour, whilst a stew has an common flavour with lots of separate flavoursome parts.

This is very apt, I think.

Anonymous said...

Having the world's largest GDP nominal and PPP has its price, along with the most educated and effective workforce.

U.S. is extremely individualistic and cutthroat, it'll be interesting in 20-30 years when China adopts these values.

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