We all know, or have been told by Emily in Paris, that the French work to live, rather than live to work. So it isn’t surprising that a proposal by President Emmanuel Macron’s government to gradually raise the retirement age to 62 from 60 has brought people out into the streets and has shut down most rail travel (not just trains between cities but also the Paris Métro).Read more
Working for a Living
It’s said that the French work to live, while Americans live to work. I would like to work forever, though with reasonable hours, French-style. It wouldn’t just be for the money, though that’s a necessary factor, but also for the intellectual stimulation and social contact with people.
A bunch of things collided to make me think lately about the nature of work. I was talking to someone who mentioned lousy jobs–the ones with repetitive tasks, possibly dangerous or at least likely to involve occasional injuries, with inflexible or odd or constantly changing hours, few or no benefits, no hope for advancement. One employee is nearly indistinguishable from the next and so they can be fired and a new one hired without angst.
Many of these jobs are being automated. Maybe they should be–there’s nothing inherently satisfying about them other than the paychecks they bring, and why have people doing dangerous tasks instead of machines? But what about the people who do them now? Especially those who are doing fairly dangerous jobs and earning good salaries as a result? They are not going to shift to a lab to look for a cure for cancer. And it isn’t because they aren’t able to make this switch to the vaunted knowledge economy that they should be written off.
One of my early jobs, when I was in high school, was automated and I was laid off. I worked at a bank, doing data entry. Back then, when you made a charge with your credit card, the clerk would set it into a little cradle and, RRRPPPP RRRPPP, imprint the card number into the three carbon copies of the receipt (the legacy of which is the raised numbers on your cards still today). My colleagues and I had four-inch-thick stacks of the bank copy of these receipts. We would type in the card number and amount as fast as our left hands could flip to the next receipt. There were little red lights on the keyboard to alert us to errors (each pile was entered by two different people and they had to match perfectly). Our keystrokes were timed to monitor our efficiency. Occasionally, the headsets we wore would beep and we would stop to authorize a charge. Back in the day, if a charge was rather large, the retailer would call a human at the bank for authorization. We had a little box of microfiches that were updated regularly, and would slip it into a projector to look up the card number to see whether the person was paying their credit card on time or whether they were over the limit (refused) or the card was stolen. I had one stolen card, and it was very exciting. I had to tell the clerk to keep the customer in the store while calling the police and to cut the card in half.I was the youngest person working there, and it was a great job for a 17-year-old. I worked four hours a night after school Monday to Thursday and eight hours on Sundays, where I got time and a half. I made $4.75 an hour (when the minimum wage was $2.30) and more on Sunday. I had Friday night and Saturday night off. Incredible.
But I couldn’t figure out the life plan of the adults I worked with. On the one hand, it was a good job, but I didn’t see anybody promoted in the years I worked there. There was nothing about data entry that led to bigger and better skills. And I don’t think my co-workers were concerned about moving up. They had a nice, clean office job that they did well and they didn’t need to think about when they left for the day. They worked to live.Funny, but in high school my counselor thought I should stick with the bank job–steady, at ridiculously high pay. She said I could get hired on graduation as a secretary because I could type. I said I wanted to HAVE a secretary, not be one. (That got me in trouble with my mother.) I had good grades, great test scores, but we were in a tough neighborhood. People like me were supposed to become worker bees not bosses.
I went to college anyway, with a full scholarship, though it didn’t cover books and such. So I worked full-time and went to school more than full-time because I finished in three years. Of course now I regret it–I don’t have any friends from college–I ran out of my classes to catch the bus to work. I missed out on the college experience. Lesson: living to work can be empty.I see Felicity Huffman going to jail for all of two weeks for buying her kid into college and I wonder whose place her kid took. Do you remember/know of the invasion of Grenada? A supposedly communist coup led to the U.S. invasion, citing the need to protect the Americans going to medical school there. Turns out, Grenada had a booming diploma factory for Americans who didn’t qualify for med school in the U.S., but the family couldn’t bear the thought of Junior not being a doctor and shipped him off to Grenada.
I don’t know anybody who would rather see a doctor whose family bought his degree rather than the poor but brilliant kid who worked his way through. While it’s clear that kids brought up in stable households with decent incomes have better outcomes in school, at least in France the schools are pretty consistent and university is open and without tuition to anybody who has the test scores (there are costs, like housing, but they’re a couple thousand a year).
In some ways, today’s economy is like the one of many decades ago. My grandma got milk delivered by the milkman in a little truck. Today, people get deliveries from Amazon or Deliveroo or one of the others. The big difference with the past is that milkman earned a middle-class living for his family and stay-at-home wife, as they almost all were then. Delivery drivers now have to work incredibly long hours, or supplement with other gigs, and they still only scrape by. The app business model depends on not paying living wages.
Check out the documentary “American Factory.” Fantastic. You see these people doing kind of routine jobs but proud to do them and do them right. They are working to live but while they’re on the clock, they are all-in. But when the factory, which had been closed, is bought by a Chinese company, the new management doesn’t see it that way; they see the American workers as slow and lazy and unwilling to put in hours the way their Chinese employees do.
There’s a new podcast based on the tapes Studs Terkel made of the interviews he did for “Working,” his seminal look at people and their work in the 1970s. The podcast went to the interviewees to see where they are now. Fascinating. There was the telephone operator talking about how boring and machine-like her work was–work now long done by computers, just like my bank job. There were the generations of car mechanics and the great pride they had in diagnosing problems. Some people aren’t made for desk jobs.Then there’s teaching. It used to be a good, middle-class job. In France, it still is, thanks to the panoply of benefits the government provides to people at the bottom of the income scale. Income redistribution. Socialism. I don’t receive these benefits and I pay plenty in taxes to finance them. But I love it. I think it’s the right thing to do.
I hear a lot about how incredibly innovative the U.S. is, but what I see are a lot of little software programs–apps–that don’t advance much. Most of them make doing something or another a little bit easier. Is that innovation? They feel like the specialized kitchen gadgets that, yes, peel garlic faster, get the pit out of your avocado, slice and dice more surely than someone without knife skills, but I suspect 99% of such gadgets sit in drawers, untouched.Sure, Google changed search (but I use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you), Amazon changed/demolished retail, Apple put computers in our pockets (Nokia was working on that, too, but too late). Even before AirBnB, I booked holiday homes, though the app is much easier. Is “easier” enough to qualify as innovation? Not sure. Uber made it easier to hail a ride, but by exploiting drivers, who brought their own cars–no capital expenditure on fleets necessary for Uber, no contributions for pensions or health care or all those other things that human workers have traditionally required. I’ve never used Uber and never will. Same with Facebook. I’m far from a Luddite, but I’m picky about what I put on my phone and which businesses get my custom. My kitchen drawers are almost devoid of gadgets. It’s a lifestyle.
This is a very grognon post, but I really care about people who work hard and don’t make ends meet, and it seems to be the case for more and more people. What about you? Do you live to work or work to live? What do you think about gig jobs? In light of your opinion, do you use apps? What should we do about jobs eliminated by automation?
Bonus: A little retro Huey Lewis and the News with Workin’ for a Livin’. Circa 1982.
Happy or Content?
Which do you aim for: contentment or happiness? No, they aren’t the same thing, even though happy is content in French. Happiness is bonheur, while contentment is contentement.
Contentment is the long-term satisfaction or deep fulfillment that comes from the cumulation of good times, good relationships. Happiness is the sugar high of buying something new, getting promoted, winning. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it doesn’t sustain.
So much of our lives are geared toward the attainment of happiness, probably because it’s more immediate and it feels darn good. But contentment is what counts.Children are probably the best example of this. It seems they are a source of unending demands and pressures—starting with 4 a.m. feedings and diaper changes, evolving and expanding to learning to drive, then university expenses and so on. Petit enfant, petit soucis. Grand enfant, grand soucis. (Small child, small worries. Big child, big worries.) Research shows parents are less happy than people who are childless.
But children enrich our lives immeasurably. When this tiny person comes into the world, we think we have never loved anyone so much. And yet that love keeps growing and growing.Of course being a parent isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I have nothing but respect for anybody who decides they don’t want to have kids. The conscious choice is so much better than those who have kids because they just happened or had them because of social pressure, and then they don’t take care of them.
We can get contentment in other ways—from other family ties, from work, from friends, from faith, from activities like gardening or sports. Contentment requires an effort over time, and that effort might be disagreeable but the results are worth it.Happiness, by contrast, is a quick fix. Amazon Prime. Want it, get it. Now.
Not to knock that, but no amount of shopping or partying or whatever will fill an empty soul.
Life in France is particularly suited to prioritize contentment over happiness. Shops close in the evenings and on Sundays and holidays—no 24/7 here. Retail therapy takes a back seat to family time.Businesses around here also tend to offer a two-hour lunch break. Meals, in fact, are sacred, a time for conversation and sharing. There is nothing I love more than having a dinner with friends, regardless what is on the table (though that is consistently amazing). At mealtimes, everything else stops.
The absence of air conditioning is another exercise in contentment over happiness. It can feel so good to walk out of the heat and into a cold room. But once you cool down, you need a sweater. Not in France. We slowly adapt to the heat, take the time to walk a little more slowly, choose the shade. And after a while, the high temps actually feel comfortable. Didn’t we wait all winter for these warm days? (It helps that we have cool nights and low humidity.) It’s easier to get out and enjoy the summer when your body is used to the heat.Maybe I’m already getting old and crotchety, but I am losing my taste for thrills. The curtains in our apartments were a huge pain (in every sense of huge) to make, but I doubt I would admire them as much now if I had just ordered them online. The antique furnishings that were found from so many sources and brought back to life. It would have been easier to just buy reproductions, or to do the all-modern-in-an-old-building look that’s so popular. But the hard way is so much more satisfying and unique.From my open window, I hear my friend Merle singing (merle is French for blackbird, so I call him that, though he is operatic and not very country at all), and the cigales thrumming. I smell the grass and the freshly cut wheat from a nearby field. Later I will read the latest installment of the novel my kid is writing and marvel at how these ideas came together and wonder where this vocabulary was picked up (in a good way—it isn’t naughty at all; instead, some of the turns of phrases are bowl me over with their artfulness). I will hang laundry to dry in the breeze and smell fresh in a way no fabric softener can replicate. I will make a pie crust for tonight’s quiche. I will do work that I love. These things give life sweetness and meaning. Nothing thrilling, but all deeply satisfying.
Let Them Eat Cake
The French really do win at lifestyle. One of the essentials of the good life in France is that they work to live, not live to work.
This is possible in no small part thanks to the minimum wage, or salaire mimimum interprofessionel de croissance, aka the SMIC (pronounced smeek. The French LOVE abbreviations.).
It is possible to live on the minimum wage here. Granted, it would be difficult in big cities where rents are high. But here in the rural south of France, it’s hard to find jobs that pay much more than the SMIC. And everybody I know is doing just fine anyway.
For 2017, the SMIC is €9.76 an hour or €1,480.27 a month (that comes to €17,763.24 a year, but I’m not sure whether it would be more because people generally are paid a 13th month of salary in order to be able to go on vacation). The workweek is 35 hours.
Looking at 2015 figures from the OECD that compare a bunch of countries using a constant exchange rate, France was at $10.90 an hour vs. $7.20 for the U.S.
The OECD also looks at how countries’ minimum wages compare to average wages of full-time workers. So 1 would mean that everybody earns minimum wage while the closer you get to zero the worse off minimum-wage earners are compared to everybody else. For France, folks earning the SMIC are at 0.62 of the median wage (which the OECD says is more accurate than the mean wage), while in the U.S., minimum wage earners are at 0.36 of the median wage.
In other words, there are rich and poor in France, but the poor are less miserable and the rich not as extravagantly wealthy as in the U.S. (If this post seems simplistic, it’s because it is a blog post, not a book. For the book, check out “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by French economist Thomas Piketty.)
The way to measure this is called the Gini index, with zero being absolute equality (no rich, no poor, everybody gets the same thing) to one being absolute inequality (a few rich have everything and everybody else is destitute). Obviously neither extreme is good—the first gives no incentives while the second is pretty much slavery. You want some incentives but not extreme greed, so the lower the number the better. In Chile and Mexico, the indexes for 2014 (latest year) are 0.465 and 0.459, respectively. Both countries have rich elites and large poor populations.
The Gini index for France is 0.294. For the U.S., it’s 0.394. Switzerland is at 0.295, almost the same as France, which shows that low inequality doesn’t mean poverty for all–it can just as easily mean relative wealth for all. In fact, the poverty rate in France is 8%, in Switzerland 8.6% and in the U.S. 17.5%.
There are a lot of reasons why life in France is good. Socialized medicine is a major factor. Workers pay about 8% and employers kick in about 13% more–so folks with big salaries pay more than folks earning the SMIC; the rates aren’t set according to your health. You don’t lose your health insurance if you lose your job because coverage is universal. In addition, low-income families get help, with public preschool starting at age two (that’s a benefit for rich and poor families), benefits for children and subsidies for nannies/daycare.
France is a lot more like how the U.S. was in the 1950s (a period of low inequality), with white-collar and blue-collar workers living in the same neighborhood in similar (modest) homes. (The average new home size in France is 1,206 square feet, vs. 2,164 square feet in the U.S.)
This makes sense when you start looking at salaries in France for professions that pay more than the SMIC.
I was quite surprised when the manager of my bank branch divulged that she makes €1,800 a month—€21,600 a year. But that’s more than a first-year school teacher, at €1,616 a month (€19,392 a year) before taxes (it rises to €3431—€41,172—after 30 years of service). Firemen make €2,311 a month (€27,732 a year) on average.
Nurses start out the same as teachers and max out at €47,710, while general practice doctors earned €72,500 to €83,120 a year in 2011. Among specialists, radiologists are the best paid, at €186,250 to €212,980 a year.
Are you choking on your coffee?
There are two big reasons for doctors’ low pay compared to U.S. doctors (an average of $223,175 a year for internal medicine): malpractice isn’t like in the U.S. and they have no giant loans to pay off from med school.
My doctor lives in a house a tad bigger than the French average, maybe 1,800 square feet, on a street with teachers, nurses, bus drivers, plumbers, acccountants, electricians and lots of retail workers. She has a nicer car and goes on cooler vacations than other people I know around here–and she totally deserves it–but she doesn’t live in a luxe bubble.
When I moved here, my new acquaintances told me I would be able to find a job easily because of being bilingual. The supermarkets would be sure to snatch me up, they said, to help deal with tourists and British expats who don’t speak French. I thought, there is no way I am going to be a checkout clerk at a supermarket. I have a master’s degree.
After living among people who are retail clerks, restaurant workers and other professions, I see things differently. I still don’t want to work in a supermarket. But I had lived in a circle of intellectuals and Type A overachievers who work hard and succeed, yes, but who always got straight A’s. Now I know lots of people who work hard and who never in their lives got an A or even a B, no matter how hard they tried. Unlike in the U.S., they aren’t punished for it.
I have a friend here who was thrilled when she was hired at McDonald’s. To me, McDonald’s is a good job for high school students. Here, high school students don’t work, certainly not after school, except for those who are studying a trade, and then it’s an apprenticeship. Their job is school, and it’s a full-time job. And here, a job at McDonald’s might be harder than, say, selling dresses, but it’s still a decent job. My friend proudly showed up at school pick-up while wearing her uniform, so all the other parents could see where she worked. Contrast that with a U.S. chieftain of fast food—NOT McDonald’s, which raised its U.S. wages—who said he hires “the best of the worst.”
Obviously we need incentives for people to do jobs that require training, higher education or a lot of stress. Making a mistake on the job has different ramifications and different stress for a doctor versus a janitor and they need to be paid accordingly. Nobody would spend years studying and then hours bent over a microscope to try to find a cure for cancer if they were going to make the same thing as if they had a job that required no education or dedication. There are jobs that aren’t about clocking in and then switching off when you clock out, and nobody would do them if they paid the SMIC.
But we still need people to wait tables, pick up garbage, clean houses, and sell us stuff in stores. If they do it all day every day, shouldn’t they be able to make a living? In France, they can.
These workers do their jobs, do them well (the professionalism of French waiters is legendary), and go home to their families. In France, they are able to pay their bills as long as they live comfortable but modest lives, which really is all they want. Because they work to live, they don’t live to work.
What matters to them is a good meal with family and friends. With dessert.