Better in Europe

I'm in the midst of reading this article by Russell Shorto about his experience living in Holland. Like every American who spends some time in Northern Europe, he is astounded by the social programs:

Friends who have small children report that the government can
reimburse as much as 70 percent of the cost of day care, which totals
around $14,000 per child per year. In late May of last year an
unexpected $4,265 arrived in my account: vakantiegeld.
Vacation money. This money materializes in the bank accounts of
virtually everyone in the country just before the summer holidays; you
get from your employer an amount totaling 8 percent of your annual
salary, which is meant to cover plane tickets, surfing lessons, tapas:
vacations. And we aren’t talking about a mere “paid vacation” — this is
on top of the salary you continue to receive during the weeks you’re
off skydiving or snorkeling. And by law every employer is required to
give a minimum of four weeks’ vacation. For that matter, even if you
are unemployed you still receive a base amount of vakantiegeld from the government, the reasoning being that if you can’t go on vacation, you’ll get depressed and despondent and you’ll never get a job.

Vacation-gelt and subsidized day-care? Why do I live here again?

17 thoughts on “Better in Europe

  1. “Why do I live here again?”
    I’m thinking you don’t speak Dutch. They have had a pretty low unemployment rate over the past few years, so Holland is actually a pretty good option. I hear the real estate situation is absolutely frightful, though, and that the Dutch housing market is due for a heck of a correction.

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  2. I dunno, I have a love/hate thing with Europe. Has anyone here ever worked on a project with Europeans? You know, where you get stuck with the lions’ share of the work because they’re always out of the office? And you have to make your dates anyway if you don’t want to lose market share?
    It’s not like I don’t want more work-life balance. I’m just saying, I’m not sure this European model is sustainable. Honestly, it’s enough to make me a modern-day wobbly.

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  3. I did a two-year postdoc in Germany, and will wildly generalize:
    To a large extent, I don’t think the money works out all that differently, at least not for people in the middle 70% of the income spectrum in the U.S. What is really different is the freedom to keep up with the Joneses.
    Here in the US, living with 10-year-old kitchen linoleum or shared bedrooms for children over 5 years old practically makes middle class folks feel victimized. If Americans were willing to give up these things, we’d have much more money for vacations and daycare, but we care too much what our grad school cohort or lawyer cousin will think. In Europe, the state often makes that decision for people.
    Our time there really affected us and strongly influenced lifestyle decisions we’ve made here in the US.

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  4. Subsidized day-care: Provided the day-care centres are open – for a report in Danish (sorry): http://politiken.dk/indland/article699291.ec.
    Also, having access to a spare granny when the children are sick is a very good idea.
    Actually, there’s work for more than one political scientist in analysing the blame game between the state and local councils here.
    Still, an English (male) colleague finds the work/family balance easier in Sweden when he compares with his brothers in the UK

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  5. “You know, where you get stuck with the lions’ share of the work because they’re always out of the office”
    Yes, I’ve heard about this, too. That part of the reason the system works for international enterprises (I’ve heard it for publishing) is that the non-protected workers (i.e. Americans) take up the slack.
    I read the “Holland” article wondering how it could be sustained as well. But, there are two questions of sustainability. One is whether it is sustainable — that is, is it living on borrowed money/borrowed costs and will eventually collapse. The other is whether it’s a sharing of risks and rewards over time. In the US, I feel like we’re going to a system where employers want workers to assume all the long term risks of their employment. The flip side of this is that workers then should get expected to be paid their short term full value. Then, though, there’s no social contract that allows you to subsidize workers who are less productive on a short-term basis (i.e. mothers, or older folks) in return for having had their full work effort at some other time (earlier or later for mothers, and earlier for older folk). The second is a sustainable model that involves costs, and might require regulation, since it’s a model that can only work if people are forced to pay into it when they’re doing well (so that they can draw from it when they’re not).
    I fear that many who idolize the European system plan on moving back and forth between the American & European systems based on whether they’re at a peak or a trough in their needs. That’s an unsustainable model (i.e. come to America to work for Microsoft when you’re at your peak earning capacity, return to Europe when you’ve had you’re starting your family and plan to take it slow for 5 years).

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  6. What is really different is the freedom to keep up with the Joneses. Here in the US, living with 10-year-old kitchen linoleum or shared bedrooms for children over 5 years old practically makes middle class folks feel victimized. If Americans were willing to give up these things, we’d have much more money for vacations and daycare, but we care too much what our grad school cohort or lawyer cousin will think. In Europe, the state often makes that decision for people. Our time there really affected us and strongly influenced lifestyle decisions we’ve made here in the US.
    This is a really, really thought-provoking comment, Siobhan; thanks very much for it. I’m going to have to blog about this. I know that to a very great extent, you could trace the “crunchy” or “slacker” or whatever aspects of Melissa’s and my life choices to the summer we spent in Europe, riding trains, making thrice-weekly hikes (with backpacks) to the local markets, cramming our family into the small apartment we were able to rent (with a tiny, tiny refrigerator, hence the many trips to the grocery store, etc.), enjoying the parks and numerous amenities, walking just about everywhere. The living conditions enjoyed by most of the people we knew there would be considered cramped, slow, and inconvenient by many Americans. And yet, if you could adapt to such restrictions, it opened up so many resources and opportunities. Positive freedom, indeed. I don’t know how well that comparison plays out across the breadth of someone’s working career, or all the dynamics of family life (a family we knew well through our church, with three kids, were desperate to move to America–they wanted to buy a house, with a yard, something that was prohibitively expensive for people in their situation, and that’s worth keeping in mind), but on the basis of our experience, it’s a trade well worth contemplating.

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  7. “I fear that many who idolize the European system plan on moving back and forth between the American & European systems based on whether they’re at a peak or a trough in their needs. That’s an unsustainable model (i.e. come to America to work for Microsoft when you’re at your peak earning capacity, return to Europe when you’ve had you’re starting your family and plan to take it slow for 5 years).”
    The first time I read that, it sounded sort of wild, and then I realized that it fits a family I know to a T. The wife is American, the husband is German (a highly mobile corporate consultant), and they go back and forth between the US and Germany. Their kid spent the fall in a German school with oma and opa and the spring in a US school, but it’s looking like he will probably do much of his schooling (including college) in Germany. Then if the kid wants to, he can come back to the US and cash in. As bj points out, that’s not a great deal for the European country.

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  8. Really good comments.
    Siobhan, loved the insight that American’s have chosen stuff over life-style. RAF, write that post, please. I’ll write something similar this afternoon, after my media class.
    re: the sustainability of the European approach to work. My husband does gripe about the London branch of his business all the time. It would be interesting to see a comparison of output between US and European firms. But because banking is international, the Americans have had some spillover of benefits. Hubby gets 4 weeks of paid vacations.
    Jacob, great info. I’m going to have to dig into the comarative literature on Europe.

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  9. I can’t speak to overall volume of output for US vs. European firms, but I believe there are significant differences in terms of turn times and responsiveness. (And by responsiveness I mean, reacting to changes in market dynamics, taking advantage of new circumstances.) IMHO it’s one of the things that allows US firms to be so entrepreneurial.
    I wonder about this all the time: can a society be pro-entrepreneur and also pro-family? A lot of this pro-family stuff originates with government, which is not exactly nimble.

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  10. Very interesting conversation points everyone, but allow me to add my two cents. I am actually an American living in Haarlem (the original Harlem, just outside of Amsterdam). I have been living in the Netherlands now for 3 years, and I often go back and forth of the pros and cons for each side of the pond. As for the work aspect, I very much agree with many points illustrated in the Times article – work/life balance is sacred here. Both my boyfriend and I work jobs where 110% effort is required constantly (he for a US based IT firm and I work for a non-profit in the HIV/AIDS sector). At a certain point after 40+ weeks we have both been ordered to take compensation time – I get the feeling our employers would rather have us around to work for 35 years than for 5.
    And just to give everyone a little reality check as to the ‘childcare allowance’ not every family qualifies for this, I know that with our combined household income (which isn’t at all high, only slightly better than average) we would only qualify for about half of this. Still better than nothing but would none the less require us to seriously think about altering our working arrangements in order that one salary doesn’t go to childcare alone.
    Vacation money – yep – it’s true BUT this isn’t a gift from your employer or the state, it’s apart of your total years salary that’s set aside for you each year and paid out in May. It’s almost like they want to save for you so you will go on vacation in order to be fully rested. Which isn’t a bad thing. 🙂

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  11. “I wonder about this all the time: can a society be pro-entrepreneur and also pro-family?”
    I don’t think so (though I re-write this as pro-entrepreneur and pro-stability). I think of pro-family policies as being time-averaging, that people will be differently able to contribute to the paid workplace over time, and that there’s a reciprocal promise between employer & employee to give them peak productivity in return for being supported through periods of lower productivity. Carrie’s cite to the idea that vacation time is required, and hours limited so that one remains productive for 35 years instead of five is another comparison. But, making long term contracts, effectively, impacts nimbleness and entrepreneurship. It can also slow down the ability of people to reach their peak productivity (because they have to wait for others to get out of the way).
    But, though I see the interaction, I think that the US has balanced to far in favor of entrepreneurship, especially noticeable in a global economy. Workers have taken on a lot more of there lifetime risks of work, but haven’t quite figured it out yet. It’s going to be a tough sell in the US to readdress the issue, though.

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  12. The thing about entrepeneurship that is family-friendly is that you don’t need to start being an entrepeneur at age 22. You can pick it up at 42 or 62 or whatever. I have two relatives who very late in life (their late 50s) started researching, writing and self-publishing and selling books on local history and personalities. Within just a few years, they’ve sold thousands of books and their micro-publishing company is printing books in China, is distributing several titles, and is about to come out with an updated edition of a NW classic.

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  13. We have holiday money in Australia, it’s called leave loading, and it too is a mandated part of everyone’s salary arrangements. Four weeks annual leave is legislated for too.

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  14. Great place to live but not a great place to get sick and require medical care. I could tell you stories, oh I could tell you stories . .

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