How are Americans so overworked, yet get so little done? That’s a question Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan tackles in his book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, which, according to the Salon interview I read, explores “America’s misguided culture of overwork.”
“Germany’s workers have higher productivity, shorter hours and greater quality of life,” according to Salon. As a first-generation German-American, this made me curious.
But after reading the interview, I was disappointed. Geoghegan basically seems to be extolling the merits of social democracy without considering core cultural influences. It sounds like all we need to do is implement a system of social democracy, with free universities, more efficient health care, and more vacation, and we’ll end up a having a much more productive workforce.
I’d hardly draw the conclusion that social democracy, the system of governance itself, is responsible for German productivity. First of all, many Germans I’ve met aren’t exactly impressed with their government, which adds special taxes to everything from church participation to tea. In exchange for that nice vacation, maternity leave, and free education, you get limited opportunities for personal wealth or property ownership. You are, to coin a US business phrase, satisficed. If you want to hit it big, with a mansion and a pool and solid investments, you’d best move to the States.
Secondly, I don’t think any governmental system will somehow compel people to become more productive. The real influences are between people themselves, based on the behaviors they’ve formed and integrated throughout their territory’s history.
Here are my reasons that the causes for German productivity are more ingrained in culture than government:
1) German virtues include industriousness, stoicism, obedience, and self-denial. Doing your duty has implicit social value, more so than looking busy. This mindset is ideal for getting things done. If you behave differently, you may activate an inner shame mechanism that draws you back in line.
Compare that to individualistic, materialist, risk-taking America. Everyone wants to make it, to hit it big. There’s cultural weight on freedom–of speech, of religion, of expression. It’s not about behaving and being orderly, it’s about having the liberty to be yourself. That mindset doesn’t naturally extend into a tight, organized, efficient organization, the way the German one does. Instead, we’re all trying to outperform one another to hit said jackpot.
2) Germans tend to be more objective than Americans about their own life conditions. Because of this lack of emotion about one’s own life, there’s less drive to pursue personal gratification at every turn to ease suffering, find something better. Life is less “about me” than it is here in the States. The cultural value of loyalty outweighs that of personal gratification.
Americans, meanwhile, generally feel optimistic and entitled. As an American, you assume: I should be rich, I should have a nice car, I deserve nice things. When life doesn’t match those assumptions, you turn to: Who can I blame? What can I do better? How do I get to my goal?
Some product or service will invariable pop up on your radar to help you out. You’re optimistic, you’re gratified, until something triggers the process of finding solutions again. So, hopeful, you seek and buy another temporary solution.
From a labor point of view, more emphasis on self-gratification does not an efficient workforce make. Meanwhile, a stoic, loyal, “work through it” emphasis does keep people productive, especially with guaranteed vacations to look forward to.
Even if Americans had guaranteed vacations, they’d still be trying to “hit it big,” fulfill their sense that they deserve the good life. Someone would invariably skip vacations in order to work harder than everyone else to pursue that goal, which would make other people do it, too, and…there you have our current condition.
3) Perhaps because of that competition, American merit is based on perceived commitment to work. Americans take work home all the time. Between laptops and mobile devices, they practically have a drip feed of work-related communication. Instead of concentrating hard during work hours, then unwinding, Americans are halfway online all the time in order to augment that perceived commitment. I doubt this is more productive. Instead, it burns employees out, leading to limited brain function, increased distraction, and–you got it–less productivity.
I’ll concede that a social democracy like Germany’s helps mitigate burnout by mandating vacations, stress by offering maternity leave, and debt by offering free university. But it’s not sufficient to conclude that social democracy alone makes Germans more productive.