Michelle Teheux: Madness on both sides of the Atlantic

Michelle Teheux

What are the French thinking, anyway?

Or the Greeks, or any of the citizens in several foreign countries who are going ballistic at the idea that they might have to give up a few of their perks?

As I write this, the French are choking on their wine and cheese at the thought of having to work until they are 62. Currently, the retirement age is a big whopping 60.

I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, like most Americans I have no pension. The day I stop working — probably at about age 70 — is the day I stop getting paid. The money I’m tucking away for retirement is by no means as much as the experts claim I should be saving. If I saved as much as they claim I should be saving, I would need to salt away my entire salary and borrow the rest and perhaps live under a bridge.

And I don’t see how Social Security can possibly work out long-term, as we’ll have too few young people paying in to support far too many old people, such as I myself am turning into.

On the other hand, having been exposed quite a bit to European lifestyles, I can’t escape the conclusion that they live much better than we do. The work-life balance is much healthier. Virtually the only Europeans you will ever find working 12-hour days are those who are establishing their own small businesses.

The French are the ones with the reputation for long, leisurely dinners and plenty of vacation, but in fact workers all across Europe have it pretty cushy.

The Germans particularly manage to somehow combine being one of the most economically stable countries despite workers who enjoy quite manageable work hours. By law, a German relative by marriage told me, everyone gets four weeks of vacation — to start. This shocked me, and then I learned this is true across Europe. Proponents of the 35-hour work week there claim that productivity has not suffered with fewer work hours. Perhaps that’s because the number of hours one can work at the top of one’s form is not unlimited.

Quite by accident when researching this topic, I learned that Oct. 24 is Take Back Your Time Day, the day when the average American has worked as many hours as the average European works all year. The website is As a salaried worker who puts in more hours than average, I can only guess that I had already outworked the average European sometime in August or September.

We Americans tend to boast of our long hours, but why? Are we really better off in any way for it? I believe our family, social and civic lives are the losers.

There’s room for some common sense changes on both sides of the Atlantic. French people, calm down. Working to age 62 is not so bad. Really. And you Greeks seriously need to get with the program. If you want, we will switch places with you for a month so you can see that your government’s much-feared austerity measures are still better than anything the most audacious U.S. union has ever dared bring to a negotiating table.

The ideal is somewhere in the middle, some kind of arrangement that allows workers some time to de-stress and enjoy family time but still give an honest day’s work to their employers. There should be a way to take Americans’ work hours, divide them by France’s, multiply them by the square root of Germany’s vacation days, add in the year-long paid maternity leaves in Norway and subtract Holland’s 8 percent annual pre-vacation holiday bonus and come up with a workable solution.

I for one will not rest until I’ve solved the problem.

Michelle Teheux may be reached at