Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Leisure and the End of Housekeeping

I’ve realized lately that I’ve been so accustomed to going to work every day that the mere act of taking a lengthy vacation seems to be a hazy memory of the past. Week in, week out, I show up at the office with any thought to my deserved leisure time out of mind. Once I’m on vacation the experience of having nothing important (business-wise) to accomplish catches me bit off guard. And yet, given the choice, I would always desire more vacation time over a pay raise.

So it was with a bit of skepticism that I read Tim Worstall’s piece at TCS Daily about the rise of leisure time among American workers. Using an interesting set of criteria in the form of unpaid work, the latest research indicates that as Americans have maintained the same rate of hours worked, the hours devoted to leisure have risen steadily in the past decades. What accounts for a large proportion of this rise in leisure time has been the reduction of unpaid hours of work performed typically by women. What some may call “chores” like housecleaning, cooking, laundry and raising children was calculated as unpaid work. Many women have recently been more than happy to let others do these things for a fee so that they could pursue real paid work rather than opting to stay at home and do unpaid work. Because one can now hire maids, landscapers, dry-cleaners, and daycare, that leaves them more time to enjoy themselves when not at the workplace.

This ‘outsourcing’ of traditional household duties has therefore nurtured abundant low-skilled jobs. Immigrants benefit from such jobs which permit them to assimilate into the economic mainstream quickly. Though these jobs pay relatively little, it’s better than there being no job available, which only exacerbates feelings of exclusion and resentfulness. Worstall’s article makes this point about unemployment in Europe:

"The smaller number of service jobs per adult in Germany than in the US shows up in both the least skilled service sectors and in high-tech and high skilled service sectors. The conventional explanation of the US-EU employment gap focuses on the relative dearth of low skilled service sector jobs in the EU because of the consequences on joblessness and social exclusion."
That is, if everyone stays home canning there are no simple jobs in the factories for people to do. So they rot on the scrap heap of unemployment, burning cars for entertainment's sake. This European social model doesn't seem to have all that much going for it so far really, does it?

There’s more on the comparison between the U.S. and Germany regarding the difference hours worked and leisure. The overall gist of Worstall’s article is that Europeans end up being stuck doing a lot of house chores on their free time, while Americans increasingly leave it to others and actually have fun on their days off. It’s an interesting conclusion, and it certainly explains a little bit the difference between the two sides on what one expects to do during their time off.

My experience has always been that Europeans tend to enjoy the simple things during their time off, often happily frequenting the town’s parks, cafes and other amenities. Americans seem impatient to leave town be whisked away to some place that’s as far from their mundane reality as possible. Vacations tend to be short, often no longer than a week at a time, which is why the more a vacation trip can be packaged, the better. In Europe, particularly in France, vacations are long enough for the family to rent a seaside villa and hang around for a month with no effort in scheduling activities from day to day. Working Americans, I’ve noticed, prefer coordinated activities provided by the resort/cruise/theme park, giving the visitor the impression that one can get the most complete exposure to a place in the shortest amount of time. Bear in mind that I’m generalizing quite broadly, as I’m aware that there are Europeans and Americans who like to spend their free time in ways that are not all that different. Many Americans like to spend their vacations quite leisurely while numerous European tourists flood the Mediterranean in tightly packaged resorts.

Whether you’ll ever convince an American worker that he or she has the same amount of leisure time as a European, most of my colleagues would love to have even more time off if possible. Of course all that time would be useless if one’s wages were to be diminished in exchange. The one thing I do agree with in the article is the importance of how non-paid work affects the quality of the time spent outside the workplace. When I lived in Germany as an exchange student, I recalled the endless hours spent just maintaining the house, whether by cleaning, taking care of the numerous potted plants and making sure there was enough coal or chopped wood for the furnace (this was in the former communist German Democratic Republic).

There was rarely a family excursion to enjoy, and I found I had to organize my own leisurely trips around Europe. The family I lived with was relatively well-off for their community, and they were so because they were aggressive small business entrepreneurs. In spite of the depressed economic state of the surrounding towns, they understood that tremendous initial efforts were required in order ensure long-term success of the business. Their dedication to working and depriving themselves of any valuable time off was more in keeping with American ways of doing things than German.

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