If you’re lucky enough to be born in a developed country, you’re looking at an average life expectancy of roughly 75 years. What are you going to do with those years?
If you’re an American, chances are you’re going to spend most of them working. From flipping burgers as a teenager to greeting customers at Walmart past retirement age, you’re going to spend about 52 years of your life as an employee, reporting to work at an appointed time, doing what you’re instructed to do and living for the weekend — if you’re lucky enough to have weekends off.
Many of you will have benefits associated with your job — the result of gains made by the labor movement many years ago. A standard benefits package in the United States might include two weeks of paid vacation a year. So, if you work full time, you’re going to spend roughly 2,000 hours a year at work. That’s about 100,000 working hours in the course of your lifetime — if you don’t work overtime.
That’s significantly more hours than the average European spends at work. In Europe, five to seven weeks of paid vacation each year is not unusual. My sister, now a Swedish citizen, gets seven weeks of paid vacation.
Unlike Americans, who seem to live to work, Europeans work to live.
That’s the finding of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which studied the work-life balance achieved in 34 countries around the world. Using indicators such as time devoted to personal activities, the employment rate of mothers with children ages 6 to 14, and the number of employees working more than 50 hours per week, the OECD tried to gauge the well-being of workers as part of its Better Life Initiative.
According to the OECD, Americans work more hours and longer days than the average, enjoying less time for personal activities and self-care — and significantly fewer days off. The United States didn’t even make the top 10 when it comes to work-life balance. Here are the nations that did, in order: Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Portugal and France.
Denmark, not coincidentally, was recently rated No. 1 worldwide in terms of the happiness of its people. And in Denmark, work-life balance is an important part of the political discussion. While Americans waste time fighting about medieval social issues — abortion rights, gay rights, health care rights — Denmark has taken the discussion to a much higher level, working to ensure that people get a chance to live their lives. But what do you expect from a country that has a ministry for gender equality, not to mention a ministry for families?
Work-life balance falls to the Families Ministry, headed at the moment by Carina Christensen, who recently spoke with the BBC about the social shift under way designed to accommodate “B-people” — those who function better late in the day and not in the morning. Companies and schools are developing options for employees and students who just can’t wake up in the morning in an effort to ensure that working and going to school are user-friendly.
“Some people might think you’re lazy,” Christensen told the BBC. “But it’s more than that. It’s a 24/7 society. Our institutions have got to move with the times.”
Not coincidentally, Danes were rated the happiest people in the world by a separate survey.
Try to imagine the losers in Congress pausing between fundraising, extramarital affairs and sexting to debate quality-of-life issues like a mandatory minimum of four weeks of vacation per year for full-time workers or 24-hour workdays divided between A-people teams and B-people teams. We can’t even agree that health care is a right, much less vacation time.
It took forever just to convince the Boulder Valley School District that teenagers shouldn’t start school at 7:30 a.m., despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing that teenage brains just don’t function at that time of day.
Fighting for more vacation time might seem petty to Americans in this economy. Many workers feel lucky just to have jobs. But the benefits of balancing life and work are enormous — decreased stress, better health, lower obesity rates and a better overall sense of well-being brought about by more time with family and friends doing things we enjoy.
Need to take time off for a sick kid or to attend a child’s school function? No worries. Need to get way from it all to cope with a divorce or other family upheaval? You’ve got the hours. Want to tiptoe through the tulips — in the Netherlands? You don’t have to wait ’til you retire because the business world
recognizes that you’re a person with a life, not just an employee with a job.
How we spend the precious hours of our lives ought to be of primary concern to each and every one of us, because, in the end, the days of our lives are the only thing we truly own. How many of us will lie on our deathbeds thinking, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”?