The Shrinking European Vacation

Frida Ghitis talks about her article in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. She says the days of Europeans taking monthlong vacations are over.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The kids are ramping up at school. The weather's warm. Next week brings the first official day of summer, which means summer vacation. For American workers, that means a week off, maybe two, or maybe just a long weekend at the beach.

Americans are notorious for long hours and short vacations, if they take time off at all. Now, compare that with European workers. The French enjoy 35-hour workweeks to begin with, and still get at least a month's paid vacation. In much of Europe five weeks off is the norm.

Writer and journalist Frida Ghitis on our Opinion Page today says Europeans generally earn less than American workers, but get those longer vacations, shorter workweeks, guaranteed job security, and a lot of other social benefits in exchange, at least so far.

For better or worse, she argues, Europe's economy and its social safety net is going to start looking a lot more like ours. And, as you might imagine, a lot of Europeans are not so happy about this.

If you have questions about why it's happening and how Europeans may adapt to it. If you're worked in Europe or with Europeans, give us a call, 800-989-8255; or e-mail us: talk@npr.org.

Frida Ghitis' op-ed ran in the Currents section of yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, and she joins us now from the studios of member station WABE, in Atlanta, Georgia. Nice to speak with you.

Ms. FRIDA GHITIS (Writer; Journalist): Thank you, Neal. It's good to be here.

CONAN: So what's spoiling the worker's paradise of Europe?

Ms. GHITIS: Well, it turns out this worker's paradise was not designed to last forever. It did not take into account the problem of low birth rates, for one thing. Europeans are just not having many babies, and they're retiring at very early ages. So that means that the number of people who have to work to support the retirement of their elders is just not there.

We have, you know, by one measure, in the next 25 years, the number of working-age Europeans is going to decline by about 7 percent, and the number of retirees is going to increase by about 50 percent. So this nirvana apparently is just going to have to wait for another time.

CONAN: And this, as you suggest, given the demographic numbers, comes as no surprise to anybody. All you hear from European leaders in the last five years or so is we're going to be more competitive, it's going to be a knowledge-based economy.

Ms. GHITIS: Yeah, that's what they decided about six years ago, I believe it was, that - Agenda 2010 it was called. And they were going to make Europe the most competitive, most dynamic market in the world. And it just has turned out to be very difficult to persuade Europeans that it is good for them to work harder.

CONAN: And difficult for politicians to get elected on such a platform.

Ms. GHITIS: Yeah, but, you know, interestingly, even the politicians of the left, the social democrats, even they are acknowledging that the way things are just is not going to last forever; that changes have to come. But I would like to make the point, though, that this does not mean that the Europeans have given up on the socialist capitalist model that seemed to have been working so well. They don't want to become the United States; they want to change only as much as they need to so that they can hang on to what they have created.

CONAN: Yet, as we saw in France earlier this year, even incremental change; a law that would've made it easier for employers to, well, hire - get rid of younger workers who weren't working out so well - riots in the streets of Paris and the law was overturned.

Ms. GHITIS: Yeah, you know, it's difficult to convince people to make a sacrifice for the future. You know, the changes are going to bring benefits down the road, but the sacrifice has to happen right away. And we had, you know, in France it's interesting because we had two types of riots. We had the riots from the last fall, I believe it was, when this law was proposed to allow employers to fire young workers in the first couple of years of employment. We also had these car burning riots from the people who did not have jobs. And the two are connected.

The government realized, as economists have, that when employers cannot fire, they are very reluctant to hire. So what you have is guaranteed employment, but very high unemployment.

CONAN: We're talking with Frida Ghitis, writer and journalist, on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Her op-ed appeared yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. If you'd like to read it, you can go to our website, npr.org.

Right now you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION at NPR News. And let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. This is Renee. Renee calling us from Detroit.

RENEE (Caller): Hi, Neal. I'm really glad I made it, finally, on. I try to call all the time.

CONAN: Well, congratulations.

RENEE: And I recognize what the - your guest is saying. It's true. I lived in Europe, in Germany, for several years. And one of the things that makes European life so attractive to Americans I think, at least in my circle, is that they can - they're still able to have like a single income family. And that they do have it, their stores close earlier and it may not be as convenient; but because they have shorter hours, they can have larger wages for fewer people, as opposed to here where we have around the clock shifts and thus we have lower wages and more people working. And a two-income family is almost a necessity nowadays.

CONAN: Yet, Frida, on average, Americans make more than Europeans.

Ms. GHITIS: You know, it's interesting, on average, Americans do make quite a bit more than Europeans. But, you know, in the United States, there is an emphasis within family budgets and at the national level, at the policy level, there's an emphasis on growth, on maximizing income for its own sake. In Europe, the attitude is that growth is a means to an end, and the end is quality of life.

So what Europeans tell you is that we don't care if we are less rich than the Americans; we are happier. And, in fact, in Holland, in the Netherlands, they have something called the Institute of Happiness Studies, I believe it's called, and they say that Europeans are happier than Americans. They may have less money in the bank, but according to them they are happier.

The question, of course, is how long can they stay this happy if nobody's working, to exaggerate slightly.

CONAN: To exaggerate slightly. I guess the cliché is Europeans work to live and Americans live to work.

Ms. GHITIS: Exactly.

CONAN: So, Renee, thanks very much for the call.

RENEE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk with Lori(ph). And Lori's calling us from New Jersey.

LORI (Caller): Hi. I agree. Europeans are happier. I just came from working in Norway for a year, and what I think is that even if Europeans work more, if they work a 12-month year, if they work a 40-hour work week, they will still have different attitude when going to work. Work has much less stress. People are generally happier, and I think that they are and can be as productive as we are in ways of quality, for example.

CONAN: Yet - thank you for that, Lori. But, Frida, you pointed out in your op-ed piece that there are some indications that indeed there are a lot of disincentives for Europeans to work.

Ms. GHITIS: The problem is not imagined; this is very real. And in the Netherlands, where I spend a lot of time, they have a very generous, what - we should call it a, something like a permanent disability system. The program got so completely out of control that, by 2003, something like 20 percent of the workforce was on disability. They said, you know, what is going on in Holland, is there some horrible epidemic or something?

The main problem was something that there's a new term for in Dutch, and it means something like being over-stressed. So if you were over-stressed, you basically didn't have to work anymore and you could collect about three-quarters of your salary. So, you know, that's a pretty appealing gift from the government.

But it became so abused that the people who were not over-stressed were starting to resent having to work to support all these other people that they saw drinking cappuccino in the afternoon in the middle of the week.

CONAN: Hmm. Lori, thanks very much.

LORI: Thank you.

CONAN: And one final question. Before, you were talking about that there is indeed a connection between the riots in France, where unemployed Algerian and Moroccan youths were torching cars, and the later demonstrations against the more flexible work rules. Isn't one answer to the demographic crisis of Europe to let in more immigrants?

Ms. GHITIS: Yeah, and that's an answer that people don't like to hear. Europeans are very uncomfortable with the high immigration from Middle Eastern and north African countries. One thing that the European Union has done is expand, and that way they can get more immigrants from Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic, and they hope that this will help ease the coming labor shortage. But it's still not enough.

And they have - they also have - the Europeans have set budget limits, budget deficit limits, which means that as they try to become more efficient, which means, in some cases, cutting taxes, they're going to start having some budget decisions to make. It means they're going to be spending less on benefits and collecting less in taxes.

So, you know, they're going to start being squeezed on all sides. And the battles that we've seen in the streets of Paris are not over. And we're going to see disputes probably in parliaments more than in the streets with fires. But we're going to see that for some time to come throughout Europe.

CONAN: And, again, I think they just opened negotiations today, or said they could open negotiations today, with Turkey on its entry into Europe, which will be a fascinating test of those intentions as well.

Frida Ghitis, thank you very much. Appreciate your time.

Ms. GHITIS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Frida Ghitis' op-ed, Europe's Long Vacation Is Ending, ran in the Currents section of Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. We have a link to it and to our previous Opinion Pages at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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