Jewish World Review August 31, 2004 / 15 Elul, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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Europeans discovering value of work | As summer ends, it is worth considering that the governing mentality about the concept of work is directly tied to a nation's prosperity.

That's why there is more than a little irony in the 21st-century economy making Europeans re-examine, literally, how they do business.

After all, the driving force is not ugly Americans. It is Asia, much of which was once home to European colonies, and former Soviet-bloc nations bringing to Western Europe the realities of global capitalism.

On the other side of the pond, especially in France but in much of Western Europe, most everything shuts down for an August-long vacation. In the United States, most of us were happy to grab a week at a time. In Asia, vacation is almost a foreign concept.

Over a year, Western Europeans work many fewer hours and have pretty much accepted the trade-off that gives them much lower standards of living.

The U.S. jobless rate is roughly half of Europe's, but workers there toil 20 percent to 30 percent fewer hours because of longer vacations, shorter workweeks and generous government benefits.

Europeans historically have been candid about the belief that their material standard of living is not the best way to measure societal wellbeing.

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They say they choose less-pressured lives in exchange for being, on average, almost a third poorer than Americans.

But there are some initial signs that they may be rethinking that choice.

Europeans instinctively and collectively recoil at, yet are coming to accept, the reality that their position as the economic, political and cultural center of the world has long since passed to the United States.

What is giving them pause is the prospect of dropping to third in the world economic order, behind those whose ancestors were once slaves and subjects to European traders, explorers and, eventually, governments.

In the 21st century, power is measured by business as much as bombs, and there is a real chance Asia's economic growth will push Europe further down the world pecking order.

The defining difference between Americans and Europeans is not their disagreement over the Iraq war or widely divergent attitudes toward the death penalty, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, sex or religion.

At its core, the split stems from our emotional commitment to the idea that work is, in and of itself, a good thing - not just the obviously correct notion that a productive society is a more prosperous one, but that it is a more emotionally healthy one.

The Far East mentality makes us look like pikers in the work department by comparison, hence the remarkable economic growth there.

Anyone with a brain can see that future historians will look at the last four years as the beginning of the Asian Century, just as the 20th was the American Century.

Whether China and India eventually pass us for No. 1, time will tell, but few will bet on the Europeans in that race.

Clearly that is why many Europeans are wrestling with the question of whether the global economy will force them to re-evaluate their long-held notions.

The standard of a 35-hour workweek is coming under pressure from political and business leaders and, most important, rank-and-file workers who worry they will slip even further behind the curve.

In France, the standard 35-hour workweek is a matter of law, compared to 37 hours in Britain and 40 hours here. In some Asian nations, 40 hours is half a week's work.

Yet in France, workers at an auto-parts factory recently voted by 98 percent to increase their hours and take a three-year pay freeze to make sure their jobs weren't outsourced to Eastern Europe.

In Germany, Mercedes workers agreed to lower their own pay and increase their hours in return for job security through 2012. Siemens persuaded workers to work five hours a week more for the same money in order to keep their jobs from being outsourced.

Of course, organized labor, which is much more powerful politically on that side of the Atlantic, is fighting these changes as omens of the end of life as Europeans know it.

They may be right.

And despite their frustration with Americans, whom they rationalize as crass and materialistic, many still would not trade their more leisurely lifestyle for the American way of life.

Moreover, few in Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin would want to be Chinese, Indian, Korean or a citizen of the other "Asian Tigers."

But, it is today's global economic competition that is causing Europeans to think more like Americans.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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