How do we want to live?
24 h per day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year — the preconditions for a good work-life balance are up to this point equal for all of us. But how do we spend this time?
We differ a lot in what we do during our days and weeks, and in our lives. This is due to our individual preferences, as well as to our culture. Our rhythm depends on many factors: personal decisions, traditions, seasons, our family situation or where we live. Sometimes there are fixed time spans in which life stands still, like the Spanish Siesta between 14 h and 17 h (which by the way many Spanish dislike) . In other regions certain days are holy: In the Cologne area for example it is unthinkable to work during Carnival.
The most divisive structure for our day, however, seems to be that of working time and privately owned time. Worth to take a look. How do we live our lives in Europe?
The framework: Different starting points for work-life balance
Two factors affect all of us in our every-day life, no matter where we are and what we do: globalisation and digitalisation. Those developments mean that everything becomes faster, more complex and interconnected. For some people it means more flexibility and freedom, just think of the blogger. For others it means that working life and private life blend — like for the investment banker. Free time? You can work at any time, any place.
In some places like Frankfurt, London, Luxemburg the type of the investment banker will be highly represented. But also other working areas are time-intense. Europe is a continent of agriculture. And there is as well work which cannot wait, no matter what time of the day — in Andalusia, Austria, Bretagne, Poland or Sicily. Other cities again are well-renowned for their relaxed way to live, like Vienna or Lisbon. Where you are has a high effect on how you live.
What exactly is work-life balance?
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has identified five dimensions for a good work-life balance: It is about creating routines that are good for (1) health and safety, (2) which are family-friendly, that (3) create equality between genders, (4) promote productivity and competitiveness of companies and (5) give the employee possibilities to decide about working time. Those different aspects show how complex the topic is — and that there is much more in it than just discussions about feminism or leisure time.
Especially amongst young people it has become ever more important to decide yourself about your day and to spend time with things you really like. In an ideal case work is already part of what you love. But not everyone lives in a perfect world. Unemployment, also among young people, is a heavy problem.
Also how we deal with our work depends on our culture. Five examples show, how different we live the same thing.
When I hear the words of “flexibility” and “work”, I often think of Denmark, Sweden or Finland. However, part time work is pretty uncommon. On the contrary: Working days can be quite long — but not in the office! Child care? Parental leave? No problem. Just work-life balance. And much gender equality at the same time.
Take for example Finland: 78% of the men and 73% of women are employed according to OECD statistics. Also it seems to be commonly acknowledged that there are things outside the office which are at least equally important as work. Work still takes place also outside the office in the evenings. In Helsinki also Ministers collect their children from the childcare at 5 o’ clock. An interesting take on life and work in Finland can be found here: http://taughtbyfinland.com/work-life-balance-in-finland-americans-on-a-different-planet/.
This structure is, by the way, true across all jobs: To work long hours rather stands for inefficiency. And another important part: Work-life balance is not only there for families. Everyone has the right to a life, to meet friends, to do sports.
My picture of France has a lot to do with good food, sun and “savoir vivre”. However, these are two things — to know how to live well, and to actually do it. So how does one live in France?
Last summer I read an article: “Work eMails are illegal in France after the end of office times.” Pardon me? How can this work with blackberries being part of the furniture and the sometimes last resort to escape the office? A revolution?
In France people work 35 hours per week. This is less than the average European who works 37,2 hours per week — the longest the Greeks with an average of 42 hours. In reality French people work more. But now they have the „right to disconnect”. On the other hand: Employers can deviate from the 35 h — week — this has led to many protests in France, where people watch out for their labour rights.
In addition: Child care is self-evident. It is normal that families return to work after a few months. Hence the take on work and family is more relaxed. This is thus true for Scandinavia and France.
In Poland 68% of the men and 55% of the women are employed. 14,4 hours per day remain to sleep, to eat and to have a private life. 7% of the people have to work overly long; the OECD average is 13%. The unemployment rate is at 8,5%, and that among young people at 14,5% — a difficult situation for young people. This means: It is not easy to ask for rights, as many others are also eager to get a job — even if it is a wrong believe that long working hours mean more productivity.
Family comes first in Poland, and many women have their key role here. Hence compared to Scandinavia and France traditional role models play a huge part here.
The Italian way of life is what many people strive for. Sun, seaside, good food — the conditions are set for a good life. But great cities and economic realities don’t always go together. Also regional differences exist: The agricultural South has hard times compared to the industrial North. In the South (youth) unemployment is high, and economic growth low.
There is still probably something to the image of the relaxed Italian. But the Italian people I know are pretty hard-working, suffer from much traffic and do not earn much money. Not to forget: Italy was hit hard by the economic crisis; life is expensive at the same time. Only 57% of the people have a job, this is 16% below the OECD average.
Family life is important, and roles are traditionally defined. In times of economic uncertainty work-life balance in Italy also means: You have to be able to afford it — more important to have a job.
Work-life balance is an important topic in Germany, and especially young people care a lot. Unfortunately the question is still often — at least in one’s mind — that between “career or life”. Also how to reconcile family and job remains an issue. But Germany has an environment conducive for work-life balance like only few other countries: Quite high income, an average working time of 40,2 hours — sounds good.
In Germany, having a stable work place is rated quite highly — even to the extent that people accept lower income. Women often work part time — much more than the average European — or not at all. Even if they want to change this situation,it is not always easy. Germany is still stuck to some extent in a traditional role model, and an inflexible labour market. Many women that have studied hence decide against a family. Depending on which statistics you look at, between 25% and 33% of academic women stay without children. Good for productivity, bad for demography — and for what else counts in life.
These are just impressions from some countries. However, two findings appear:
First of all, traditional role models differ a lot. The more gender equality is present in a society, the better work and private life can be balanced. At the same time, productivity is high. No surprise: There is more workforce at hand, and employees are more motivated and more efficient. This is directly connected with different models to structure the day. More gender equality means more flexibility during the working day.
Second, also the economic situation in a country has a high impact on possibilities for work-life balance. The higher the unemployment rate is, the bigger is the risk to shift priorities towards work — it is an essential question whether you have a job.
Digitalisation and globalisation will continue changing our every day life. But it is up to us to ask ourselves the question: How do we want to live? According to the answer we have to create our lives — and to change what we would like to see differently.