Monday, November 29, 2004

The land of the (not so) free

Well, I have finally got round to updating my blog after a month! One of the drawbacks of running your own business is that leisure time can sometimes be hard to come by. In recent months (my wife would say years!), I have become victim to the protestant work ethic.

The protestant work ethic, as practised in America seems to be going back to it's puritan roots. The term was originally coined by Max Weber in his 1905 publication,"The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He wrote... "The Puritan, wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order.". At least the Puritans insisted everyone take Sundays off; increasingly, it's not uncommon for Americans to squeeze in a few extra hours of work on Sunday, and many neglect to use up their annual vacation allotments. In fact the Protestant work ethic as practiced in America seems to have some old fashioned catholic guilt mixed in. Americans look with a mixture of envy and suspicion at their president who takes a whole month off in the Summer. Those who do take vacations end up taking their work with them or worse, feel the need to page / email their office whilst they're away.

Despite all this, Americans must be doing something right. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out in the Telegraph, Americans are wealthier, more competitive and have less unemployment then their European counterparts. In contrast to Weber, Niall Ferguson states mockingly that Europe has adopted "The Atheist Sloth Ethic and the Spirit of Collectivism", arguing that Europe's relative economic decline can be attributed to the decline in religion. He says:

"The most remarkable thing about the transatlantic divergence in working patterns is that it has coincided almost exactly with a comparable divergence in religiosity. According to a 1999 Gallup survey of religious attitudes, 48 per cent of people living in western Europe almost never go to church; the figure for eastern Europe is just a little lower at 44 per cent.

In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than one in 10 of the population now attends church at least once a month. Only in Catholic Italy and Ireland do more than a third of the population worship on a monthly basis or more often.

By contrast, more than twice as many North Americans as Europeans attend religious services once a week or more. And scarcely any Americans could be characterised as atheists, compared with 15 per cent of Europeans".

Whist this may be true, the situation in America has clearly gone too far with survey after survey showing that the long hours Americans work are damaging family life, and in many cases leading to divorce. One english couple I know who live in Seattle describe America as the best contraceptive they've ever found. They work so hard and have so little family time, they have no desire to conceive any more children till they return to the UK.

Well, I have come up with a solution. America needs to find a happy medium by adopting the Jewish work ethic.

Judaism places an emphasis on hard work but also on personal development and more importantly, family life. Within traditional Judaism, the ideal is to earn enough to support your family, but otherwise you should be devoting your waking hours to either learning Torah (the bible and all the Jewish traditions stemming from it) and spending time with your family, in particular educating your children (and that's just during the week).

Then there is the Sabbath day. Never mind how busy you are, never mind that you're about to close a multi-million dollar deal, everything stops at sundown on Friday for 25 hours. You relax, you unwind, you spend time with your family. It can sometimes be frustrating, but it's a great safety valve. (My Father who was a journalist once wasted an entire weeks work because he was unable to fax his article as the Sabbath was coming in). And even after the Sabbath there are all the religious holidays that are spread throughout the year, 22 days of them. And on all but eight, no work is permitted! Hallelujah!

Adopt the Jewish work ethic and you will no longer feel any guilt when taking time off work, but be warned, you may inherit “Jewish Mother guilt” instead.