In praise of European laziness
Blame medieval monks for our work obsession
Today is the feast of the Assumption, a day when most continental Europeans get a holiday, a welcome break from their backbreaking month of hard grind. August is the time when many continentals traditionally take their extended vacations, an idea that inspired a popular tweet comparing American v European attitudes to holidays, which went like this:
‘Europeans’ out of offices are like “I will not be working until 18 September. All emails will be automatically deleted.”
Americans: “I am in the hospital. Email responses may be delayed by up to 30 mins. Sorry for the inconvenience! If urgent, please reach me in the ER at...”’
This difference in attitudes perhaps has something to do with America being far richer than Europe, as Sam Bowman recently outlined in this excellent piece. Yet there is something to be said for European laziness, or at least an argument to be made against overwork, and for people taking some time off to enjoy a genuine holiday rather than just ‘annual leave’.
(Of course, I can say that, but then I’m literally writing this on holiday. A conservative writer extolling a lifestyle he doesn’t actually live – unprecedented!)
Traditionally, elites were noted for their laziness, a group defined by Thorstein Veblen as ‘the leisure class’. In 1899 he wrote that:
Wherever the canon of conspicuous leisure has a chance undisturbed to work out its tendency, there will therefore emerge a secondary, and in a sense spurious, leisure class – abjectly poor and living a precarious life of want and discomfort, but morally unable to stop to gainful pursuits. The decayed gentleman and the lady who has seen better days are by no means unfamiliar phenomena even now. This pervading sense of the indignity of the slightest manual labour is familiar to all civilised peoples, as well as to peoples of a less advanced pecuniary culture. In persons of delicate sensibility, who have long been habituated to gentle manners, the sense of the shamefulness of manual labour may become so strong that, at a critical juncture, it will even set aside the instinct of self-preservation. So, for instance, we are told of certain Polynesian chiefs, who, under the stress of good form, preferred to starve rather than carry their food to their mouths with their own hands.
That has all changed, and in The Meritocracy Trap Daniel Markovits observed just how hard the American upper classes now work. He wrote that in 1962 lawyers earned a third of what they do now but 1,300 billable hours per year was regarded as normal. Today a major law firm can declare 2,400 hours ‘not unreasonable’, a figure which equates to working 8am-6pm for six days a week, every week, without holiday.
Elite finance workers used to have ‘banker’s hours’, which meant a typical day ‘began at ten and ended at three with an intermission for a three-martini, two-hour lunch.’ In contrast, he wrote, ‘an analyst at an investment bank… reported working 155 hours’ in a single shift, while one tech company required executives to check email on holiday and until 2 am on Sunday nights.