Anthony Sampson: The European taste for langorous holidays which we secretly envy and long to copy

Should we really be striving to be more like the Americans when their attitude to work is becoming more discredited?

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August is the most joyless month for economists in Europe, who have to face the bleakest question in their "dismal science". Are Europeans paying too high a price for enjoying long holidays, when they are weakening their continent's economic performance compared to the Americans?

August is the most joyless month for economists in Europe, who have to face the bleakest question in their "dismal science". Are Europeans paying too high a price for enjoying long holidays, when they are weakening their continent's economic performance compared to the Americans?

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The Europeans' love of leisure is visible everywhere in August, as they relish their vacations of a month or more. The European Union in Brussels virtually closes down. Paris is emptied of Frenchmen; shops and restaurants close down; and the city is taken over by foreign tourists.

Many Americans, in the meantime, take only a week's holiday, and even then feel uneasy, wondering if someone else will have moved into their office when they get back: the more important they become, the less they can risk staying away.

And many Americans, observing the Europeans' indulgence on endless holidays, see it as part of their general decadence and backwardness.

It is an old theory, that economic growth depends on joyless religion and self-denial. A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber contrasted the economic success of Northern Europeans with the sluggish performance of Southern Europeans, and explained that it was due to the "Protestant ethic" which defined the "spirit of capitalism", as opposed to the easygoing attitudes of Catholics. And this austere theory was naturally welcomed by American industrialists demanding maximum production.

In the decades after the Second World War, the religious explanation seemed discredited, as France, Italy and Spain achieved their economic miracles. But more recently, the belief in the Protestant ethic has made a comeback. Niall Ferguson, the industrious Scots economic historian - who now lives in America - has found a close relationship between religious beliefs and church-going, in America and Europe, and economic performance.

But it is too simple nowadays to equate leisure with laziness: watching Europeans on holiday, they appear far from easygoing as they become still more preoccupied with sporting activities - when they are not watching the Olympics. The French today seem more serious about their leisure than about their work. One French journalist living in America, Pierre-Yves Dugua, wrote recently in Le Figaro: "Holidays occupy such importance in French life that work is denigrated and devalued."

But the whole distinction between work and leisure has become more blurred. Noel Coward once said: "Work is more fun than fun'; but many Europeans nowadays - including the British - seem to regard fun as harder work than work.

So has the Europeans' love of holidays seriously reduced their economic performance? Certainly over the last few years, American economists have been looking at the long European holidays with stern disapproval, and have given their continental counterparts a sense of guilt.

The 35-hour week has had results which are annoying to visitors, as shops have closed early, or shut down on weekdays. American industrialists and economists have seen the shorter hours worked by French and Germans as weakening their competitiveness in the global marketplace - particularly since harder-working Eastern Europeans, like the Czechs, have joined the European Union with lower labour costs.

Yet recently - thank goodness - there have been growing doubts about this simple cause and effect. Most foreign employers of European workers now reckon that their problems come not so much from the shorter hours, as from the difficulty in firing them, and the high payroll taxes. "If you want to reduce unemployment and boost competitiveness in Europe", an economist at Goldman Sachs told the International Herald Tribune, "you need more flexibility in the labour market, not to tinker with the hours".

The French 35-hour week, it turns out, has not really deterred investors: France remains the second biggest receiver of foreign investment in the world. And French workers now (according to EU statistics) have higher productivity than Americans.

And at the same time, Americans have become less convinced that their own obsession with work is really desirable, or essential to economic efficiency; and they are looking with some envy at the more relaxed European approach. Recently, two American professors of sociology, Peter Meiksins and Peter Whalley, wrote a book called Putting Work In its Place which threw doubts on whether Americans want to become workaholics.

"Americans are compelled to work as long as they do in part because of the pervasive insecurity of American life ...", they wrote. "Europeans have gained politically what many Americans say they want individually, but have been unable to achieve politically."

So where do the British stand in this argument? As usual, they are caught between America and Europe. Many British bosses have shown signs of moving further towards American work patterns. But recent research has suggested that some of the success of the American economy may be illusory. A study by an American economist Robert Gordon, Two Centuries of Economic Growth, has suggested that the much vaunted American Gross Domestic Product (GDP) looks much less impressive after it takes account of the high additional costs, including the expensive security measures and the prison population, and that the Europeans might actually be ahead of Americans if the welfare element was included.

The rigorous British economist Sir Samuel Brittan, commenting on Gordon's findings, concludes that there is now little to choose between the economic performance of North-west Europe and America; and that Britain has been too scornful about the continentals. The British Government, he wrote recently in the Financial Times, should be cautious in lecturing other EU countries about its supposedly superior economic performance.

So as British visitors to the Continent this August watch French and German holidaymakers, whether with envy or disapproval, before hurrying back to their offices, they might well think again about their attitudes to work and play.

Have we really thought through our policies about leisure? Why do we allow ourselves such short summer breaks, for instance, when holidays are most enjoyable, while we furtively take still more days off in the bleak days between Christmas and the New Year, which are the most unattractive time for real relaxation?

Should we really be striving to become more like the Americans, when the transatlantic attitude to work is becoming more discredited? Can we not learn more from the French who take their holidays as seriously as their work?

And should we not be more sceptical of all those economists who preach about the importance of long working hours and the Protestant ethic, while they spend long holidays in French villages enjoying all the blessings of a country which has devoted so much thought and care to the art of leisure?

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