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Work, Work, Work

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Leaving the dry heat of northern California to go work in Berlin had one very tangible benefit. My job in Germany afforded me, from the get go, six weeks of paid annual leave.

I was not a CEO. I worked full-time as a managing director at a small research non-profit and also as a freelance writer. I earned a middle class income. But I did not have to work for years to earn what is considered a given across Europe: meaningful time off from work, an understanding that leisure is an essential part of the good life, for everyone.

In May, I returned to Sacramento to be near my aging and recently widowed mother. It's good to be home, but returning to work here means just two paid weeks off per year, a full month less than I'd had in Europe.

Summertime, alas, and the living is not so easy.

Why is this so? Why do Americans work so hard? Why is it that when we go on vacation, Americans often take their work with them?


Every year, when I would visit family and friends in California, they marveled at my long vacations. Astonished at my privilege, they wanted to know how the work gets done. They thought of Germans, after all, as industrious and efficient.

And indeed, they are. When they work, they are highly focused and they place a premium on concentration and precision. But they reason that those virtues come from being well-rested. Along with universal health care and a free university education, among other social benefits, the Germans (not to mention French, English, Italians and Danes and the rest of the Continent) seem to have struck a perfect balance.

It's said that the Protestant work ethic has influenced shorter vacations in the U.S. as compared to the rest of the industrialized world, although the work ethic in Germany, the birthplace of Protestantism, is second to none. But, too, being back here, I hear more public dialogue about "work-life balance," a phrase that got shorter shrift when I lived here 15 years ago. We should continue that conversation.

My former German colleagues, working in the economic powerhouse of Europe, would only applaud this. And then they'd probably head out on vacation.

With a Perspective, I'm Elizabeth Zach.

Elizabeth Zach is a writer covering poverty, environmental and affordable housing issues at the Rural Community Assistance Corporation in West Sacramento.

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