“I’m unemployed in Amsterdam, and it’s great!” says Marco, a 32-year old Italian. This surprised me, as one whose own recent experience of joblessness had instead led to something resembling an existential crisis. The belief that one lives to work, and works to live, was ingrained deeply enough for me to be affected on a psychological as well as a practical level.
The fundamental need to work is common to most people. A vast portion of Europeans, often from the South and East, share the experience of moving across the continent to find work and seek their fortunes. This movement has grown in recent years: in crisis-hit European economies, the choice for many young people is either to keep studying for as long as possible, or to move north. Working as a waiter in a London restaurant, I often stood out as the only native British staff member among Hungarians, Poles and Spaniards. As Ludmila, a 25-year old Czech, puts it, “you have to work to survive: so you follow the market”.
But for all those who leave, there are plenty for whom relocating for financial reasons would in some ways mean ‘selling out’: either their country, in its time of economic struggle, or themselves as they sacrifice their other choices to the need to work. Maria, a young Neapolitan journalist, is at once frightened by the idea of having no choice but to leave, and loth to turn her back on the challenges facing her compatriots.
As for Marco, rather than moving to find work, he actually left a hard-won publishing job because he wanted to try life in a new country. From this perspective, priorities are different and it can seem the fact of working is viewed with ambivalence. Maria is highly distrustful of the perception that work alone can necessarily bring happiness. She has just started her first proper contract, and resents the feeling that thanks to its fixed times (with lousy pay), “my life is no longer my own”.
This reaction is not unreasonable: grousing at arbitrary time commitments makes more immediate sense than grousing at too much free time. And the transition from the flexible timetable of a student to the enforced routine of work, combined with the knowledge that it will last virtually forever, is often a shock for young people everywhere. But it is extremely rare to hear such a reaction voiced in the UK, where it is generally accepted that the main aim is to ‘get ahead’ in life: here, as in neighbouring societies, those in their twenties submit willingly to the regime of metro-boulot-dodo (commute-work-sleep), move out early, and start thinking of buying a house early.
Out of the contrasting views of young Europeans, a divergence emerges in attitudes not just to work, but to life.
Maria’s vision of life, on the other hand, find its equilibrium closer to the student lifestyle than to the anticipation of a successful career, a Volvo and two children. It is largely a reaction against the control money exerts over so many aspects of our existences. Out of the contrasting views of young Europeans, a divergence emerges in attitudes not just to work, but to life.
This divergence is familiar to Grace, who is Irish but works in a multi-cultural Brussels environment. She is now used to colleagues’ surprise when they learn she is already engaged at the tender age of twenty-six. As she and her British friend Kate admit, “people get married sooner in the UK and Ireland”. For Marco, this more hurried approach to life is very much a turn-off: “yes, when I went to London everyone was talking only of mortgages and things like that”, he reports disgustedly. While many are attracted by northern Europe’s offer of work, the way of life that arguably goes with it positively repels a lot of young people.
A question of working culture
This is not a question of the stereotypes regarding work-ethics that currently abound in comparisons of European economies: people like Maria are, after all, prepared to endure a dose of drudgery. And there does seem a genuine trade-off in terms of time and money. Friends in London meet for an urgent ‘catch-up’: a timed exchange of essential updates that resembles nothing more than syncing an iPod. Their counterparts in Lisbon meet often, for long evenings of cooking, drinking, coming and going: their lives genuinely overlap.
Of course, much of this space for social bonding is enforced. Without work, one has time for other things to be more important. And in contrast to the individualism of those countries where children move out at twenty-one, there remains a network of family obligations that are harder to shake off. Many of my acquaintances are genuinely troubled at remaining dependent on their parents.
While many are attracted by northern Europe’s offer of work, the way of life that arguably goes with it positively repels a lot of young people.
But there is a certain grace in such a lifestyle: alongside this disquiet persists a youthful sense of optimism about what it is possible to be when one grows up. Those graduates without a job want to find one, but one that they like.
The good life
The refusal to let life be dominated by work used to be a prerogative of the ‘leisured classes’. But the previous generation, in Western Europe at least, benefited from the sort of economic conditions that meant the pure necessity of work could recede in importance. Interesting jobs from writing to lighthouse-keeping were more plentiful, and working hours were limited.
The expectations this impressive phase created seem to have endured, vestiges of a vision of ‘the good life’ that has otherwise disappeared: many of those European economies that have continued to grow through the crisis have relied on harsher working conditions and lower pay. Other countries that have not become more competitive face an uncertain economic future in a world where everyone is having to work harder.
Perhaps the last generation’s experience was an unsustainable historical blip. But it is more inspiring to think that competitiveness and a life over-dominated by work do not have to be so directly linked, and that the ‘good life’ can be re-discovered – though perhaps without going as far as Marco’s ideal.