MOST AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE IN OTHER DEVELOPED NATIONS
AND THEY REALLY DO NEED TO—BECAUSE THE U.S. DOES NOT SHOW UP WELL IN COMPARISON
QUALITY OF LIFE
It is my impression that the contrast between the U.S. and other developed countries is becoming increasingly more marked (whatever the figures suggest). This doesn’t mean that I am ignoring the figures—but more that there are many near-impossible to measure intangibles where quality of life is concerned.
For instance, because U.S. healthcare costs are so high, and the social safety net is so inadequate, economic risk in America is greater—which makes for vastly more stressful lives. Life in the U.S. is just plain economically riskier.
It is also less attractive in all kinds of other ways from the pervasiveness of advertising, to the poor quality of food, to the relative lack of public transport.
Such deficiencies are many and widespread—and the knowledge that America is the richest country in the world (so such inadequacies are unnecessary) merely adds to the frustration.
Does this matter to a nation of ‘rugged individualists?’
Well, it mightn’t if Americans were as rugged and individualist as the myth portrays—but the reality is otherwise. In fact, there is every evidence that it matters a great deal—from surveys, to both legal and illegal drug consumption, to the fact that Americans live sicker and die more than two years sooner than the inhabitants of other developed nations.
Worry takes its toll. It corrodes the spirit and it kills the body.
Other examples are the paucity of paid vacation time in the U.S., and management’s generally authoritarian attitude towards workers—and so on. True, researchers do attempt to quantify such things—and they do a fair job—but my general feeling is that not only are such matters hard to quantify, but that much is missed.
THE IMPACT OF CULTURE
Attitudes—and culture generally—are particularly hard to quantify with any precision, yet they have a profound impact. In fact, in many cases they matter more than metrics one can measure. If you have ever had a well-paid job, but worked under an unpleasant boss, you will know exactly what I mean. Money helps, but doesn’t compensate adequately.
Is ‘quality of life’ the essence of what matters?
Let me put it this way—I can’t come up with a better phrase that encompasses what I am referring to. Also, I am making a sterling effort not to limit myself to a financial comparison (no pun intended).
Here, I am reminded of a remark made by Colonel Doug Macgregor—whose book, WARRIOR’S RAGE, I worked on for a considerable time. He was making a critical comment on the U.S. Army—in the context of inadequate intelligence, as I recall—and said: “They only count what they can measure.”
Well, as in war, counting only what you can measure in life is very far from enough.
CONTRASTING WORK CULTURES
The following piece by Chantal Panozzo from www.vox.com does an excellent job of contrasting the work culture of both Switzerland and America—and is worth much more serious consideration than it will probably get.
It adds to up to an indictment of both the current American Way of Life and the American Business Model—and should be what the 2016 elections are all about. But, of course, it won’t be. Instead, as normal, a couple of key issues will be nibbled at (to distract the masses), but the totality of the American tragedy—which is how I think of it—will be ignored.
But the article is worth reading and pondering.
MY OWN EXPERIENCES OF SWITZERLAND
I was particularly interested because I have spent some time in Switzerland—months rather than years—largely researching my first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN, made more than a few Swiss friends, and was much impressed.
Switzerland works—and the Swiss are very far from boring.
Her article brought back many memories—including the fact that I once had the chance to marry a rather wonderful Swiss woman.
I passed on the opportunity—foolish fellow that I sometimes am.
But, it is all material.
U.S. PROBLEMS ARE PROFOUNDLY SERIOUS
I would like to make one final very serious point before you read the article. The U.S.’s current problems are not merely minor irritating issues—matters one can debate, but which should not really be considered as being of consequence.
Instead, not only are they of great significance to Americans themselves—and there are over 320 million of them/you—but they represent the accelerating decline of what has long been one of the major bastions of the free world.
Such a decline could well have devastating consequences—particularly as Europe is showing few signs of stepping up to the plate. That said, Europe’s apparent indecisiveness can be misleading. In it’s uniquely confusing style, it actually accomplishes a great deal.
But, perhaps the U.S. will get it’s act together, change its ways, and catch up?
Unfortunately, I see no real signs of this. Also, because Americans don’t know what it’s like the other side of the hill (I’m paraphrasing the Duke of Wellington here) they aren’t aware of the alternatives.
But, I don’t wish to be entirely negative. In ‘can-do’ mode (now rarely in evidence) the U.S. can do things very fast indeed.
NOTE. The following is only an extract. Best you read the full thing at http://www.vox.com/2015/7/21/8974435/switzerland-work-life-balance
Living in Switzerland ruined me for America and its lousy work culture
by Chantal Panozzo on July 21, 2015
1) I had work-life balance
The Swiss work hard, but they have a strong work-life balance. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average Swiss worker earned the equivalent of $91,574 a year in 2013, while the average American worker earned only $55,708. But the real story is that the average American had to work 219 hours more per year for this lesser salary.
Which brings us to lunch. In Switzerland, you don't arrive to a meeting late, but you also don't leave for your lunch break a second past noon. If it's summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour. If you eat a sandwich at your desk, people will scold you. I learned this the hard way.
Lunchtime is sacred time in Switzerland. When I was on maternity leave, my husband came home for lunch to help me care for our daughter. This strengthened our marriage. Many families still reunite during weekdays over the lunch hour.
Weekends in Switzerland encourage leisure time, too. On Sundays, you can't even shop — most stores are closed. You are semi-required to hike in the Alps with your family. It's just what you do.
2) I had time and money
The Swiss have a culture of professional part-time work, and as a result, part-time jobs include every benefit of a full-time job, including vacation time and payment into two Swiss pension systems. Salaries for part-time work are set as a percentage of a professional full-time salary because unlike in the United States, part-time jobs are not viewed as necessarily unskilled jobs with their attendant lower pay.
During my Swiss career, I was employed by various companies from 25 percent to 100 percent. When I worked 60 percent, for example, I worked three days a week. A job that is 50 percent could mean the employee works five mornings a week or, as I once did, two and a half days a week. The freedom to choose the amount of work that was right for me at varying points of my life was wonderful and kept me engaged and happy.
When I took only 10 days for a trip to Spain, my colleagues chastised me for taking so little time off
3) I had the support of an amazing unemployment system
About three years into my Swiss life, I lost my job. And I discovered that in Switzerland, being on unemployment meant you received 70 to 80 percent of your prior salary for 18 months. The Swiss government also paid for me to take German classes, and when I wasn't looking for jobs, I could afford to write a book.
In the United States, on the other hand, unemployment benefits generally pay workers between 40 and 50 percent of their previous salary, and these benefits only last for six months on average. However, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, some unemployed people now receive up to 99 weeks of benefits.
4) I witnessed what happens when countries impose wealth-based taxes
Compared with taxes in the United States, Swiss taxes are easy on the average worker. For example, a worker earning the average wage of $91,574 would pay only about 5 percent of that in Swiss federal income tax. Instead of taxing salaries at high percentages — a practice that puts most of the tax burden on the middle class, where most income comes from wages and not from capital gains — Switzerland immediately taxes dividends at a maximum of 35 percent and also has a wealth-based tax.
While the American tax system is supposed to be progressive — so the more you earn, the more taxes you pay — up to 39.6 percent tax for the highest income brackets, the superrich escape paying these kind of taxes because they aren't making most of their money in wages.
For example, in 2010, Mitt Romney, whose total income was $21.6 million, paid only $3 million in taxes, or a tax rate of about 14 percent, which is amazing when you consider this is the same tax rate American families earning wages from about $16,750 to $68,000 paid in 2010.
The Swiss taxation method leaves money in the pocket of the average worker — and allows them to save accordingly. The average adult in Switzerland has a net worth worth of $513,000 according to the 2013 Credit Suisse Wealth Report. Average net worth among adults in the US is half that.
While I witnessed the benefits of the Swiss tax system for the average person, I did not benefit from them due to my American citizenship. Instead, I paid both Swiss tax and American tax while living in Switzerland. Unfortunately, the US is one of the only nations in the world where tax is citizen-based instead of resident-based. (China, in a new push to enforce tax law for citizens working abroad, is one of the others, along with Eritrea.)
5) I had lots of paid vacation time and was never made to feel guilty about taking it
At my former American job, I received 10 days of paid vacation per year, and each of those days came with a sizable portion of guilt if actually used. But in Switzerland, my husband's company gave employees six weeks of vacation a year. Most of the Swiss companies I worked for gave four — the legal minimum is four. Moreover, everything shut down between Christmas and New Year's, giving most employees like me another guaranteed week off.
People in Europe took vacation seriously. Once, when I only took 10 days for a trip to Spain, my colleagues chastised me for taking so little time off. I learned to take vacation chunks in two-week intervals. Well rested, I noticed that I felt more productive and creative when I returned to work. Recent American research confirms what I was feeling: Relaxing can make you more productive. So why don't Americans embrace vacation time?
6) I never had to own a car
I'm currently cringing at the idea of being required to buy a car. A Honda dealer here in Chicago recently quoted me $18,000 for a 2012 Accord, and that seems like a lot of money — especially when you still need to pay for insurance, gasoline, and repairs. The price is even more daunting for someone who isn't used to being required to pay for such a thing.
The freedom to choose the amount of work that was right for me kept me engaged and happy
Not owning a car is financially freeing — and it saves the environment, too. In Switzerland, 21 percent of households do not own a car, versus 9.2 percent in the US.
The Swiss train connects to the bus that connects to the cable car to get you on the slopes in the middle of nowhere at the scheduled second. From Zurich, I could also take a high-speed train to Paris in three and a half hours. Now I can barely get from the western suburbs to the north side of Chicago in that amount of time — let alone have the option to do it carless. This means I'm turning down jobs instead of taking them. This isn't good for the American economy or for me.
And let's be clear: Living in a city suburb is no excuse for having bad transit options. I lived exactly the same distance from Zurich that I now live from Chicago (15 miles) but shared none of the public transport frustrations.
7) I had excellent health care when I gave birth — and then enjoyed a fully paid 14-week maternity leave
When I gave birth in Switzerland, I was encouraged to stay five days in the hospital. So I did. The $3,000 bill for the birth and hospital stay was paid in full by my Swiss insurance. As was the required midwife, who came to my apartment for five days after I came home from the hospital to check on both my health and my baby's.
Had I been in the US for my delivery, the cost would have been much higher — and the quality of care arguably lower. The average price for a vaginal birth in the US is $30,000 and includes an average of less than a two-day hospital stay.
Swiss law also mandates a 14-week maternity leave at a minimum of 80 percent pay. I was lucky enough to receive 100 percent pay. Compare that with the US, where new mothers aren't guaranteed any paid time off after giving birth. In Switzerland, it's also common to choose how much work to return to after having a child. Since my Swiss job at the time had been full time, I chose to return at 60 percent.
Other American friends in Switzerland who gave birth also chose to return to their careers part time: My engineering manager friend chose 70 percent, and my lawyer friend chose 80 percent. We had great careers, we had balance, and we also had a Swiss government that paid a monthly child stipend whether we needed it or not. For Americans like me, Swiss Reality was privilege.
Finally, finally, after almost a decade abroad, my husband and I decided we needed to go home to see what home felt like, or if the United States even felt like home anymore. So we put our Swiss residence permits on hold for two years and went back to Chicago.
While I enjoy being close to family again, returning to the United States made me realize who I've become: someone who can't believe companies aren't required to pay into a pension fund beyond Social Security. Someone who is offended that most women in America don't have the maternity benefits she had.
And someone who is mad that she must own a car for lack of efficient public transportation. Someone who, because of all of this, is still debating where she ultimately wants to call home.
Chantal Panozzo is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I'd Known. She has written about Switzerland and expat life for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.