European work-life balance

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Mr. N invited me to the December sales conference again. I felt more useful than in the previous years because of the project. There was also the office Christmas party, which again involved lots of drinking and dancing. I still didn’t feel bold enough to venture into the dance floor and remained at the dinner table, speaking to whoever lagged from the crowd.

Mr. N sat next to me and told me how Europeans had a good work-life balance. Germans started working as early as 7 am but left by 4 pm to enjoy the rest of the day with their family. French and Spanish took a long lunch break, which allowed them to refresh their mind and body for the afternoon work. He said, “the Japanese work too hard day and night and are often too tired to do their best at their job.” I mulled over this. The stereotype of hard-working Japanese salary-man was once a virtue they took pride in until the country achieved the second-largest economy in the world, but since the debacle of the stock market in the early 1990s, it had become a caricature of a hamster on a wheel. But as a result of the economic depression, Japanese corporations ditched the lifetime employment and seniority system, which opened up space for the idea of meritocracy. Along with the declining number of stay-at-home wives due to increasing insecurity over household finances, there was hope among young people to achieve career success regardless of age and gender.

The European work-life style didn’t particularly appeal to me. Perhaps those French and German laborers weren’t ambitious, and they only wanted to work to earn enough to maintain a monotonous, ordinary life. I didn’t need a two-hour-long lunch or a relaxing TV time in the evening. My goal was to get as high as possible on the career ladder, and I believed at the time that it was achievable through a commitment to hard work.

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