You can read a number of articles in France’s online press on how the young generation is fleeing the country to work in other, less sordid, environments. The Sinistrose* is widespread in the workplace. Factories close. Only 11% of the French are happy to go to work in the morning. And so it goes on.
So what is this all about? Is it even true? Are the French really worse off than other Europeans? I decided to dig a little bit deeper into things because, honestly, can it really be all that bad? I was really hoping that it would prove not to be. Here are some things I got hold of, to see how things are in France compared to other countries in Europe.
There are regularly articles about the happiest people on earth, and the OECD** does a lot of interesting research on this. In terms of overall “subjective happiness” (how happiness can be anything but subjective, I’d like to know), Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark are at the top. Hungary, Portugal, Greece and Estonia are at the bottom. France scores somewhere in the middle.
The OECD hints that low-income countries in general tend to do well on subjective well-being and work-life balance, while higher income countries often have more difficulties reconciling work-life balance. I guess Denmark would be an exception to this…
In terms of overall feeling that people have too much work and too little resources to do it, only 9.6% of the Danes feel this way, followed by Norwegians, Fins, Dutchmen, and the Irish. Almost a third of the French on the other hand seem to think there is too much to do at work, with too little resources. They are followed by the Greek, Spanish, Slovenians, Hungarians and Germans. Reversely, 62% of the Danes think they have a lot of resources for little work load, while only 22% of the French think the same. So, it would seem a lot of the French feel overworked, and a lot of the Danes tag along without too much stress in terms of having too much to do at work…
Too much work also translates into long hours. The Danish workweek is officially 37 hours, and 34.5 in the public sector (due to included lunch breaks). France has got a 35-hour workweek. It was reduced from 39 hours in 2000, where the remaining 4 hours were supposed to create new jobs. But still, loads of French seem to work more than 50 hours per week. In the UK, France and Austria, around 10% of people say they work 50 hours or more per week, while this number is between 0 and 2 % in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark. So far, it makes sense in relation to the “pressure” or workload; high workload translates into longer hours.
Still, if people feel they are overworked and unhappy in general, you might think they would change jobs to do something about it. But, here is an interesting take on how long people stay in their positions: In France, over 55% of the workers have stayed over 10 years in a position, but at the other side of the spectrum around 11% of the population have temporary jobs. In Denmark, around 35% have staid longer than 10 yrs, and around 6% have temporary jobs. So, the French are not happy, but they still stick to their jobs and long hours. The Danes on the other hand are happy at work, and still they move around. Maybe the Swedish expression of “change makes you happy” is actually true.
Is it easier to change jobs in Denmark? Is that why people move around more and have more long-term, rather than temporary, contracts? If you look for example at the stringency of dismissal rules on a 0-6 scale, it is 1.5 for Denmark and 2.5 for France (Portugal tops the list at 4 point something, and as a comparison, the USA is at 0 point something). It is not clear if it is easier to get a job in Denmark from the OECD stats, but it is definitely easier to dismiss workers. In France, it also seems around 85% of all new hires are for temporary positions. Could this be because once you have hired, you can’t be flexible and adapt the workforce if the needs of the company evolve? – I’m only speculating… Looking at unemployment rates, unemployment was at 10.6 in France, and 6,2 in Denmark, in early 2015 (Germany is at the top of the class at 4.8% and the USA are at 5.5%). By this, I would assume it is, indeed, easier to find a job in Denmark than in France.
So, without being an economist, and possibly with the risk of being called a total amateur when it comes to interpreting statistics, it seems that the Danes have a higher employment rate, and that each person works less, but that they are more easily fired. At the end of the day, they still earn more per person than the French, and they are happier – “subjectively”.
Between the length of working hours, too much work to do vs not too much, unemployment rates, and various happiness indices, looking at the bottom line at how well different countries perform in numbers could be interesting. Expressed in relative GDP per capita, where the EU as a whole is indexed at 100, Denmark comes in at 125 and France at 107. This should be possible to transform into a productivity number per person for the working population only, using numbers on working age population, unemployment, etc, but as I am sure I would miss out on some important factor that would discredit the entire calculus, resulting in one country having more productive workers the other, I’ll leave my theories here.
Lastly, how many people actually leave France, compared to other European countries? If, to start with, the French don’t leave their positions at work, are they likely to make the more drastic decision to move abroad?
The OECD happiness at work index is not reflected by any particular statistics on immigration or emigration from European countries. The EU is very good at providing statistics for how many arrive into the EU, but far less on how many leave the EU, each year.
A total of 14 of the EU-27 Member States reported more immigration than emigration in 2012, and France was not among these. The ones where people leave in larger numbers than they come in are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Croatia and the three Baltic states.
The French outside of France are today around 1.6 million (the freshest stats I could find are from end 2013) against 65.5 million inhabitants, and in 2007 they were around 1.3 million against 63.6 million inhabitants. Based on this, the percentage of French living abroad was slightly higher in 2013 than in 2007 (2.44 vs 2.04%).
There has also been a lot of talk about the younger generations leaving France in greater numbers. Generation Y is known to be more impatient than previous generations, so maybe they are more likely to go abroad to look for better opportunities? The Parisian Chamber of Commerce, CCIP, did a survey on this in 2014. However, in spite of an increase in emigration, the CCIP says it is too early to tell whether the trend is here to stay or not.
So, time will have to tell if more and more of Generation Y decides to leave, or if they decide to change the system from within to create a happier nation. It is true that the French management model is far from the flat Scandinavian models, and that the American leadership debate is just beginning its quest on French territory (read more about that here, here and here). Maybe this is part of the dissatisfaction of Generation Y. You can already see a booming group of entrepreneurs, of “collaborative” economy ventures (read more about that here and here), and of champions for the “liberated” company trend (read more about that here), who believe that the French leadership model needs to change in order to boost motivation at work.
Would a change in mindsets help bring France higher up on the “work happiness index”, and, ultimately, could internal change push the French economy in a positive direction?
*Sinistrose. First, I thought this was just a fun way of combining “sinistre” and “sclérose”, and that it really fits well with people who complain about everything’s lousiness, but it turns out it is actually a defined pathology. The word was first used by the French doctor and neurologist Edouard Brissaud in 1908. It is often observed in relation to road or work accidents, and is the state of refusing to recognise one’s re-established health, and (unconsciously) amplifying the damages that one has suffered. Further, it can create apathy and a conduct of “badwill” in relation to the person who caused the initial accident, by the person who suffers from it.
**Please note that the OECD urges that all information be interpreted with caution, be put into a wider context, and that a lot of factors play into the results when you gather this type of data. Cultural differences also play a part when it comes to evaluation individual, subjective, satisfaction. So do bear that in mind.
Sources: Eurostat, OECD, CCIP, Wikipedia, Insee, LeMonde, TradingEconomics