The big news out of France these days is that President Macron’s controversial plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 years old was actually approved by the constitutional court earlier this month. This has sparked numerous debates about French people’s work ethic.
If you know the French, you know that striking and protesting is part of their culture. Outsiders who live in countries where the retirement age is higher than 64 think the French are lucky and have nothing to complain about since they have it so good, which begs the question we see thrown around again and again. Are the French lazy? Let’s talk about it.
Alright, this is a huge topic, but let’s try to tackle it by first defining what laziness means. According to the Oxford Dictionary, laziness is “the quality of being unwilling to work or use energy.” The French word for “lazy” is paresseux.
And I need to say this right out of the gate that there are lazy people of all nationalities including France and the U.S. I’ve encountered lazy people all over the world.
It’s not a characteristic of people just from France, but with the recent news, it’s a question that has come up again and again in the media. Does that stereotype depicting the French as lazy hold any weight or are they getting an undeserved bad rap?
I think to properly attempt to answer that question, we need to take a look at some context, French history and some facts about working in France.
It was 1864 when France legalized the right to strike and reasons why the French go on strike are quite complex, so just know that things like the country’s educational philosophy, unions, and a lot more play into it. The right to strike is in the French constitution…Young, old, left wing right wing, rich and poor…. all types of French people strike. It’s in French blood and it’s nothing new.
Regarding rights, well In the U.S., people like to talk about their rights — things like freedom and the right to bear arms for example. The French are proud of the rights they fought for too, but they’re just different rights. In France, the right to strike and being able to rest in one’s retirement are extremely important. They fight for what’s theirs.
Next, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the average working week in France is 35 hours — that was put into practice in the year 2000. Now 35 hours a week is lower than the OECD average of 38.3 hours per week.
In the U.S., we consider a standard work week to be 40 hours per week. That breaks down to the average French worker working 1490 hours/year and workers in the U.S. at 1791 hours/year, for comparison’s sake. It’s clear that on average the French work less than the OECD average of 1716 hours/year.
But, does that mean French people are lazy? Let’s look at another statistic. The OECD also reports that the average productivity per hour worked in France is higher than the OECD average. In fact, French workers are among the most productive in the world, coming in at 25 percent higher than the OECD and EU28 averages. They’ve nailed the whole working smart, not hard thing.
So, if French people are lazy, how can they be so productive, you ask?
Well, one possible explanation is the concept of “work-life balance” which France does rather well. French workers value their free time and prioritize it over work. This is reflected in the French labor laws that guarantee a minimum of five weeks of paid vacation per year (thanks to President François Mitterrand in 1981), among other benefits like a work contract, parental leave, childcare, unemployment, etc.
But, let’s not forget that productivity isn’t everything. French people also score highly on other measures of well-being, such as happiness, life satisfaction, and health. This suggests that the French way of balancing work and leisure time may actually be beneficial for overall well-being.
Now, let’s address the retirement age issue. The French government’s decision to raise the retirement age to 64 has been met with major criticism. You’ve seen the protests and trash piling up in Paris from several weeks back.
However, it’s important to note that France still has a relatively generous retirement system compared to other countries. In fact, the retirement age in France has historically been lower than many other European countries.
The change in retirement age may be seen as a necessary adjustment from the president to address demographic challenges, such as an aging population and increasing life expectancy. It’s also worth noting that the retirement age is not the only factor that affects the labor force participation rate. Other factors, such as employment opportunities, education, and health, also play a role.
I also want to note that the 35-hour work week I mentioned just before was implemented with the intention of improving the quality of life for workers, rather than promoting laziness and also because the left wing government at the time viewed it as a way to create more jobs. And of course you’ll find people who work well beyond that 35-hour mark.
It’s also worth noting that France has a strong tradition of labor activism and workers’ rights. The country has a history of fighting for fair wages, reasonable working hours, and safe working conditions. French workers are known for their strong unionization and are not afraid to strike to demand better working conditions. Air traffic control, pilots, railway workers, teachers, doctors… you name in, they strike!
That brings me to cultural differences. One of them is that in France, the French work to live whereas in the U.S., Americans live to work. And there are reasons for this and systems in place that keep things the way they are.
The French are masters at living well and enjoying life, which is easier to do when you have a job contract and all the protections that come with it like 5 weeks of mandatory paid vacation each year, and healthcare coverage regardless of your work status, because in France healthcare is a right afforded to all, not a privilege.
So, are the French lazy?
If you want my opinion as someone who has lived in France since 2012, my short answer is no. The French are not lazy. While they may have shorter workweeks and longer vacation time, the stats show that French people are actually more productive than workers in other countries. Their focus on the work-life balance and strong labor rights traditions have led to a better quality of life for workers and a higher overall productivity rate.
It’s easy to be more relaxed about work and prioritize your work-life balance when you don’t depend on your job for healthcare, that generous vacation time is a worker’s right and not a benefit offered by good employers, and when you have all kinds of employment protections that won’t leave you without a roof over your head while working you to the bone.
Anyway, my thoughts here are just the tip of the iceberg. This is a really complex topic but hopefully that’s given you some food for thought. I’d love to hear from you below, if you’ve worked with French people, what do you think? In your experience, do you feel that French people are lazy? Do you see a difference in the private versus public sector?
Hi Diane! This is a really important issue, and I agree with you that the world doesn’t understand some of the deeper issues of WHY the French are striking – at least for my husband’s family (most of whom are civil servants or working in corporations), a lot of their anger is about the power of the corporations and the French government pension structure, which is stacked against the French. I know you touched on this, but I want readers to understand that some (financial) issues are deeper than the journalists are reporting.
My (French) family’s anger is at the fact that the corporations are not being required to retain older employees, so raising the age actually burdens employees with having to somehow bridge the financial gap between their pension eligibility and their release from their job, which can occur years before their eligibility as many employees are “under contract.” Raising the retirement age can make those financial gap years even wider. Because the French aren’t employees-at-will (like in the US), finding another job willing to take them on under contract in their 50s, say, or even 60, is nearly impossible.
Also, his family says that the fact that the pension-eligible salary can decrease as the French age (unlike in the US), and because French pensions are not calculated on the average of all of the years worked nor the highest salary of a year worked (like in the US), an employee’s highest monthly salary may be in their 40s or 50s, when they are at their highest position in their field, and not when they are in their 60s, when they are often in more advisory (reduced) roles and can therefore be at lower salaries – and that lower salary is the amount upon which they retire.
So as these 60+ year olds are forced out of the corporations and government jobs at the “retirement age,” they are deeply worried that their pensions will not be enough to support them as the cost of living increases and their medical needs increase.
Thank you for sharing this, Johanna! It brings a lot to light, and details I was unaware of. Best wishes to your family through this adjustment.