POLITICS & INSTITUTIONS - ECONOMY

Editorial: Work? Uh, no thanks



20200324_photo_matic_zorman_0255_preview.jpg

Library picture: A restaurant terrace on the Knuedler, 24 March 2020. Photo credit: Matic Zorman 

People in Luxembourg are taking the ‘return to normal’ differently than Americans, observes Delano’s Jeff Palms.

With millions of people worldwide getting pumped with covid-19 vaccines, certain places are returning to semblances of their pre-pandemic selves. News coverage in my native United States has been eagerly reporting on the swiftness of the Biden-championed inoculation rollout, with slews of beaming reports complemented by maps showing the USA in cool and healthy shades of light blue and the world-spanning elsewhere in problematic danger colors like amber or red.

In Luxembourg, record numbers of tram riders (42,000 per week) were recorded in April, doubling the December 2020 figures and suggesting that plenty of folks are out and about--and with the covcheck app revved up and restaurants taking parties of ten, things feel as busy as ever. We may find ourselves inside a misleadingly amber-tinted infographic from an American newspaper, but we in the grand duchy are not deterred from--within reason--going to shows, seeing friends, and sitting in the office.

And most crucially, we haven’t been deterred from hitting the terrace. Over the last several weeks, I think nothing has been as hotly watched in all of Luxembourg as the harrowingly fickle matchup of decent weather with terrace re-openings.

Back to the office

As restrictions in both countries are lifted, however, the outcry over returning to pre-pandemic work norms, and in some cases to work at all, seems to be louder in the USA. (For coverage of just how loud it is, see Bloomberg, the Associated Press and the Washington Post.) According to CNBC, as high as a quarter of post-pandemic American workers are considering quitting their jobs. A quarter! Even though I know better, I’ll never stop being surprised by stuff like that. One moment the USA is a work-worshipping nation gaslit by its own inexplicable equation of unemployment with laziness (and poverty with laziness, burnouts with laziness, holiday-taking with laziness, youth with laziness, etc.); the next, people are quitting their entire jobs rather than going back to onsite work and even employees of Apple, who I assume suffer chronically from reverence for Tim Cook, wrote a letter protesting the company’s request that they return to the office for just three days a week.

As usual, though, my surprise diminishes after mere minutes of thinking about it. Of course Americans are protesting the lifestyle change in the most extreme terms possible. We were brought up to have our trigger-fingers on revolution. Our nation was founded on a revolution, after all, and we’ve never gotten over it.

In Luxembourg, you don’t hear much in the same vein. The vaccines came, the terraces opened, and people just said: OK, back to work now. Luxembourg culture has a stickiness to it whereby institutional change is not so casually sparked. Trust in tradition, you might call it. Americans merrily drove taxi companies out of business with newfangled regulation-sidestepping tech firms run by kids--and as fast and as gleefully as possible--while Uber is still not approved for operation in the grand duchy. I think that work culture will be no different: we’ve all grown some new opinions during the epoch of teleworking, and we might like to recommend some changes; but before the workers of Luxembourg attempt to rip the system apart there will be waves of commentary, experiments, petitions, and wait-and-seeism.

Slapdash revolution

As to the merits of both approaches, that will be for another time to discuss. I just find it fitting that Americans, despite having a culture that has long tolerated (albeit not always quietly) a lack of social rights--I don’t even want to know how many days off, or perhaps hours off, new parents get--have chosen as their stink-making moment the suggestion that they return to the same lives they had before extraordinary circumstances ruined it. Fitting because it is, like many American things, an extreme, theatrical, spontaneous and individual act. Not that I don’t support it: go, quitting Americans, go! But it chimes with our trigger-happy and admittedly slapdash style of revolutionism. Oh, Bluetooth headsets have been invented? I’ll never touch a phone to my ear again.

Then again, I get it: this is a rare moment to seize. A viral force majeure has done half the legwork already, sliding companies and workflows into post-geographical settings and holding them there for a whole year while the infrastructure had to catch up. Never again will firms voluntarily run that kind of experiment, tipping the work–life balance decidedly towards life; so here’s a valuable chance to keep, rather than ask for, these benefits.

Maybe that is the crux of the cultural gap, then: Americans need to be opportunistic in trying to change systems they ultimately don’t like or trust, while Luxembourgers (honorary or otherwise) generally buy into these systems and believe that they, slowly but surely, can be changed.

Cashless and cardless, but still writing cheques

Whether this movement by American workers will come to anything, I have no idea. As much as the USA has a bandwagon-jumping zeal unheard of in Europe, its old habits die harder than anyone’s. So much success have fintech startups had, for instance, that lots of Americans are living in a futuristic world that’s cashless and cardless--yet at the same time cheques, those little bedazzled IOUs last seen in Europe twenty or thirty years ago, are still in widespread use. I needed a document from the State of Michigan a while back and they accepted no form of payment except cheque. I called my bank in Luxembourg and the customer services lady and I had a good laugh about that. The bank had one single personnel member in the whole duchy versed in this archaic technology, and he was on holiday; upon his return the process would take weeks; and the cost of producing the cheque was more than double the value I needed it for. We laughed, and laughed, and laughed. And I asked my mom to write the cheque from her Michigan account.

American culture, it seems, is all about betting the farm on any hand that seems winnable--even if, by some curse, no combination of cards is ever enough to fully win.

In Luxembourg, meanwhile, there is a deadpan continuity to how things are done. Nobody is quitting their jobs due to flextime separation syndrome. Is it because we love our jobs? No--we’re as miserable as anyone. That’s what I love about life here. We aren’t going to be impassioned, histrionic or enraged. We aren’t going to have kneejerk reactions. We are going to badger our politicians to get change done from the inside, we’re going to complain about how long it takes, and we will never lose our sense of irony about the whole matter.

And then we’re going to sit on the damn terrace and have a drink.