18 May 2012

More Work vs. More Holidays: It Depends on Where You Live

On an airplane flight a few years ago, I sat next to a retired fire-fighter from Ireland who was visiting his son in Arizona. I asked him what the differences were between life in Ireland and the US. He replied,

“In Ireland, people work to live. In America, people live to work.”

In Australia, I am convinced people work to go on holidays.

Arriving at a cocktail party full of strangers in the US, conversations usually start with “What do you do?” In Australia, it is as common to inquire “Have you gone anywhere interesting lately?”

Traditional Christian doctrine defines afterlife in terms of Heaven or Hell. Aussies seem less concerned about the prospects. Perhaps, they tend to be less religious, but I am beginning to think that they’re just waiting to learn what the holiday policies are for both places. Going to Hell would not be so bad if there were ample holidays to Heaven.

Aussies like to travel on their holidays, especially if the destinations are outside Australia. Everyone I have met in Sydney has been to New York City, Los Angeles, and much of Europe. Most have not been to Perth, Broom and/or Darwin. In the US, it is the opposite. Most have been to NY, LA, Chicago, and Florida amongst other domestic destinations. But if asked if they have been to Sydney or Melbourne, they may very well ask how long of a drive it is.

In the US, a long airplane flight is 3 hours. In Australia, a 3 hour flight puts you on a life raft in the South Pacific. Okay, New Zealand is within reach if you ignore typical airport delays.

In the US, employees typically receive 2 to 3 weeks of vacation per year, depending on seniority. Many never use their entire allotment; they’re too busy at work. However, there are some exceptions. Once I asked the wife of a colleague how she convinced her husband to take more time off. She replied, "I promise great sex if he goes and not much if he doesn't go." Guys are so gullible.

In Australia, employees receive 4 weeks holiday time by law plus extra weeks for long service leave , which begins accumulating after 5 years with the same company. At ten years, an employee has accumulated an extra 8 weeks of holidays and continues to accumulate an additional week per year thereafter. This is all in addition to the base 4 weeks of entitlement. If not taken, the holiday time accumulates by law from year to year. The only reasons someone would not take their full entitlement, however, are if they die or if they seek to accumulate time for a really long holiday like 4 months.

Holidays are taken without regard to what is happening at work. Skip an important Board meeting to go on holidays to India or go to Fiji during final negotiations on a big corporate acquisition, you are not likely to have a job when you return in the US. In Australia, you’re expected to send postcards. When away, Americans check their Blackberries and IPhones regularly; be out of touch too long and your assistant back home may start calling local hosiptials to see if you survived the car crash. In Australia, being on holiday means not checking in with work. Look at your Blackberry too much and you're sleeping on the sofa that night (which largely defeats the purpose of going on holidays for many guys).

The two cultures approach time away from work very differently. I never took more than a 2 week vacation in 30+ years working in the US and often took only 1 week at a time to minimize work disruption. Perhaps because Australia is a million miles away from anywhere except New Zealand and Antarctica, longer holidays are customary. I also suspect Aussie women are better at convincing guys to go away.

Recently I went to Tasmania with a friend. I wanted to go for 4 or 5 days; she argued for 2 weeks. We compromised on 1 week. While there, we met an American couple who were in Tassie on holidays for 3 days; I was impressed but she was aghast.

Sometimes 4 week holidays just seem too short, especially for young people in Australia. In such cases, they often quit work and go traveling.

“Why are you quitting? Is there something we should be doing differently?” I asked a young promising worker with obvious career potential.

“No, the Company is great; I just want to go to London and thought I would take a year or so to get there.”

When you see a gap in someone’s resume in America, you are usually suspicious. However, if the individual is Australian, you assume he or she has been traveling and are less concerned.

A goal in the American work culture is to become indispensible. You cannot be terminated; you receive more money; you have better career advancement options. In Australia, being indispensible could interfere with holidays and may not be so desirable.

Whilst Aussies like to travel, they do not like to relocate within Australia for work. Asking a Sydneysider to move to Melbourne for a better job is akin to asking him or her to give up their first born child. It’s even worse if you ask a “Melbourne girl” to move to Sydney. Relocating to New York City or London may be okay but not elsewhere in Australia.

By contrast, in the US I have lived in the following states attending school and working: Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, New York, and Texas. If I had been born and raised in Sydney, it is almost certain I would have lived exclusively in New South Wales.

A doctor in Sydney told me once he moved his family from South Africa after considering the US and Australia for his future home. He decided on Australia. He explained:

“In the US, kids grow up and move away. In Australia kids grow up, go away, and then return home. He decided he wanted his grown up children to be close by.

The attitude toward work and non-work affects attitudes toward child bearing as well. In the US, maternity leave is usually 6-8 weeks; beyond that the Company will normally replace the employee. In Australia, maternity leave is usually one year and can be extended to two years with the employee retaining the legal right to return to her job. Paternity leave is also more common in Australia and is protected by law.

Work is a bridge. In the US, it is a bridge to career advancement, money, and more work. In Australia, I sometimes think it is a bridge between holidays.

So which culture is better? Is the higher productivity of the American worker best or is the more balanced lifestyle of the Australian worker better? I am unsure, but I will consider the question carefully on my long holiday, which starts next week.

I wonder if her promises were just a ploy to get me to take a longer holiday? No, can't be....