As I look back on 2011, I can’t help but to follow up on a blog my husband wrote last week and write about a recent Leger Marketing poll that had Canadians ranked 23rd in the world when it comes to happiness. Following that poll, a Toronto Star article asked whether we can believe such a ranking. A CBC radio reporter included in his report an expert that said indeed the numbers couldn’t be true.
What a shame that neither reporter investigated the reasons why the poll numbers may indeed be true (I’m certain long, dark, winter days don’t help.)
This poll (and the journalists’ response to it) remind me of a dear family friend who just came into town this week. She and her husband and kids used to live around the corner. Then she got a job offer in the Netherlands (The Dutch are apparently some of the happiest people polled) – an offer the family just couldn’t refuse. It wasn’t an easy decision for her to make. She has extremely close ties with her family and she had no particular problem with living here in Canada’s biggest city – decent job, decent house. Seemed fine – as fine as you can be – juggling a full-time job, a husband who works as many if not more hours than you do and, two kids under five.
But now that she’s been gone about a year and a half, I find it interesting to talk to her about the comparisons between living there versus here. She still loves Canada but what comes up in our conversations over and over again – a big difference — is the institutionalized support for that ever-elusive work-life balance and family more generally that really does not exist here in North America — a work-life balance that many many people argue – gives us more happiness than more money ever could.
My friend can’t completely tie Dutch “happiness” to work-life balance or an overall, institutionalized family-friendly atmosphere, but she says it doesn’t hurt – and sure makes her happier than she ever was trying to fit family into life here in Toronto.
I love the story she first told me about eating at an upscale restaurant when she first arrived there. Terrified of dragging along a couple of 4 year olds, but unable to snag a babysitter since they just arrived, she and her husband decided to take their chances – just in desperate need of a night out. Upon entering the restaurant – preparing for those ever-familiar sneers from both waitstaff and fellow patrons, the hostess instead arrived with menus and a box of lego at the table. My friend was both suspicious and in shock. She is no longer either.
She’s an academic – so let’s consider academia (which is just one of many professions in addition to law, journalism and medicine, that so many women leave after having children). While academics here in Canada can easily expect an 80 hour work week – often at the office – the doors to the Dutch university close at 6 – work at home if you like but no choice — you’re out of the building.
That “no choice you’re out” sentiment was pervasive in pretty much all public places. I recall a day out shopping for a few gifts in town. At about 4:45, sales staff everywhere started shutting down and let you know it. They weren’t rude – but they didn’t apologize either. Here, we call that bad service. There, they call it work-life balance.
My newly “dutched” friend tells me she’s in the minority working the hours she does. Seventy-five percent of Dutch women work part-time. While I don’t know which came first, kids are in school half-days, 2 days a week. Her husband now works just part-time hours so is also the person at home more often. I asked her how families can afford to have one person work part-time hours. She has stopped using the word “cheap” and now says they just live more “modestly”. She says the Dutch aren’t trying to compete with design shows for home decorating and they predominantly vacation in RV’s close to home. It helps that excellent public transit and cycling is well supported by government. Car ownership is not rewarded. Virtually no one has two cars.
We must be careful not to romanticize situations elsewhere. Nothing is perfect. But when another dear friend and long time Friday night dinner guest tells me that if you want a job that matters, you have to be willing to work really long hours and be on call for the rest, I know something is terribly wrong. That we must start talking about why it is that we can only talk about “work” that matters. What system have we created that makes good work and work-life balance totally incompatible concepts? How far have we come when in an effort to create work-life balance, we have to virtually go broke to achieve it? My husband and New Sabbath Project partner says it’s time to “Occupy the Cubicle”. I’m inclined to agree for all 100 percent of us.