Is French referendum to increase retirement age two years unfair or about goddamn time?

October 25, 2010


Mon dieu, work is sooooo boring.

You’ve got to love the French. The nation known for wine, women and song is going bonkers over the prospect of having to work for a living. Mass strikes. Angry picketing. Fuel blockades. The way they’re carrying on over President Sarkozy’s referendum (just passed) to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 years of age, you’d think the Nazis were again marching up the Champs Elysees. (One wonders, where were they the first time?) Sarkozy needs this referendum to save considerable money that would otherwise be paid out in France’s lucrative but archaic pension system. It seems like a reasonable idea, particularly given the global economic crisis. After all, isn’t everyone trying to get work as opposed to getting out of it?

In America, we roll our eyes at France’s seemingly spoiled citizenry, literally and philosophically. Here, most of us have to work until we’re 65 or older, some far longer than that. And unless we work for the government (for shame), it isn’t because we’re trying to qualify for a pension; those rarely exist for us. It’s because we need the income, obviously. But it’s also because we have a seemingly inborn need to be useful and relevant. For Americans, “retirement” means old age and old age means game over. The idea of golfing everyday or playing canasta strikes fear in the hearts of most Americans. At least, if they’re being honest. Even those who dislike their jobs are likely fearful of the alternative.

The French don’t have this “problem.” The idea is to enjoy life to its fullest -Joie de vivre!- And for them that is seldom defined by work. In America we’re always asking each other what we do for a living. The answer defines us. In France, the question is considered mildly off putting, gauche, and even offensive. In the USA a laissez-fair attitude about work is frowned on. Laissez = Lazy. Not so in France.

Do not assume I am on one side of this issue or the other. First of all, my mother was born in France and did not come to America until she was a teen-ager. Believe it or not, I spoke French before learning English. As fate would have it, I also work for a French advertising agency (Euro RSCG), which is owned by a French holding company (Havas). Even my previous employer, Leo Burnett became part of Publicis during my time there. Ergo, I’m pretty damn sympathetic to the cause.

Secondly, and more importantly, even though I define others and myself by their work I’ve lately wondered if that’s a good thing. I’ve discussed this tension over and over on Gods of Advertising. Often the debate centers on being a self-absorbed copywriter/writer versus being a good husband and father.

Had I been raised in France would this even be an issue for me? Were the criteria for being a successful man different would I have different views about working? Maybe I would be a bon vivant, looking forward to a life of leisure as opposed to mildly dreading it.

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