French workers' formula for not getting fried

Could a 1998 plan for a 35-hour week serve as a model for US?

Five million Frenchmen - and women - couldn't be wrong.

That's the view of some American workplace experts, now casting an eye across the Atlantic for confirmation that a shorter workweek - as mandated in 1998 by the Socialist-led government in Paris - can boost productivity and employee quality of life.

As unemployment in the United States inches up, observers also point to France's falling unemployment rate and surging gross domestic product.

With some 5 million French workers now punching out of the office after just 35 hours a week, unemployment in France has fallen to a still-high 9 percent - down from nearly 13 percent in 1997. GDP has moved past that of Germany, a perennial powerhouse.

Still, even in France, critics maintain that these facts don't represent cause and effect.

French labor unions buy into the government's argument that the short workweek triggered a chain reaction that led to corporate reorganization, additional hirings, and a stimulus to the French economy. The main employers' unions, however, have been quick to attribute the country's economic gains to a relatively strong world economy over the past year.

The new arrangement has fared better in the court of public opinion. According to a recent survey from the weekly L'Express, 68 percent of French workers say it improves their quality of life.

The government aims for 35-hour-week compliance in all sectors of the nation's workforce by 2002. Workers have staged strikes to demand faster implementation.

In the US, much attention has been paid to the "short" hours of President Bush, whose day is reported to start at 7 a.m. and end at 6:30 p.m. - earlier on Fridays. His administration also reportedly encourages staff to take vacation time they have earned.

But a bid to reduce the workweek of private firms is highly unlikely, experts say.

The last time such a shortening was implemented was the 1930s, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a labor historian at the University of Iowa and a longtime advocate of slashing the workweek.

At the start of the Great Depression, says Professor Hunnicutt, W.K. Kellogg's voluntary six-hour day created 30 percent more jobs, winning strong support from businessmen and labor leaders.

Today, with historically low unemployment, people's concerns are different. The bigger issue: the rise of a culture that sacrifices too much for monetary gains and career advancement, especially when layoffs put a premium on performance.

"Despite the slowing down of the economy, there is a great desire from people for the ability to have a life outside work, especially for those in their 30s or 40s," says David Allen, management consultant at David Allen & Co. in Ojai, Calif.

That conflict between work and family "is endemic to the labor market," says David Maume, a sociologist at the University of Cincinnati. He argues that an enforced French-type, 35-hour workweek might be possible in the US in the next 20 years because of pressure to prioritize family time.

That would mean reversing a trend. The US is the only country among major industrial powers where people work more than they did 20 years ago, says Rick Fantasia, professor of sociology at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass.

As for annual vacation days, the US, with 13 days, lags behind most European countries. The French take an average of 37 days per year.

Experts question whether even a prolonged recession could trigger a move like the one by Kellogg's some 70 years ago.

"It's not an economic problem, it's a cultural one," says Hunnicutt. "We expect work to be an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Work has become like a modern religion."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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