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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The French Understand That Work Sucks

Americans should have the same high expectations that French workers do for a comfortable retirement.

France is in political turmoil because its president, Emmanuel Macron, forced through a raise in the retirement age from 62 to 64. Most of the country opposed the “reform,” and Macron didn’t have the votes to get it passed in the National Assembly, so he took advantage of a provision in the constitution that allows him to impose certain laws unilaterally, without the approval of either the populace or the legislature. The extreme measure has led to an outburst of popular rage, because it’s perceived (accurately) as dictatorial.

If you read U.S. coverage of the French pension fight, the impression you may get is that Macron was trying to be fiscally responsible, while an impassioned French public that could not accept basic math was clinging to existing generous retirement benefits because of its “national identity.” For instance, here is what the New York Times wrote

The case for the overhaul was strong. It was not only to Mr. Macron that retirement at 62 looked untenable as lives grew longer. The math, over the longer term at least, simply does not add up in a system where the ratio of active workers to the retirees they are supporting through their payroll taxes keeps dropping.

The Wall Street Journal similarly explained that “the golden age of French pensions is coming to an end, one way or another, in an extreme example of the demographic stress affecting the retirement systems of advanced economies throughout the world.” France once had more than four workers for every retiree, but soon will have only 1.5, and its pension system (which gives retirees around 75 percent of what they earned when they worked full-time) is set to start running multi-billion dollar annual deficits. Macron has thus claimed that while the population may want generous retirement benefits, it is his duty as someone who Understands Economics (Macron is a former banker) to “reform” the system.

But when we look closer, we see that actually, the idea that the reform is necessary is predicated on the assumption that certain other things must not change. Macron’s government “has ruled out increasing taxes to shore up deficits, saying taxes in France are already high” and “abolished the country’s hallowed wealth tax before taking up the pension fight. France 24 reported on findings in 2019 that showed the French pension system was not actually unsustainable in the long term.

As with the phony American Social Security “crisis,” then, the idea that unless benefits are cut, the system will collapse, seems to be manufactured. But the French people are also more rational than accounts of them suggest—the idea being that their resistance is because of “national identity.” They simply have higher expectations for what working people deserve. They don’t believe that people’s lives should be spent toiling until they are near death. They believe long retirements ought to be a right. And they’re correct.

Some people don’t understand this. Thomas Chatterton Williams, an American writer who has lived in France, said he had “never understood the French desire to retire as soon as possible and then have a decade or 2 or 3 to do what you really want on a pension. I always thought work was foundational to sense of self and I’d do it til the end. Now I just hope AI won’t take that future away.” Now, clearly one reason Williams doesn’t understand the desire to retire early is because his job is to write opinions on the internet, and he would probably think differently if he worked decades at hard physical labor that destroyed his health. (I’m not saying that having opinions on the internet can’t be a real job, of course. It’s my job, and it’s great. But it’s definitely the kind of job you wouldn’t mind keeping well into old age, which not all jobs are.) But Williams is also voicing a common American trope: that work is somehow “foundational to the sense of self,” and that it brings “dignity.” 

I never understood why people think this. If work was “foundational to the sense of self,” you wouldn’t have to pay people to do it! If people found work intrinsically rewarding and necessary for their dignity, there would never be any worries about people being “lazy” or “idle” since they’d work by choice. I think that the mistake comes from the use of “work” to be synonymous with both “jobs” and “activity.” Jobs (activity done in order to get money, often without much say in working conditions or compensation) are not foundational to the sense of self. Activity (doing things) probably is, since not doing anything is quite boring. 

Profiles of French retirees show that not having jobs in their lives does not seem to be eroding their sense of dignity or self-worth. Instead, “it’s a time of liberty, to finally enjoy your grandchildren, your interests, your desire to travel, to volunteer and be elected in your community.” It is “a time that is blessed,” as one sociologist told the New York Times. People do work, but they work at what they want to work at, not what they have to work at. 

The French understand that work, in general, sucks. They want to minimize the number of years they have to work. They understand that life is to be enjoyed. The purpose of living is not being Productive. The French grasp the fact that it is better to spend time traveling and cooking and going to plays and exercising and making love than behind a desk or on a factory floor. 

Here in the U.S., we have a horrible cult of work that makes people feel ashamed to not be working. Senator John Kennedy, an advocate of raising the retirement age, has asked: “Does it really make sense to allow someone who’s in their 20s today to retire at 62?” He thinks 40 years of working is not enough, that people should work full-time for half a century or more. To the French, at least the majority opposing Macron’s plan, this is insanity: forty years of working should be enough to have made your productive contribution. After that, you should get to just enjoy yourself. 

In the U.S., we need to take some cues from the French. I find it hard myself to try to remember that work is not the purpose of life and it’s not shameful to take time off. It’s hard though, because the pro-work ideology is pervasive. Bill Clinton, of course, made a signature policy out of sending welfare recipients to work, even when they were single moms who should have gotten to be full-time parents. Republicans are constantly trying to attach “work requirements” to even the most meager benefits like food stamps. We’re surely going to have more fights in the future over whether to raise the Social Security retirement age, with the same deceptive argument that it’s a fiscal necessity (in fact, as in France, it’s a fiscal necessity only if we assume we can’t tax the rich).

The French have figured out a few things that we haven’t about how to live the good life. It’s the law there that your boss can’t email you on the weekend or force you to seem “fun” at work. They’re pushing back hard against having two more years of their lives stolen from them by work, and good for them. Press accounts often point out that France is an “outlier” even in Europe, where retirement ages tend to be higher. But they’re an outlier in a good way, and instead of France raising its retirement age, other countries should strive to give people the kinds of comfortable retirements that France does. (France has one of the lowest elder poverty rates, around 4 percent, while the U.S. is over 20 percent). I hope the French give Macron the kind of fight they gave King Louis XVI when he put the comfort of the rich over the basic entitlements of the people. They are fighting for the kinds of satisfying lives that everyone on Earth should get. 

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