"Take Your Workaholism and Shove It," Say Dutch Women—Can We Do This, Too?


Fewer than 10% of Dutch women work full-time, and face one of the highest wage gaps in Europe—”and they like it this way,” says Slate writer Jessica Olien. American women, put down those Blackberries and take note.

In “Going Dutch,” Olien writes that she’s been in the Netherlands for about three months, and has noticed that “Dutch women are not like me. I worry about my career incessantly. I take daily stock of its trajectory and make vicious mental critiques of my endeavors … Meanwhile, the Dutch women around me take a lackadaisical approach to their careers. They work half days, meet their friends for coffee at 2 p.m., and pity their male colleagues who are stuck in the office all day.” Studies show that Dutch women don’t want to spend more time at work: They refuse extended hours at their jobs, even if they don’t have kids. And one news bulletin has concluded that any attempt to get more Dutch women to work full-time will fail, because “nobody has a desire for this.”

Instead of spending long hours hunkered down at some work station with family pics and calendars pinned to the fuzzy cubicle wall, or slaving at some assembly line, Dutch women garden, hang out, exercise, and do what they want. Olien quotes a female newspaper editor who says, “We look at the world of management-and it is a man’s world-and we think, oh I could do that if I wanted … But I’d rather enjoy my life.”

It sounds pretty liberating! But are these Dutch women just lazy or something? Or is it that they are just different from us, because they weren’t brought up with the Protestant work ethic? You know, that staple virtue of American life—it seems to apply no matter what your religious background—that says work brings salvation. The Dutch women obviously have a different idea of what personal freedom and fulfillment means. It involves, um, having fun. It sounds totally right-on. But is it possible for Americans to follow the Dutch example?

It could be, if we let it be possible.

I agree with Olien that Americans have come to associate work with self-identity. If it were an inaccurate depiction of the way things are, then why would so many of us be working so hard, collecting so many degrees, and juggling so many tasks? We’re “defined by the compromises we make,” she writes about our culture, adding that for many the idea of “Superwoman” has become the goal. But maybe we haven’t noticed (because we’re too busy working!) that happiness and doing simple, dumb stuff like sniffing flowers and enjoying the sunshine never quite fit into Superwoman’s modus operandi. Or if it did, it’s probably not what we remember Superwoman for (I sure as hell don’t recall her taking the day off to visit the park and enjoy the butterflies).

Superwoman is the most apt representation of where we are right now in our CrackBerry culture, in which people brag about their workaholism and make sure to remind the boss that “I’m by the computer if you need me”—you know, so the boss doesn’t think we’re lazy, and also so that we don’t feel lazy inside. Celebrities and popular culture reiterate this anxiety about productivity as the norm: “I’m such a workaholic.That role is completely fine for me,” brags rich Kim Kardashian. Designer Michelle Salins sounds almost gleeful when she says, “For me, the first thing will always be work!” The movie Morning Glory chooses as its protagonist a workaholic television producer. Even Harry Potter’s swept up in the workaholism: “‘It’s almost like [Daniel Radcliffe]’s been conditioned into it because his life has been working, basically,” says director Daniel Yates.

For many of us, our self-esteem is tied to our productivity—and at least in America, it’s not totally our fault. America’s self-image depends on the idea that we’re the “best country in the world” and a “superpower,” which is also tied to productivity. We gotta stay on top! Combine that with “it’s a man’s world,” and it’s not hard to figure out how we’ve gotten to where we are today—stressed out, overworked, and caught up in focusing on what some psychologists and therapist types call the “human doing”—i.e., what we do—as opposed to the human being, which is what we are. The Dutch women Olien writes about seem to value the human being more than we do, and they “pity” those who do otherwise.

Having our self-esteem hinge on work is a precarious situation. If our identity is based around that one exterior thing, then what happens if we lose that thing? The Dutch response might be, “fine, I’ll just go take a walk!” But the American response to a lost job is quite often stress, depression, and even a feeling of failure: What did I do wrong? It might be that you did nothing wrong—especially now, with the economy sucking as much as it does. Nevertheless, it’s kind of rare to hear anyone treat a lost job as a blessing. Lose your job, and most likely the people around you will say, “oh, sorry to hear that,” instead of congratulating you.

Of course, a lot of us have no choice but to be workaholics. There’s student loans, stagnant wages, a porous safety net—all kinds of urgencies that keep us on the clock. That’s the harsh reality. But then there are all these other people like Kardashian, who work all the time by choice. They have more than enough to live on, but can’t stop bragging about their all-consuming careers. What about them?

Well, they need to stop celebrating round-the-clock working STAT, and stop talking about workaholism as though it were normal. Because it’s not.

In an article for Psychology Today, Canadian psychology professor Timothy A. Pychyl writes about a study by researchers Malissa Clark, Ariel Lelchook and Marcie Taylor of Wayne State University that shows a correlation between workaholism and narcissism. “That grandiose sense of self-importance that seems to be present in epidemic proportions in our society is related to the worst aspects of workaholism,” he says. Indeed, there’s often an implied better-than-thou undercurrent to the workaholic’s message—as though they are somehow more worthy than someone who spends the day soaking up ideas from a book.

Another study, reported on by the Toronto Globe and Mail, assessed what happens when monkeys’ brain cells were prevented from receiving dopamine—the brain stuff that’s associated with reward. “In laymen’s terms, they could no longer tell that their efforts weren’t worthwhile,” results showed. “The study suggests that our current cultural predilection toward busyness may be a simple case of bad wiring. Do we work so hard because our brains are broken?” Or, as Toronto-based psychologist and workaholism expert Barbara Killenger suggests, do workaholics work so much because they have to, to feel “real”?

Having the phone buzzing all the time, answering the piles of emails—it creates action, which can seem like progress. But what if all this activity is just pointless? Between those of us who are forced into workaholism by circumstance, and the others among us who choose workaholism, few of us have time to step back and reflect on that question. And it’s probably hurting us more than we realize. Olien wonders if American women might be better off “if we could relax and go Dutch.” As a culture, what would we have to lose by permitting such a thing? Some lost GDP, but also some gained perspective.

I worry about the women who are younger than I am, who have grown up in the culture of pre-teen resumes and constant distraction. I’m not alone—many people have written books about the value and importance of play. The Dutch women Olien is meeting seem to welcome play as necessary. And as their resistance to full-time work shows, they’re not about to give up what they’ve got.

I’d really like to try out the Dutch lifestyle for myself some day. But not today—I have to get back to work.

Going Dutch [Slate]

Life at 30 ‘fulfilling and thrilling’ for Kim K [TV NZ]

Let’s not talk about sex [DNA India]

Wizard job: the end of the line for Harry Potter [Telegraph]

The personality of the workaholic and the issue of “self” [Psychology Today]

What we can learn from workaholic monkeys [Toronto Globe and Mail]

Image clickclickclickclick/via Flickr

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