Living to Work or Working to Live

While living a European lifestyle and working with a European ethic seems to be attractive, there is a price to be paid.

A few years ago, I was in Bilbao, Spain, attending its national machine tool show and visiting some manufacturers. Bilbao is in the Basque region of Spain, and in many ways it considers itself a separate country with dual language signage in Basque and Spanish. The region is also well known for its food, which is mostly seafood of various kinds, prepared in age-old local ways.

I remember one night a group of us were having a nice dinner at a local restaurant. The soup we had that night stands out in my memory. It was called some unpronounceable Basque name that basically translated into squid in its own ink. The soup was pitch black. Not much to look at, but it was delicious. After the meal, we had brandy and cigars. It was my first taste of a Cuban cigar (Spain didn’t have a boycott on Cuba), and it was really good.

My host that evening was a young Spaniard who worked for the country’s commerce department. He was stationed at the Spanish consulate in Chicago and was hosting a delegation of U.S. shop owners and trade journalists visiting the show and some local OEM exporters.

Much of Spain’s metalworking industry is located in the Basque region and relies heavily on exports to Europe and the U.S. The Spanish government as well as other governments, host delegations such as ours to show the capability of different industries to prospective customers. I was there to report what I saw to my readers—kicking the tires, so to speak.

Eventually, the conversation turned to business and some of the cultural differences between us Americans and the Europeans. Shortly into the discussion, my host began a bit of a rant about the work ethic of Americans and Asians, for that matter.

His core argument was that we work too hard. He went on to lecture us, saying Europe has spent a long time developing a lifestyle centered on its work ethic. Basically, he told us that Americans and Asians live to work. This, he said, is in opposition to his opinion that the Europeans work to live. He cited a couple of examples such as the extended vacation (from a U.S. perspective) that many Europeans enjoy annually that lasts about 30 days and is usually taken in August.

When Europe’s markets were fairly self-contained, this system worked well. Everybody played by the same rules. However, my host continued, as globalization moves forward, the European model began to show competitive deficiencies with the rest of the world because they continued to cling to their social contract versus the American and Asian work ethic.

He went on to charge us with trying to endanger the lifestyle that Europe had worked so long and hard to create. It was an uncomfortable, yet revealing, conversation. In spite of my Cuban cigar, I was happy when that evening came to an end.

Later during my trip, I had the opportunity to visit a cutting tool manufacturer who was private labeling tools to the U.S. He had a nice business and supplied several distributors in America.

After a tour of the shop, I had a chance to sit down with the owner to learn something of his business model as a European vendor participating in the U.S. market. I mentioned the dinner conversation I had with his countryman and the discussion regarding work ethics. For the owner’s business, which is manufacturing a consumable product, the August shutdown is difficult. He closes his shop for the month of August. That means he cannot make or ship during that month. Moreover, he tells me, being a manufacturer, one cannot just flip a switch and shut down the plant. Production is phased out slowly, which usually takes a week. At the end of August, getting the plant and production up to speed takes another week.

Altogether, for about six weeks he is out of business. Some of his distributors will hold enough inventory to get through the shutdown, but it really puts his company at a disadvantage and encourages his customers to look more locally for suppliers.

I remember that trip because it made me think hard about the European lifestyle. While working with European ethic seems to be attractive, there is a price to be paid. Living to work may not be such a bad thing in today’s hyper-competitive world.