The French Take on "Office Space"

You slave away for years in a cubicle the size of a phone booth. You never take all your vacation time and always say "yes" to the boss. You do all this and more in the hopes of being recognized by the bigwigs and of someday reaching the holy grail: the top rung of the corporate ladder.

But what for? asks Corinne Maier, French author of "Hello, Laziness: Jumping Off the Corporate Ladder."

Already a best seller in Europe, Maier's satirical book on the workplace hits U.S. bookstores next month. Her cynical take on corporate life may question the French work ethic, which differs greatly from America's workaholic attitude, but she's convinced American workers suffer similar woes.

Maier's worker manifesto denounces corporate culture as rigid and empty-headed, likening its effect on workers to kids eating sugared cereal and watching TV all day. The 40-year-old economist urges employees to shed their work ethic and find ways to do what you really want to do.

"I am poking fun at the institutional boredom companies instill in their workers," she said in a phone interview from her home in Paris.

In her book she describes what she despises about corporate life -- from pretentious buzzwords like "downsizing" to managers idling about, getting paid oodles more money than the worker bees.

"France is an old country, it's very hierarchical and very authoritative and from a very young age we are taught to submit to the rules of society," she said, adding that French corporations are stuck between bureaucratic overload and ancient practices, which translates to demoralized workers on autopilot. Making it worse is the nation's unemployment, which is nearly double America's 5.2 percent rate. "If you have got a job, hold on to it, go through the motions and survive doing nothing," she said.

Can Americans Relate?

Looking at the self-help shelves of most bookstores, Americans are at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to careers and money.

The numbers speak for themselves. Americans work 20 percent more compared to the French. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a policy organization of 30 member countries, calculated that French people in 2003 worked on average 1,453 hours per year compared with 1,792 in the United States and 1,800 in Japan. (This has not always been so. In the late 1970s, French workers clocked in 1,764 hours, only 69 hours less than Americans.)

"Americans describe themselves as job hounds while the French emphasize their independence toward their job," said Paul Swaim, labor economist at the OECD.

"The French take advantage of the shorter work week and the plentiful vacations which in turn leads to lower salaries and a less dynamic economy," he said.

French workers by law get four weeks of vacation plus up to 15 additional days if they work more than 35 hours a week. This doesn't include national holidays. Even though the government just relaxed the 35-hour workweek -- allowing unions and management to let workers earn more money rather than take time off -- Americans lag vacation-wise with a scant 16 days total.

Despite the differences, it doesn't mean the French don't work, added Swaim.

In fact, he points out, if you compare output per hour worked, French productivity is as high as in the United States. If you measure output per worker, however, Americans surpass the French since they work a lot more hours.

Maier acknowledges that the countries are different, pointing to the fact that the United States is a younger country with a lot of immigrants working long and hard hours to live the "American dream" -- big house, big car, big TV.

"Regardless, Americans can still relate to the inanities of corporate life," Maier said. "Sure, the phenomena of hiding out in the office is less prevalent but Americans are still questioning themselves about life, work and family."

Job Dissatisfaction Growing

She may be right. U.S. workers are showing more signs of job dissatisfaction as they are pushed to produce more and adapt to new technology, a survey said late in February.

Half of all Americans today say they are satisfied with their jobs, down from nearly 60 percent during 1995, according to The Conference Board.

The workers most satisfied with their jobs are those earning $50,000 or more and workers at least 65 years old, the survey found.

"Even though the U.S. has more of an entrepreneurial bent, boredom in the office is widespread. Americans will inevitably get a kick out of it [her book]," Maier said.

Maier's employer, on the other hand, was less than thrilled by her book encouraging workers to be "slackers extraordinaire." The French utility giant EDF reprimanded her but she kept her job. As for her future, she's planning to write more books.

"I am still surprised at how well the book has done especially since I am encouraging mediocrity but I might as well continue down that road which, I guess, means I will become mediocre like all the rest."

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