Conceptions Of Work Affect Conceptions Of Life

After a few weeks of having internships in London, my friends and I have begun to get a good idea of what it’s like to work outside of the United States. Here, leaving the office means you are actually done with work for the day, a break for a cup of tea is a must and there is a generally relaxed vibe in the office (talking politics and cursing are pretty normal, for instance).

“No one is motivated here,” announced one of my friends during dinner. She explained that she was not accustomed to the low-stakes nature of her company and thought that she would be relatively uninspired to pursue a better position here. Although she isn’t a fan of the competition that surrounds getting a job in the United States, she thinks that the environment at home is much more conducive to searching out one’s own success.

I respectfully disagree with her for a few reasons, my daily cup of afternoon tea just being one of them. The United States has conditioned us to think that happiness is success, and success is more often than not a varied combination of being employed, self-applying pressure, trying to avoid burnout and endlessly searching for a passion project. Although Europe and the United Kingdom are just as “Western” as the United States, an inherently different understanding of success exists here.

This begins with the higher education system. After talking to my British classmates about the college application process here, I learned that it is free or around £10 to apply to each university and that each student receives both loans and a stipend from the government to be able to afford the £10,000-something yearly tuition and life at school. Now, compare this to the $79,340 cost of attendance for Wake Forest. Every time I look at that number, I start to laugh because it is so ridiculously large. It’s absolutely wild to think about how limiting that number is for so many high school students. Here, all young adults are given access to an education rather than being left in the dust because they can’t even afford to apply to college (or aren’t given the knowledge about forms of assistance like fee waivers).

Thus, in Europe and the United Kingdom, there is cultural value placed on having a level playing field. Consequently, there is much more agency to find some form of success here — anyone who works hard is given the ability to pursue one’s passion without crippling debt.

This is not to say that the workforce doesn’t deal with its own problems here and across Europe, but it just doesn’t seem to be as problematic as in the United States. One example that comes to mind is the fact that paid leave is mandated by the government here. In the United States, employee benefits like this are negotiated between the employee and the employer. Across the Atlantic, however, all workers are allowed 5.6 weeks paid leave annually in the United Kingdom and paid maternal leave for up to a year. So, you don’t need to compete and climb up the corporate ladder to have a position with more luxury benefits.

Working here has shown me that success is actually quite relative, rather than linear, and that the American understanding of it is inextricably connected with things like competition, privilege and high stakes. Going back to one of my first points, restructuring one’s schema of success will eventually allow for a more expansive conception of happiness.

So, does that mean moving to Southern France and working on a vineyard will guarantee that you find true happiness? Probably not. However, thinking about the ways that we construct our world view, depending on our culture, can help us restructure our lives for the better