American vs European Dream?

I thought I would reflect today on some more cultural differences between the US and France, specifically the European vs the American Dream. For one of my classes we’re reading a book about the European Dream, and while I don’t entirely agree with the author, some of his observations are interesting. My opinions are drawn partly from this book and partly from what I’ve noticed so far.

We all are familiar with the American Dream, which is tied to the idea of Protestant work ethic. As long as you work as hard as you can, your efforts will pay off and you will achieve your goals. Typically Americans are driven to excel and perform to the best of their abilities because we often derive a sense of self-worth from our work and our achievements. This idea can be both good and bad, depending on how you look at it. I think it’s good to have goals and to work towards them, but I also find that Americans often judge each other by their success. It’s not enough sometimes to have a decent job, a caring support network, and a happy life if you don’t have any shining successes.

Europe takes a much different approach. Europeans are much less driven by personal success and are more focused on quality of life and enjoyment. Europeans work hard at their jobs in order to make money, but that’s about it. They don’t get the same satisfaction from working that many Americans do, because they don’t rely on success for their sense of accomplishment. Instead Europeans focus on having better relationships outside of work, friends to rely on, and time to relax and enjoy themselves outside the office. There isn’t the same sense of competition that Americans thrive on. The French aren’t constantly fighting their way to the top since they are more socialistic and it doesn’t make sense to earn as much money as you can simply for the sake of earning money, since taxes basically put everyone on a level playing field. The French enjoy more social benefits from their high taxes and therefore don’t need to fight to earn enough money to survive. France adopted the 35 hour work week since the French want to better enjoy their personal lives, not their work ones.

I respect this way of life. I think it’s important to have a job that you like, but I don’t think your sense of self and your happiness as a person should be determined by your job and the success you achieve. I want to one day earn enough money to live comfortably, but I think building close, personal relationships and happiness are more important than economic success.

The main thing that I struggle to accept about the European Dream is that children aren’t necessarily taught that they can be anything. I was taught that if I work hard enough in life, I can accomplish anything that I want. As a whole, Americans are very optimistic, adventurous people. Europeans generally are much more pessimistic. They are more afraid to take risks; our book, for example, said that there are many more small businesses in America because people aren’t afraid to go out on a limb and risk failure, whereas in Europe, there are fewer small businesses because people are less optimistic and more afraid of failing. As children, Europeans are not taught to reach for high goals like we are. They are taught to accept the middle ground because that is all that they will achieve in life. As I said before, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being in the middle, I just find it interesting that Europeans are not encouraged to ever dream of doing more or following their dreams.

Those are my musings for the evening. Any thoughts or reactions? Feel free to share!

4 thoughts on “American vs European Dream?

  1. Lauren:
    This is incredibly fascinating. I am learning so much thanks to your time there. I was particularly interested to read about the differences in small business pursuits there and here — given that my job at the Inquirer is to cover small business.
    As I get older, my appreciation of free time and relationships grows. I think the French have it right on this score — and on the idea of chocolate croissants and wine with dinner!
    Keep these blog posts coming.

  2. This was a very thought provoking post and I enjoyed reading it and others. I find it quite misleading however to compare the number of small businesses per capita, since as you pointed out, this is a distinctly American measure of success. It is also somewhat disingenuous to say that American children are encouraged to become ANYTHING they dream of if only they work hard. Consider the American child who dreams of being a poet, sculptor, painter, novelist, or philosopher. In general he or she is STRONGLY DISCOURAGED from following this dream, and pushed towards one that takes less hard work, but is more stable and more rewarding by the American measure of success. The parents will say things like, “So you want to be a bum all your life?” or “How do you expect to make a living that way” or “I think it would be better if you started a small business and just did writing as a hobby.” So the American child often settles for a mediocre, intellectually numbing life in what they call the rat race instead of following his or her dreams. Now consider the French child who dreams of being a poet or a painter. Their parent are likely to say things like, “many of our nation’s heroes were painters and poets.” or “there will be plenty of jobs for you at the Ministry of Culture or any of the Art Councils at all the major banks.” So the French child will grow up to have a fulfilling and intellectually stimulating career doing something he or she loves while still making a decent living while the American child will settle for a small minded career as a middle manager like a good American following the American Dream of pragmatism and money triumphing over rationalism and beauty.

    • I don’t think there is anything wrong with being mediocre, I just find it interesting that Americans are not encouraged to ever dream of more than the bottom line of a ledger or to seek out beauty in their daily lives.

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