The Observer

A French Pension Row with Deeper Implications

Live to work or work to live? The scale and intensity of the current protests reflect a deeper discontent relating to the very nature of work and its place in people’s lives, in France but also abroad.
© Mathilde Aubier

There’s nothing like the acrid whiff of tear gas on the Paris boulevards to signal the arrival of spring. Traditionally, as the weather brightens, street protests blossom along with the trees and protestors clash with riot police. This year, though, the demonstrations have had an angry and increasingly violent edge, not just in the capital but in cities, towns, and villages across the country. The ostensible reason is a reform of the French pension system that has been pushed through by the government without a parliamentary vote: The minimum pension age is rising from 62 to 64 and the contribution period will lengthen. Yet the scale and intensity of the protests reflect a deeper discontent relating to the very nature of work and its place in people’s lives. While these concerns may seem specifically French, they echo a much broader and long-standing debate in our societies.

Seen from abroad, particularly those economically liberal countries in the so-called Anglosphere, what is happening across France may be puzzling. Pension systems are notoriously hard to compare, but most member states in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development already have a higher statutory retirement age than France and, in many cases, are raising it still further. In the U.K., for example, full pension entitlement starts at 66 but will reach 67 by 2028, while the normal retirement age in the U.S. varies from 65 to 67 and is heading upward. What’s more, the average period of retirement is longer in France – 23.5 years for men, 27.1 for women – than in most other OECD countries, particularly the U.S.

By these yardsticks, the Macron reform could be seen as normal, belated, or even timid (it’s worth remembering that the president’s original target age was 65). But the furious backlash is motivated not solely by the two-year bump but by a more complex web of factors arising from cultural attitudes to work. And this at a time of increased emphasis on work-life balance – the difference between making a living and making alife.

One of the keys to understanding the depth of dissatisfaction is to appreciate what is meant by “value of work.” For language nerds, the French term is la valeur travail, which critics gleefully point out is also the translation of Marxist labor-value theory, ergo the protestors are all radical lefties. In current usage, however, valeur travail relates to the meaning of work and the place it holds in society. The right to employment is enshrined in the preamble to the 1946 French Constitution but, say the government’s numerous critics, work should be seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself. As the contemporary philosopher André Comte-Sponville points out wryly, work is a constraint: The word travail comes from trepalium, the Latin word for an instrument of torture. People look for fulfillment through work, while organizations seek profit and efficiency from it. No one, says Comte-Sponville, wants to work for work’s sake.

© Mathilde Aubier

Which is why the reform rammed through by Mr. Macron’s government has become a flashpoint for protest. The basic retirement system works on a pay-as-you-go basis, where current pensions are directly financed by workers’ contributions, in contrast to the fully-funded, market-driven model used in most English-speaking countries. PAYG creates a bond of solidarity between generations, and all French workers are guaranteed a state pension. High wage taxes are seen as the quid pro quo for that guarantee and an integral part of a social contract with its roots in the Enlightenment.

The French social protection system, created in the aftermath of World War II, is a natural extension of that contract. In 1945 the basic retirement age was set at 65, where it remained until 1982 when a left-wing government led by François Mitterrand lowered it to 60, framing the move as part of “the battle for time to live.” The idea took hold that retirement should be a lengthy “golden age” of life. Above all, it was the hard-earned reward for years of labor. Despite steadily mounting demographic and financial pressures, attempts to tinker with the system floundered regularly against ferocious popular opposition. Finally in 2010, the minimum retirement age was hiked to 62 despite strikes, demonstrations and riots that, with hindsight, were harbingers of the unrest unleashed by the current reform. (That Macron’s policy was endorsed in a tweet by Elon Musk might have added fuel to the flames.)

Some foreign observers commenting on this year’s ructions have asked whether the French are simply lazy. Why complain, they say, when you have a 35-hour working week, five weeks’ paid vacation, and – despite everything – a comparatively low retirement age? Laziness is not the issue, though. As many observers have pointed out, the French already work hard. Aggregate productivity is higher than the average for the other G7 economies, and some 25% higher than the average for the OECD countries (though not the U.S.). But the brunt of the Macron reform will fall on blue-collar workers and particularly on women, who have less linear careers than men do. The social protection system is being eroded, say the protesters, at a time when work is becoming harder and less satisfying.

The real argument is whether one should live to work or work to live, especially in societies undergoing profound economic transformation. The French have a history when it comes to balancing labor and leisure. No lesser figure than Charles de Gaulle once said, “Life is not work. Working ceaselessly drives people mad.” Above all, as the Paris-based Canadian journalist Catherine Porter shrewdly observed, the current fight to preserve retirement is a question of identity, touching on France’s history, identity, and pride in hard-won social and labor rights.

This existential struggle was illustrated in a recent controversy sparked by the environmental economist and politician Sandrine Rousseau, who publicly made the case for “the right to laziness” and a 32-hour working week. Though immediately lambasted for voicing the views of the slothful, Ms. Rousseau was simply harking back to the argument made, among others, by the 19th century radical French socialist (and Karl Marx’s son-in-law) Paul Lafargue. In a pamphlet titled The Right to Be Lazy, Lafargue said that the working class had been corrupted by “the dogma of work” which was responsible for “all individual and social woes.” Worktime, he decreed, should not exceed three hours a day. (It’s worth noting that John Maynard Keynes, hardly a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, also predicted a three-hour workday, back in 1930!) The belief that work was sacred and laziness a sin stemmed from an unholy alliance between clergymen and capitalists. Nearly 150 years later, those same arguments are being made, but this time for practical rather than ideological reasons. The French essayist Gaspard Koenig believes that acknowledging the right to laziness would tackle two urgent priorities: drawing up a new social contract to address the technology-led reduction in worktime, and reassessing the importance of productivity in order to protect the environment. “It is not a question of belittling work,” he wrote, “but admitting that it does not sum up the value of an individual’s activities in and for society.”

Although many people in France are increasingly disillusioned with their jobs, the same feelings are being expressed in multiple countries, including the United States, where mandatory retirement has long been equated with compulsory poverty. Not only are more Americans seeking a better work-life balance rather than higher pay – by 63% to 37%, according to a 2022 survey – but the foundational belief that hard work and long hours will eventually bring just rewards is being reassessed. Hustle culture, it seems, is no longer cool. A recent Gallup poll found that only 32% of American employees were engaged with their work, down four percentage points in two years. Significantly, the decline has been steeper among younger workers: Nearly 70% of Gen Zers and Millennials plan to leave their jobs this year, according to a study by LinkedIn, with many of them resigning online. In sum, the Big Quit is becoming #QuitTok.

So what if the right to laziness was not just a slogan but an economic and social reality, in France and elsewhere? (Even China is experiencing a rejection of societal pressures to work.) As future waves of automation and technology reshape the jobs market, new solutions will be needed. Politicians and economists are once again talking about a universal basic income, which is already being trialed in several U.S. cities, and governments are experimenting with shorter workweeks with no loss of pay. It would seem that breaking forever with Lafargue’s dogma of work is inevitable. As the great writer and nonconformist Boris Vian once said, “If work is the opium of the people, I don’t want to get addicted to it.”

Article published in the May 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.