Saturday, October 31, 2009

Speaking of the Finns ...

We've heard, much of our lives, that they kill themselves in awesome numbers, most likely as an effect of months in the cold and dark, supplemented by significant quantities of hard liquor.

And that's probably true.  (Those of you who have heard Father A.'s oft-repeated story about a winter bus trip through Lapland may insert it here.  For the rest of you, the punchline is "Then I have an epiphany. 'The answer is so simple,' I said aloud.  'I'll kill myself!  That will show them all' And I was on the next bus south to Rovaniemi.")  

But the French live in a sunny Mediterranean climate, drinking wine and surrounded by masterpieces of art and culture.  Yet they kill themselves at positively Nordic rates, and their numbers are climbing.  So what gives?

Well, the Economist -- from which we stole this nifty bar graph - has a theory:  It's the economy, stupid.

You see, the French suicides have a largely corporate mise-en-scene (you see what we did there, right?  Actually using French, albeit a French cliche and without the accent which we're too lazy to find?):

A spate of attempted and successful suicides at France Telecom—many of them explicitly prompted by troubles at work—has sparked a national debate about life in the modern corporation. One man stabbed himself in the middle of a meeting (he survived). A woman leapt from a fourth-floor office window after sending a suicidal e-mail to her father: “I have decided to kill myself tonight…I can’t take the new reorganisation.” In all, 24 of the firm’s employees have taken their own lives since early 2008—and this grisly tally follows similar episodes at other pillars of French industry including Renault, Peugeot and EDF.

Holy *#@%.  Glad we work for the Church, where job satisfaction is celestially high.

The main culprit, per the Economist's columnist "Schumpeter," is the recession, which "is destroying jobs at a startling rate."  Then follow the drive to improve productivity -- "Taylorism" -- and finally, one that seems more subtle, and therefore more noteworthy:

[T]he mixed messages that companies send about loyalty and commitment. Many firms—particularly successful ones—demand extraordinary dedication from their employees. (Microsoft, according to an old joke, offers flexitime: “You can work any 18-hour shift that you want.”) Some provide perks that are intended to make the office feel like a second home. But companies also reserve the right to trim their workforce at the first sign of trouble. Most employees understand that their firms do not feel much responsibility to protect jobs. But they nevertheless find it wrenching to leave a post that has consumed so much of their lives.

This, we think, is important.  The ping-pong table in the breakroom, the fully-stocked fridge and even the babysitting service -- among the widely publicized perks of Silicon Valley -- simply do not compensate for the loss of job security.  On the contrary, because they are symbols of the extraordinary dedication demanded by those firms, they quickly become symbols of how employees have sacrificed so much of their lives for an employer which treats them not as human beings but as disposable objects.

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