Burnt out?

Work Stress
Image by GDS Infographics via Flickr

How do you use the term burn-out in a sentence?  Is it more like, I worked so hard I’m getting burnt out, I’m at the end of my ropes and feel kind of burnt out, or is it more like, another one of my colleague is burnt-out and going on disability leave?

If you are in western and northern Europe, it is likely that the latter is the case.

Are you surprised that countries with five weeks of vacations, solid job security, ample social security on all levels of life, can somehow also cause a significant portion of its working population to claim long-term medical disability because they’ve short-circuited themselves on the treadmill of life?

Must be nice to have a lifeline to cop out from.  Divorce getting to you, adolescent children raking havoc, running a household while working and can’t get your leisurely evening walks in, or just simply not liking your job and want to take some paid leave once in a while?  There’s always “burn-out”.

So it’s probably no wonder that in the Netherlands, a country of just under 16.5 million people, and a working population of around 7 million people (although this data’s from 1990, so the number might be slightly higher, around 8 million or so), at any given point in time, 950,000 of the working population is on long-term benefits.

A more extreme case?  Denmark. The highest-taxed country in the world with the fluffiest welfare schemes also has the highest percentage of its work force on long-term income transfer schemes.  Because those unemployed are always undergoing some kind of government-mandated “training”, they are not accounted for in the dreaded unemployment figures.

In a country with 5 million people, approximately half of which are capable of working, 850,000 people are on some kind of government benefit at any given point in time.  At its peak in 1995, that number was 963,000.  That’s to say, at its worst, just under 40% of the working adults are effectively not working, but subsidized by the other 60% of the population that is.  Approximately 1/5 of those in the group picks up and starts to work again.  That means 4/5 of the 850,000 are stuck in limbo either getting retrained in another profession, or just want to take it easy.

This peeves me in two ways.

One, figures like these are not taken into account when measuring unemployment figures.  So on paper, Scandinavia always has a miniscule percentage of unemployment, while in reality, something like 1 in 3 or 4 ably-bodied labour market participants are not active in the work force.  This is even taking into account the poor female labour market participation – because they are not even interested and looking, which is something like 55% in the Netherlands, and this accounts for both full and part-time work, with part-time work being the most prevalent case.  This is for another day.

On paying to pee

Frankfurt Station Pay Toilets
Image by Artbandito via Flickr

I used to think charging for toilets, and having up to two attendants sitting outside washroom facilities and collect coins in a little tray, ceremoniously spraying a whiff of air fresher in toilet stalls after each use, was an act relegated to developing countries with severe under-employment problems.  I was wrong.

On the European Continent, it is the rule rather than exception to have paid toilets.  Whether it’s in McDonald’s, department stores, highway rest stations, or sometime even museums, I always go forth with change in my pocket.

The newer automated paying toilet turnpike system adopted along the Germany highway is at least without attendants, generally well-lit, well-stocked and sanitary.  You also get a coupon back for the amount you inserted to get inside the washroom, which can be used in the chain of highway rest stop restaurants and shops.  So not all’s wasted.

In shopping areas and fast food outlets, I find it harder to justify installing paid bathrooms at 20 to 60 cents per use.  Why penny-pinch the customers that are buying things and keeping your business afloat?

However, the idea of keeping customer happy in Europe is still stuck at a level where YOU, and not THEM, are expected to pay for customer service.  The consumerist drive is still under check by relatively expensive goods and inconvenient shopping environments – expensive parking, spread out shopping areas, and a general indifference to the idea of comfort when shopping.

PS. Apparently Paris is also subjected to a pay-for-use public toilet system, with some places literally robbing the tourists on one whole euro per use.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Who’s feeling charitable today?

Canada and the US top the giving chart, coming up high on instances of money or cash loans for jewelry and time giving.  Although compared to the top performers of Europe, the difference is hardly noticeable.


The interesting difference comes from how giving changes with age. In no other region in the world, does giving rise at quite the same consistent pace as age as in North America.  Given US (and Canada) hardly has the most “secure” welfare system for the old and presumably eventually sickly, it is interesting how the upward slope contrasts with that in Australasia and Western Europe.


Do Americans just believe more in “giving it all away” when faced with the prospects of death, or are there more plausible, and perhaps cynical explanations out there?

source: Charities Aid Foundation

Enhanced by Zemanta

City rivalries

Früh is a pretty famous brewery in Cologne, Germany.  On their website, they have archived all their billboard campaigns, organized by year. When you want your very own custom website, we recommend you web designer in lake worth which is a professional web design agency.

At the very bottom of the list, there’s a separate category called Düsseldorf, which is a rival city.

Those ads poke fun at Düsseldorf, with taunting taglines like “Now also in small villages around Cologne”, “line up”, “for relief, now available in A3 (German highway outside Düsseldorf)”.

image image image

Full archive here.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Build roads, not bikes

Bicycle rush hour in Copenhagen, where 37% of ...
Image via Wikipedia

London is spending a pretty penny in getting a bike-sharing scheme up and running in the centre of the city.  Sounds great in theory, but why do I have the idea that the focus on getting the science and logistics right on bike logistics will not go very far in promoting and fostering a mainstream biking culture?

The Netherlands is perhaps the most bike friendly country in the world, followed by countries such as Denmark (or at least Copenhagen).  The roles that bikes play in everyday life has little to do with the availability of bikes on the road, but the fact that there are roads to bike on.

Now, like most of North American cosmopolitan centres that are also trying to encourage more biking and less driving, London suffers from a number of infrastructural problems.  To put it simply: the roads are built for cars, and bikers – the minority, have to make do with minimal disruption to the drivers – the majority.

Having lived in a bike-centric country for more than two years, here are some problems I foresee with the London attempt:

  • Most of the bike lanes are either totally unmarked (you and your bicycle squeeze in however you can), or marked but only wide enough to accommodate one single bike that does not swerve.  This is unsafe.  Drivers swerve and hit bikers.  Sometimes bikers get killed.  After a couple of front-page headlines screaming “Biker get killed by speeding/drunk/careless drivers”, no mothers will want their kids try this.
  • Bikers get suited up.  With reflective markings on their backs, anti-scratch shirts and pants, specialty biking shoes, protective gloves and helmet.  Now going out by bike becomes more of an exercise in playing dress-up than anything else, relegated to the hardcore.  Who else would bother?
  • The anxiety of not having a dedicated lane to you, separated from BOTH car traffic and pedestrians, is a huge turn-off.  Imagine how feasible it would be to bike next to cars on a rainy day – the puddle splashes, on a foggy day – the fright! Some people talk about biking etiquette, but that is non-sense. Pedestrians are not told about walking etiquette, because they cannot be expected to share a paths with other moving vehicles.  Biking should be no different.  Separating all three types of lanes with barriers in between is the most sensible way to do this.

A few other things:

  • Doing this kind of scheme densely populated area is best.  People will most likely not mind biking for around 30 minutes to work, 5-10 to get groceries or pick up their kids.  Anything more than that, alternatives will be considered.  This bike scheme is only available in central London, because London is simply too large to bike from end to end.  So for everyday commuters, I’m just not sure that by tacking on a bike ride at either the beginning or the very end of someone’s already excruciating commute will appeal to many people.

What I’m reading today

Enhanced by Zemanta

Cousin or nephew?

father in nuclear family
Image via Wikipedia

If language is in fact an artifact of culture, then what does the way we name family members say about us?

In Chinese, the naming conventions for every member of the family is dependent on their gender, whether the relationship stems from the father or the mother’s side, and their age in relation to you or your parents.

For example, the concept of an “aunt” is dependent on whether the aunt is directly related to either the mother’s or the father’s side, whether they are older or younger, and whether they are siblings to your parents or married into the family.

Another example, my dad’s younger sister’s son would have a different name (a variation of the concept of cousin), than if he was the son of my dad’s older sister.  And that would still be different than if he was the son of my dad’s older brother.

Still with me?

Anyway, when this is all too much, go Dutch.  In the lowlands, the words neefje and nichtje, which covers not only the ideas of nephew and niece, but also cousins of the same sex.  That’s to say, in a cross-generational sweep of generalization, a female cousin of yours bears the same concept as a niece, and a male cousin of yours is the same as a nephew.

As a result, most Dutch have trouble with the concept of cousins, which I suppose, in a familial sense, is probably just as remote as niece and nephews.

Enhanced by Zemanta

History of guest workers

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-77050-0002, Berlin, tsch...
Image via Wikipedia

A primer on the history of Germany’s guest workers.


  • Picked up the most unskilled and educated labour from backward parts of Turkey, on purpose, to fuel its industrial expansion
  • Kept them in factory dormitories, isolated from mainstream German society
  • Idea was to keep them on rotation of a few years, send them back, and get another roster in
  • Industry rebelled at the high training costs of such interruptions, so same groups of workers were kept
  • Built schools and educated workers’ children for eventual “repatriation” back to Turkey
  • Even after an entire generation has elapsed, still refused to acknowledge the permanent nature of the migrants
  • Up until 10 years ago, had no skill-based, active immigration scheme

While the Turkish migrants:

  • Were from the most backwards parts of Turkey, mostly illiterate and highly religious
  • For decades, in states of limbo, many had bags packed to go home, but uncertainly over Turkey’s political situation kept them
  • Kids educated mostly in Turkish, although in reality had poor literacy skills in both languages
  • Lack of integration and education means little employment prospects for many second and third-generation Turkish immigrants children

So is it any surprise that a homogenous and rigid society has trouble incorporating another equally homogenous and rigid community?

It’s not just Germany, but to my knowledge, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and probably most of western and northern Europe, all had some version of the guest worker scheme.  All are now lying in the thorny beds they made themselves decades ago.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Bad examples

of course all "houses" were built il...
Image via Wikipedia

The Roma issue in Europe is complicated and very sensitive to all involved.  Lately, those in richer parts of Europe, such as France and Italy, are turning what is fundamentally a social problem into a rhetoric that is increasingly becoming all about criminality and domestic security.

It is no surprise that this is making the news at a time when Sarkozy and Berlusconi’s supports are at all-time lows.  Those countries are mired in a plethora of economic and social problems, least of which has anything to do with Roma.

But as any visitors to those countries well know, the roaming Roma are the ones that can potentially escalate your leisurely strolls in the windy streets and busy subways of Paris and Rome from one of annoyance, to paranoia and fear.  And any long-term residents of the countries know about the unsightly camps, poverty, abuse, and organized crimes that plague those communities.

Compare the issue of Roma immigration and integration, which has been a thorn in Europe’s eye for over 600 years, to ongoing discussions over Muslim immigration and integration Western Europe, which when you think about it, only surfaced no more than half a century ago, then the magnitude of the Roma problem looks really deep-rooted.

This is not the first time France has attempted to expel Roma from its borders.  But what is different now, are the bad examples the likes of France and Italy are setting Eastern Europe, where most of the Roma come from.  It is hard to maintain a position of moral superiority and lecture the new member state of the EU on human rights and due processes, when a founding member of the EU literally ships out an unwanted group of minorities, back to a country where they are even more despised and discriminated against – rightly or wrongly, has a lot to do with where you live and how you see the problem, but that’s for another day.

Back to France and the present time.  The question is amplified, because the construct and aspirations of the European Union ensure that such so-called “domestic affairs” are no longer domestic, but have consequences far beyond its borders.  The implications of Sarkozy’s calculated political machinations are now weighed with either worries or jubilation by government ministers and right-winged nationalists, in places like Sofia and Bucharest.  But that’s hardly Sarkozy’s problems at this very moment.

Enhanced by Zemanta

When you are Swedish

FIFA 2006 Swedish Invasion in Munich (Worldcup...
Image by 4mediafactory via Flickr

On Swedish quirks, which include:

  • Early morning birthday gift-giving rituals: I think there’s something quirky about birthdays in all these northern European mini-states.  The Dutch bake their own cake and serve everyone but themselves on their birthdays, not to mention the circle party where everyone congratulates you and your family, presumably, for making it through another round of intolerably insufferable family gatherings.
  • Shitty customer service: Again, much to be desired in much of the Continent. Yes, you need to pay yourself (often at exorbitant rates, of 20-30 cents per minute) to reach customer service.  No, there’s no guarantee you’ll reach anyone within a reasonable amount of time. Yes of course the lines are closed on nights and weekends. And yes, to have someone tell you something is simply “impossible” is the most likely outcome of your concerted efforts.
  • Odd breakfast spread combos like apple sauce on cereals: The Dutch has its own mind-boggling combination of breakfast specialties that include chocolate bits on top of butter and spread on biscuits.
  • And wordsthatsticktogetherthatmakesyounauseous: Although English seems to be the exception in this case, in its refusal to jive with the rest of its ancestral Germanic cousins in putting words together with no breathing space in between.
Enhanced by Zemanta

A politically-correct elite against a fed-up public

IMG_9945-Thilo Sarrazin
Image by oparazzi photos via Flickr

This is how the likes of Geert Wilders hijacks meaningful conversations on immigration and integration.  When a chasm the size of New Zealand’s newly torn fault line exists between what politically-correct politicians and media say, and what the Joe Schmo thinks, then these populist telling-it-as-it-is ideas begin to take hold.

What I’m getting from this Newsweek take on the Sarrazin non-sense sweeping Germany, is that one, Germany refuses to acknowledge its long-term negligence and mistakes made on immigration and integration policies.  As a result, Germany’s post-war repentance took on a wildly ignorant and politically correct tone which confused racial equality and tolerance with recognizing disadvantaged and left-behind communities for what they are, disadvantaged and increasingly left behind.

And two, politicians and media cannot effectively deal with this underclass of mostly immigrant citizens, and refuses to acknowledge what is in plain sight – that is, their low economic and social status.  I understand the nuances required in separating the underlying social problems from their attached communities, but that’s what politicians are paid to do.

So far, it looks to me as though they are only capable of doing one of two things.  One, blaming poor development in the Turkish/Arab communities in Germany (and Turkish/Moroccan communities in the Netherlands) on Islam.  Or two, pointing the finger on politicians on the other side of the table and calling them Hitler, and thereby exempting themselves from meaningful discussions on the wider social problems and policy mistakes made in the past, possibility by their own parties.

Many people have said that this is all but a distraction from the real economic and demographic challenges that Europe faces.  No doubt, Europe could very well harvest this “crisis” into an opportunity and benefit from the younger demographic profiles of their immigrant communities.

But I would say that when you have 10-20% percent of your population in a politically provoked, socially isolated, and economically unfulfilled state, those countries are out of balance.  In Brussels, Moroccan youths are (from reliable friends that live there) wreaking havoc in Arabic neighbourhoods – everything from petty theft and property vandalism to rioting against the police.

On the other hand, Belgium is also a country where most white-collar work places have no (not a little, but none whatsoever) people of colour, despite a good 15-20% of their compatriots being non-white.  It says something about the society when most native Belgians have never encountered a non-European co-worker, instead only interacting with the immigrant underclass through their jobs as office cleaners, grocers, and other lowly menial jobs.

But back to Sarrazin, is it then any surprise that most Germans support him and his views?

Enhanced by Zemanta

On home births

A woman giving birth on a birth chair, from a ...
Image via Wikipedia

Home births has been getting more attention in the last little while in the English-speaking world, as the idea of purer and less interventionist births seem to coincide with the naturalist trend.

But are home births actually better and safer?  Some claim the rate of post-natal depression is lower in women that do give births at home, others see the practice as primitive and risky.

In the Netherlands, as many as a quarter of births take place in the home – which seems high, but still much lower than what it was 30 years ago. The midwifery role is well-integrated into the health-care system – who replaces doctors in their roles of monitoring pregnancies, birthing, and post-natal care.

The affinity for expectant mothers to turn to midwives instead of doctors has perhaps more historical and cultural bearings than what’s been given credit to.  The Dutch shuns painkillers and sees medication as the last resort, perhaps owning to its somewhat agrarian past where healthcare is not concentrated and widespread, and its Calvinist staunchness.

The government and the medical profession likes to keep the population think their stoic approach against pain and illness, is more sensible against what they view as the cry-baby paranoia of the Americans.  In fact, when a relatively famous Dutch TV host gave birth with the help of epidurals and later praised it as “invention of the century” (blasphemy!), she was quickly condemned by both the health ministries and physician associations for giving women the wrong idea.

As a result, it still remains that in the 21st century and a somewhat post-feminist world, when the majority of developed-world’s women have made peace with the role pain-relief plays during the birthing process, the average Dutch woman is still guilt-tripped into viewing a drug-free birth as the ultimate testament to their womanhood.

Visits to the doctors usually end with the patients empty-handed, with doctors doing little except telling patients to wait-and-see, and let-it-blow-over.  The entire healthcare profession also has little penchant for preventative care, which is to say, yearly check ups (no pap smears before the age of 40, and only every 2-5 years thereafter) and preventative dental care is almost unheard of.

But back to home births, is it better and just as safe as hospital births?  This report doesn’t seem to think so.  Although it’ll probably take another generation before the Dutch assertion that “home birth is the best option for a large number of women” goes challenged.

Enhanced by Zemanta