The United States could learn a thing or two from other countries; pragmatism, an American philosophy, dictates that we try ideas or policies that are demonstrated to work. Where better to learn new things from than Switzerland, a country with a surprising number of similarities to the U.S. — a long, robust, and proud history of constitutional democracy; strong values of civil liberty and rule of law; and a positive attitude towards capitalism, entrepreneurship, and economic freedom.
Over at Vox, Chantal Panozzo recounts her experience working and living in the Alpine country for almost a decade, making, at most, minimum wage — yet finding herself (and most others around her) enjoying considerable quality of life. Utilizing both years’ of anecdotes and quite a bit of data, Panozzo outlines seven characteristics of Swiss society, culture, and government policy that the U.S. would do well to considered.
Below is a summarized version, so I recommend you read the entire article to get the full breadth of what Switzerland — consistently ranked as one of the world’s most developed and prosperous nations — has to offer.
1. Work-life balance is crucial.
According to the OECD, a grouping of the world’s most developed nations, the typical Swiss worker enjoyed an annual income of around $91,500 in 2013 — compared to about $55,700 for the average American worker — despite working 219 hours less. The Swiss take free time and recreation more seriously.
Lunchtime is sacred time in Switzerland. When I was on maternity leave, my husband came home for lunch to help me care for our daughter. This strengthened our marriage. Many families still reunite during weekdays over the lunch hour.
Weekends in Switzerland encourage leisure time, too. On Sundays, you can’t even shop — most stores are closed. You are semi-required to hike in the Alps with your family. It’s just what you do.
All this leads to another crucial point…
2. All kinds of work should be valued.
The Swiss have a culture of professional part-time work, and as a result, part-time jobs include every benefit of a full-time job, including vacation time and payment into two Swiss pension systems. Salaries for part-time work are set as a percentage of a professional full-time salary because unlike in the United States, part-time jobs are not viewed as necessarily unskilled jobs with their attendant lower pay.
One married couple I knew each worked 80 percent, which meant they each spent one day a week at home with their child, limiting the child’s time in day care to three days a week while continuing full professional lives for both of them. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “Why U.S. Women Are Leaving Jobs Behind,” 81 percent of women in Switzerland are in the workforce, versus 69 percent in the US. I believe attitudes toward professional part-time work — for both men and women — have a lot to do with this.
3. Unemployment benefits should (and can) be generous yet sustainable.
…In Switzerland, being on unemployment meant you received 70 to 80 percent of your prior salary for 18 months. The Swiss government also paid for me to take German classes, and when I wasn’t looking for jobs, I could afford to write a book.
In the United States, on the other hand, unemployment benefits generally pay workers between 40 and 50 percent of their previous salary, and these benefits only last for six months on average. However, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, some unemployed people now receive up to 99 weeks of benefits.
Moreover, the Swiss government pulls this off while managing to spend the least amount of public funds proportional to GDP of any country in Europe — 33.6 percent. This also compares favorably to the U.S. rate of 41.6 percent.
4. Taxes can be both fair and cost effective.
A big reason why the Swiss can get away with a generous welfare system without racking up debt is their highly efficient way of raising revenue.
Compared with taxes in the United States, Swiss taxes are easy on the average worker. For example, a worker earning the average wage of $91,574 would pay only about 5 percent of that in Swiss federal income tax. Instead of taxing salaries at high percentages — a practice that puts most of the tax burden on the middle class, where most income comes from wages and not from capital gains — Switzerland immediately taxes dividends at a maximum of 35 percent and also has a wealth-based tax.
The Swiss taxation method leaves money in the pocket of the average worker — and allows them to save accordingly. The average adult in Switzerland has a net worth worth of $513,000 according to the 2013 Credit Suisse Wealth Report. Average net worth among adults in the US is half that.
Yet again, the Swiss get the best of both worlds: a sustainable tax rate that burdens as few of its citizens (and by extension the economy) as possible, while still managing to raise enough revenue for governance and public services.
5. Paid vacations should be politically and socially encouraged.
This pretty much follows from the first lesson: employees and employers alike benefit when workers can enjoy periodic time off — especially if it is paid, so as to ease the burden and increase the likelihood that one will actually use it. Time with loved ones or for one’s self is good for morale and productivity, and is thus as practically beneficial as it is socially responsible.
That is why the Swiss legally require businesses to provide at least four weeks paid vacation — not including various holidays, in which most businesses close. (Panozzo’s husband enjoyed a total of six weeks off a year, showing that many Swiss companies genuinely take this matter to hear, regardless of government directive.) Most importantly, neither employers nor workers shame anyone for wanting to enjoy to make the most of their hard earned time off — if anything, one is shamed for not using it in the first place!
Moreover, despite this “burdensome” requirement, Switzerland ranks fourth in the (conservative) Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Economic Freedom.
6. Offer world-class public infrastructure.
By supporting an efficient, extensive, and accessible network of public transportation, Switzerland frees its citizens from the expense and environmental pollution of car ownership — hence why about one in five Swiss households do not bother to own a car, compared to a little over 9 percent of U.S. households.
The Swiss train connects to the bus that connects to the cable car to get you on the slopes in the middle of nowhere at the scheduled second. From Zurich, I could also take a high-speed train to Paris in three and a half hours. Now I can barely get from the western suburbs to the north side of Chicago in that amount of time — let alone have the option to do it carless. This means I’m turning down jobs instead of taking them. This isn’t good for the American economy or for me.
And let’s be clear: Living in a city suburb is no excuse for having bad transit options. I lived exactly the same distance from Zurich that I now live from Chicago (15 miles) but shared none of the public transport frustrations.
It is not that people should be discouraged from having a car, but rather that providing cheaper and more convenient alternatives can be beneficial to urban life (by easing congestion, noise, accidents, and pollution) as well as the environment. Reliable infrastructure is great for business, too, as Panozzo’s account shows.
7. Support universal healthcare, especially for mothers.
In Switzerland, healthcare is both humanely affordable and widely accessible, providing a boon to both society and the economy.
When I gave birth in Switzerland, I was encouraged to stay five days in the hospital. So I did. The $3,000 bill for the birth and hospital stay was paid in full by my Swiss insurance. As was the required midwife, who came to my apartment for five days after I came home from the hospital to check on both my health and my baby’s.
Had I been in the U.S. for my delivery, the cost would have been much higher — and the quality of care arguably lower. The average price for a vaginal birth in the U.S. is $30,000 and includes an average of less than a two-day hospital stay.
Swiss law also mandates a 14-week maternity leave at a minimum of 80 percent pay. I was lucky enough to receive 100 percent pay. Compare that with the US, where new mothers aren’t guaranteed any paid time off after giving birth. In Switzerland, it’s also common to choose how much work to return to after having a child. Since my Swiss job at the time had been full time, I chose to return at 60 percent.
Other American friends in Switzerland who gave birth also chose to return to their careers part time: My engineering manager friend chose 70 percent, and my lawyer friend chose 80 percent. We had great careers, we had balance, and we also had a Swiss government that paid a monthly child stipend whether we needed it or not. For Americans like me, Swiss Reality was privilege.
To be sure, while it is cheaper by American standards, the Swiss spend a lot more on healthcare than their European counterparts. Nevertheless, at least they get results, while companies enjoy healthier and more highly motivated and productive workers.
Now, it should go without saying that Switzerland is no paradise. Like every country, it has its problems, albeit far fewer and less severe than almost anywhere else in the world. And at least some of its success can be attributed to its small size both geographically and demographically.
But with its rugged mountainous terrain; considerable ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity; strong regional and local identities; and a dearth of natural resources, the Swiss prove that it is possible to create social, political, and economic conditions that are conducive to human flourishing — especially a nation with as much ingenuity, wealth, and resource as the U.S. Do Americans have the will to implement such changes? Should they? What are your thoughts?