Europe’s No Business as Usual Summer
“DON’T you know about our summer?” asks a spokesperson of a Swedish multinational, himself presumably on holiday as kids chirp in the background. Almost everyone is gone until September, he says. At a German multinational, “the whole board is away for August,” admits a spokesperson. Faced with a slew of out-of-office messages across corporate Europe, there seems little choice for a business correspondent but to report on the phenomenon itself.
The practice of collectively taking July or August off dates from the Industrial Revolution, when it made sense to send off all assembly-line workers simultaneously. In England’s north entire factories used to descend on the same resorts. As any tourist who has found themselves in front of an cream shop that is closed during a sizzling southern European summer will know, it has spread beyond factory jobs.
Until 2015 France had a rule that mandated some bakeries to stay open in August, so that Parisians—or rather tourists, because no chic Parisian wants to be seen in town during the summer—wouldn’t be deprived of baguettes. So empty is the city that month that the average speed of cars on a key ring road jumps from 38kph (24mph) to 52kph. Some of the best restaurants in Cyprus close in the tourist season. “Summer is near and Frankie will take a nap for a while,” says the site of Frankie’s Social, a trendy bar in Limassol.
Much of Milan becomes deserted as well. In the artsy district of Brera, Rita Zubelli runs an ice-cream parlour with her parents and brother. It will close shop for two weeks shortly. Why not hire someone to serve tourists? Italian law has stricter rules for firms with non-family members—the staff toilet would have to be moved from the basement.
It is not only the south that goes in for summer sloth. Production workers at Porsche, a German carmaker, are on a compulsory three-week break. In Norway fellesferie refers to a period of collective leave in July, when many firms shut and services including banks run on summer hours. In the Netherlands the bouwvak still means that many construction workers must take three weeks off in July and August. The timing is doubly puzzling for the industry because demand is strong and summer is the best time to build in a wet country. Even some police stations are shut in August. Presumably crime takes a break, too.
Though Europe’s appetite for summer holidays is easy to mock, of the ten most productive countries in the world (judged by per-hour productivity) only one—America, in fifth place—is not in Europe. Still, in several countries including Germany and the Netherlands, workers and trade unions have begun to press for more flexible leave policies; not everyone wants to go on holiday at a set time when prices are highest.
Firms that trade globally have had to adapt to demand from those parts of the world—especially Asia—that do not slow over summer and that expect someone in Europe to answer the phone. But though the European summer may spread itself out a little more over the year, there is scant sign that Europeans will cut down on their beach and mountain time.