Savoir-vivre in Europe – a comparison of attitudes to life

September 2016

Summertime is vacation time! For many of us, these are the best weeks of the year – and they are desperately needed in order to recharge our depleted batteries. However, disposable free time – i.e. time we can spend doing exactly what we want – is of great importance for people outside of vacation season as well. In this way, some people look into the possibility of taking a sabbatical from work or perhaps working on a part-time basis. Moreover, some of the more mature sections of the working population opt for semi-retirement – even if this does entail a pay cut. Is it worth earning less to increase your free time? Evidently, there is clear agreement among many Europeans on this question: The majority of respondents value their free time more than any additional income.

This is just one of the findings from the “Consumer Study” conducted by GfK Verein in winter 2015/2016, in which sections of the population aged 14 and above in several European countries were invited to offer their fundamental opinions and attitudes on different areas of life, among other aspects. Respondents were each asked to decide between two respective statements – for example “free time is more important to me than more income” and “I would sacrifice my free time for more money”. A scale between 1 and 4 was used for respondents to indicate whether they strongly or more generally agreed with a certain statement.

Time is money. But perhaps not?

Albert Einstein would likely have agreed with the statement “free time is more important to me than more income”. He is reported to have once claimed that: “The most precious things in life are not those you get for money.” The majority of respondents in the selected EU countries clearly share this view. In six of the seven countries included in the survey, more than half of respondents prioritize their free time over a bulging bank balance. At 72%, Dutch respondents top the rankings in this regard. However, it should be pointed out that, at an average of just 30 hours per week, the Dutch already spend the least amount of time in the workplace. Those who already enjoy a manageable work-life balance would clearly not be willing to give it up readily.

There is little to separate places 2–5, occupied respectively by the French and British, each with 63%, followed by the Germans and Spaniards at 62% each. In contrast, the rating from Italian respondents is a comparatively low 54%. And in terms of the Polish respondents, just 48% voted in favor of leisure time; a slim majority of 52% would more readily agree with the statement “I would sacrifice my free time for more money”. At this juncture, it is worth bearing in mind that free time in Poland is already a scarce commodity. Polish employees work an average of 41 hours per week, the highest of all surveyed countries. This is likely due to the tricky economic situation in the country. Poland has by far the lowest per capita GDP. “Getting by” – “kombinować” – is a common Polish phrase, which in the view of the online newspaper " " neatly describes the situation faced by people in the country. And those who do manage to muddle through in this way can not really afford to complain about a lack of leisure time.

“Those who do not think about the future will soon have worries.” This quote has been assigned to the Chinese philosopher Confucius by a website (Page 8). An anonymous user commented on this post: “And those who only think of the future will always have worries.” This comment reveals just how differently people answer the question as to whether “enjoying life here and now” or “thinking about tomorrow” is better. There is also a clear divide among EU citizens surveyed on this subject. The findings from the Netherlands once again point to that fact that there are many bons-vivants living in the country. A total of 67% of Dutch respondents voted for “here and now”, which puts the Netherlands in first place in a country comparison. Furthermore, 66% of respondents in the UK were in favor of a present-oriented lifestyle and were therefore just behind in second place. At the other end of the scale, Polish respondents bring up the rear once again with an agreement value of just 47%. It is likely that, in the face of low income levels and the correspondingly poor prospects, many Poles are more concerned with the ways in which they can potentially save for the future rather than enjoying life right now. In Germany, the ratio split is 57%-43% in favor of living for the moment. At 61%, both the French and Spaniards tend slightly more towards present-oriented lifestyles.

More modesty in Europe

No matter whether individual incomes are at the higher or lower end of the scale, or whether employees are forced to or voluntarily forgo portions of their income: Europeans have more choice than ever before in terms of what they can spend their money on. Up to 160,000 products are stocked on the shelves of a warehouse-style shopping market. Well-stocked supermarkets may have up to 27,000 products. And even discount stores such as Aldi still offer nearly 1,000 various products in each store (Source: Fokus Money Online dated 25 September 2014).

There is not only a practically infinite selection of everyday products, but also clothes, entertainment electronics, vacations and much, much more. Confronted with this mass of consumer products, some EU citizens begin to reflect, questioning whether their lifestyles are simply too consumer-oriented. It may be the case that personal beliefs play a role here, perhaps the information available on dwindling resources and exploitation of third world countries which makes possible the relative prosperity we enjoy in the western world is also a factor.

One thing is for sure: People express a preference for a more restrained lifestyle over even more consumption fever both in more economically stable countries and those ridden with crises. This means that in nearly all countries, more people agree with the statement “a bit more modesty would do us all good” than the opposing claim “one should feel free to afford something”. Above all, Italian respondents were pleading for more frugality (74%). A total of 62% of French respondents and 61% of Spanish respondents also adopt this position. Slightly behind are British respondents (58%) and Polish respondents (56%). The Germans and the Dutch bring up the rear in this regard: Around half the population (52% and 49% respectively) advocate an increased degree of restraint among consumers.

Shopping is fun for most people

Shopping experiences vary greatly depending on circumstances. They range from a manic dash through the aisles after work to do some shopping before closing times to a casual, relaxed weekend stroll around the shops. Anybody who might think that a relaxing, meandering wander through packed market stalls, taking in the local ambiance is purely the preserve of people in European countries with a rich gastronomic culture such as France or Italy, while the rest of the continent rushes through the shops, would be sorely mistaken. In nearly all of the surveyed countries, more than half of respondents expressed the view that there is pleasure to be taken in shopping.

However, those famous gastronomes, the Italians, were top of this particular list, at 63%. For them, shopping has a particular social importance. In many areas, ever smaller, town-center shops and weekly markets continue to dominate the local scene. Here, you have the time to seek personal advice from shop owners, negotiate, chat casually about the weather and your family as well as exchange the latest news and gossip – it is easy to see how this is more fun than hurriedly working your way down a shopping list, crossing off items as you go (see: or ‚transfer 2007‘). Hot on the heels of the Italians are the Dutch, 62% of whom agreed with this statement. They are followed by the Poles and the Germans with 57% and 56% respectively. Furthermore, a slight majority of French (54%) and British (53%) respondents also take pleasure in their shopping trips. The one exception comes in the form of Spanish respondents: 53% find shopping to be a real burden.

More restraint or taking pleasure in shopping, living in the here and now and enjoying our free time or thinking more about the future: Europeans are occasionally very split in their attitudes to different facets of life. But what is the best way to live life right now? Everyone must look way beyond mere statistics and work out their own route through life, and then present their perspective to others. Just as the Italian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri once claimed: “Follow your own road and let the people talk.”


Data source: GfK Verein, Consumer Study 2016

Responsible for the article and contact person for queries about Compact: Claudia Gaspar (e-mail to