Emily in Paris: The Disillusioned American Dream

Americans love Paris. We envision a fictional version of the city where life is full of cafes, croissants, and a certain je ne sais quoi. We idealize their style, food, and liberated concept of romance. Netflix’s hit sit-com, Emily in Paris, encapsulates our infatuation not only with France’s popular culture, but with its working culture too. The show follows Emily’s life as an American marketing executive working abroad and highlights our envy of societies with healthier work-life balances.

Emily in Paris’s protagonist (Emily) struggles to adjust to life in France. She doesn’t speak French, she doesn’t know anyone, and she doesn’t adapt to French social norms. Yet, she immediately excels at her new job, and to the annoyance of her co-workers, attributes her success to her American work ethic. Despite Emily’s apparent patriotism, she ultimately prefers work in Paris. Emily is one of many US workers facing burnout who settle in countries with stronger labor laws. As told by Luc, Emily’s co-worker, Americans “live to work” while the French “work to live.” 

Living to Work

One of Emily’s main challenges throughout the show is her inability to maintain a healthy work-life balance. She works overtime on vacations and on weekends and pesters her coworkers to do the same. Emily embodies the traditional view of the typical American worker: meritocratic, hardworking, driven (sometimes to a fault). But working nonstop is not sustainable, not for Emily nor other like-minded US employees who overwork themselves in the name of the American dream. 

Many US workers suffer from burnout, which contributed to the Great Resignation: a post-pandemic workforce phenomenon characterized by employee demoralization and mass exits. With the Great Resignation came quiet quitting: employees fulfilling the bare minimum of their responsibilities. Quiet quitting allows employees to have a life outside of work, which can prevent burnout and cultivate stronger working relationships. 

Some Americans  claim that quiet quitting is selfish, reducing performance and engagement for teams, departments, and entire companies.   And, although quiet quitting pushes Americans to allocate more time for themselves, it can alleviate the resentment that people feel towards their work, improving long-term engagement and satisfaction. The existing United States’  work culture creates a sense of hostility between employers and employees. Companies that demand one hundred percent of their employees push workers to reach beyond their work-life boundaries. 

The number of American expatriates (expats) continues to rise. In 1999, there were 4.1 million US expats living abroad. That approximation has since doubled. Media like Emily in Paris visualize the appeal that becoming an expat has to offer for US citizens frustrated with their surroundings. 

Northeastern’s career-oriented environment reflects the United States’ hustle culture depicted by Emily in Paris. Niche, a popular college review site, reports that most student respondents would describe the average Northeastern student as  “ambitious.” 

As Northeastern opens international campuses and creates summer programs around the world, more and more students are getting a taste of what other working cultures are like. 

According to Kristine Aleksandrovica, a fifth-year student at Northeastern who has completed co-ops in Boston and Paris, the Parisian working environment is more relaxed. At her workplace, employees would arrive late and take hour-long smoke breaks on top of their hour-long lunch breaks. In Paris, she felt like she was working to live; work was also a social commitment where people valued their peers more than their individual responsibilities. 

Emily in Paris depicts an environment where locals collectively accommodate Emily by speaking English. However, Aleksandrovica, noted that most French citizens she came across were aloof towards English-speakers. She says that simply trying to learn French makes people more willing to listen to you, even if it’s not flawless. Viewers should consider this before deciding to follow in Emily’s footsteps.

Working to Live

Emily’s Parisian coworkers maintain clear work-life boundaries, reflecting France’s labor laws which protect employees’ personal lives. Watching the show, American audiences might be surprised to learn that it’s illegal to work on weekends in France. In 2017, France passed a law prohibiting employers from contacting employees outside of regular work hours in an attempt to preserve their Right to Disconnect, a policy soon followed by Italy and Spain. French laws also prevent employees from working more than 10 hours per day, establish higher minimum wages and consider a work week to be 35 hours. 

These philosophies are shared across much of Europe. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an international organization of 38 member states that  account for 80% of global trade. The US is the only OECD economy that doesn’t mandate paid parental leave or require lunch breaks, earning it the moniker: “No-Vacation Nation.” Despite working for shorter hours, European nations maintain similar levels of worker productivity. Working harder and not smarter, America sacrifices employee well-being in exchange for similar, and sometimes lower, economic gains.

While media like Emily in Paris can leave Americans viewing European countries through rose-colored glasses, workers there don’t live in a utopia. As of 2022, one in three Europeans is considering quitting their jobs, pointing to inadequate compensation and insufficient career advancement. In Paris, thousands of protests—both violent and non-violent—responded to the French government’s pension bill that raised the retirement age from 62 to 64. This doesn’t detract from the value of more protective labor laws, but rather signifies that Americans shouldn’t flee to France in search of perfection. Instead, we should learn from worker needs globally and focus on improving working conditions domestically. 

With Americans feeling drawn to working conditions abroad, US lawmakers should take notice. To prevent the burnout and migration of skilled workers, we must implement stronger labor policies and treat people like human beings instead of human capital. American expats influenced by the media’s portrayal of European countries will be caught off guard if they think that living in France is as glamorous as in Emily in Paris, but what it gets right about the workplace is that we shouldn’t be living to work. We should work to live.

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