Swiss reality versus American reality: A father-son-granddaughter story
A photo of the author with granddaughter Camilia. | John Dick/PW

I look into her eyes. Beautiful blue eyes, a soft azure hue surrounded by elegant, long curly eyelashes. Her eyes are perfect, as is the rest of her face. She looks back at me, looks into my old, bloodstained orbs. I am in love, but I wonder what she is thinking. What are you? Who are you, old man? I give her a kiss on the cheek, then whisper ,“Hello, my angel; Grandpa is here.”

I held my granddaughter for the first time on December 31st. She was almost six months old by then. My son, his wife, and now their daughter live in Geneva, Switzerland. My son moved to Geneva seven years ago and has never looked back. It has been an adjustment for his American family and now, with the addition of a new baby, there is more emotional handwringing for us on this side of the pond. But I understand why he has made the decision to keep his family there: Quite simply, living in Switzerland has ruined him for America and our lousy work culture.

My son didn’t move to Geneva because of a job opportunity. He moved there because of a woman. He fell in love and pursued his heart. He carried with him across the Atlantic a part-time job, a luggage bag, and just a few thousand dollars. Seven years later, he now has a great full-time job, a wife and daughter, and a new home just outside of Geneva. The longer he lived there, the more entrenched he became in the Swiss work culture and the Swiss social fabric. Over the years I have had many conversations with him about the differences between American reality and what he has now living in Geneva. Here are some of my observations:

1) Work-life balance: The Swiss work hard, but they have a strong work-life balance. The average Swiss worker earned the equivalent of $91,574 a year in 2013, while the average American worker earned only $55,708. But the real story is that the average American had to work 219 hours more per year for this lesser salary. I joke with my son that I make just as much money as he does, but he is quick to remind me that while I work between 55-60 hours most weeks, he works the normal 40 hours. Working overtime for the Swiss is considered unhealthy and unsocial.

2) Options concerning time and money: 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 the U.S., part-time jobs are not viewed as necessarily unskilled jobs with lower pay. Eighty-one percent of women in Switzerland are in the workforce, versus 69 percent in the States. Attitudes toward professional part-time work—for both men and women—have a lot to do with this.

3) Access to an amazing unemployment system: In Switzerland, being on unemployment means you receive 70 to 80 percent of your prior salary for 18 months. Tuition costs for classes to help regain employment are also included in unemployment benefits. In the U.S., unemployment benefits generally pay workers between 40-50 percent of previous salaries for an average of six months.

4) Wealth-based tax system: Compared with the U.S., Swiss taxes are easy on the average worker. For example, a worker earning the average wage of $91,574 would only pay 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—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. The average adult in Switzerland has a net worth of $513,000. Average net worth of adults in the U.S. is half that.

5) Lots of paid vacation time and never made to feel guilty for taking it: The legal minimum in Switzerland for paid vacation time is four weeks. My son gets five weeks with his job. Vacation time is sacred and the boss expects and hopes that you take your holiday time seriously.

6) Owning a car is optional: In Switzerland, 21 percent of households do not own a car, versus 9.2 percent in the U.S. The public transportation system is phenomenal. The buses run right on schedule, and are very clean and inexpensive. Walking is a way of life as well. Owning a car is a luxury, not a necessity.

7) Excellent health care and maternity leave benefits: Swiss law mandates a 14-week maternity leave at a minimum of 80 percent pay. Many jobs pay the full 100 percent pay for maternity leave. Compare that with the U.S., 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. You can decide the balance you need between career and home life. And here’s a real kicker: The Swiss government pays a monthly child stipend to help with childrearing expenses whether you need it or not!

8) Almost free public higher education: Going to college in Switzerland costs very little. The public universities are considered better than the private schools, and the annual tuition costs for these public institutions are just a few thousand dollars per year. The Swiss don’t go into debt to go to college. The private high-cost universities are there for those who can’t “pass the muster” to get into the public colleges. The Swiss have prioritized education and they have one of the world’s most highly skilled workforces to show for it.

Swiss reality versus American reality. My son and his wife have made a very good decision to stay in Geneva and start a family there. They both have taken the time to educate me on the Swiss system and culture, and it gives me hope for the future. America is a great country—but when it comes to how we treat our workers and their families, we need to do much better. We have the resources; we just need to find the will.

On our final day in Geneva, with packed luggage waiting by the door, I look one last time into those beautiful blue eyes of my granddaughter. I know I won’t see her as often as I would like. I know her first words will most likely be French. I know I will miss her and cry when I see her picture. I kiss her and say goodbye. She puts her fist in my mouth. I blow spit all over her little hand. I am happy and sad.


John Dick
John Dick

Award winning writer John "Cementhead" Dick is a retired letter carrier and proud member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 3126, Royal Oak, Mich.