Why you should care

Working hard doesn’t always mean raking in the dough. 

It’s 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and we’re hanging out with a personal trainer who’s perched on a Swiss ball, taking a break after his first eight clients and before the day’s final three, a bartender who pours wine and bubbly for private parties and weddings on the weekends and a gardener whose ability to keep green spaces lush and vibrant is prized by the wealthy. His name is Piotr Nowakowski. Oh, you thought we were talking about three different people?

That might make a little more sense. Americans, of course, are familiar with the concepts of freelancing and moonlighting. But with Nowakowski, if you want to see him, you have to book an appointment. That goes for even his wife. “What can I say? My bodybuilding career costs a lot of money,” says Nowakowski in between bites of one of his six daily meals. Yes, he was just referring to job No. 4.

This cheerfully overworked Pole is no anomaly. In his country, the man has a lot of multiple-jobs-working company. In Poland, more than two million of its 38.4 million residents held two jobs at different companies in 2014. That’s 6.4 percent of the population, 50 percent higher than the European Union average of 4 percent. So is this a nation struggling to beat back poverty, or are we looking at a group of workaholics unrivaled outside Silicon Valley?

They were finally being rewarded for their actual work and were able to buy goods that they had been deprived of for many years.

Mateusz Walewski, an economist at PwC, divides the Poles with multiple jobs into two groups. The first, he says, are the ones making up for all the years under Communism, when they were stuck with bare necessities. “They are willing to work more, and faster, to get what the people in the West have had for a long time.” The other group is made up of the ones who simply need to work a lot because if they had only one job, their families would have to make do without food or clothes.

Poland stayed Communist for four-plus decades after World War II ended, in 1945. There was zero unemployment, as everyone was employed by the state — and there was nothing to buy in the shops. In the “line economy,” people had to stand in queues for hours for everything from bread to toilet paper. In those days, you might be dying for a new television, and you might even have enough money to afford it. But you’d have to wait — like seven years — to get it. Instead of destroying the national psyche, deprivation gave birth to entrepreneurship.

At the end of 1988, while Poland was still Communist, a smart minister of industry, Mieczysław Wilczek, introduced a law that enabled Poles to create their own companies. In what seemed like a dream, suddenly any commercial activity that wasn’t strictly forbidden was allowed. That’s how even before Communism collapsed for good in 1989, the Poles’ entrepreneurial spirit was born. Within weeks, thousands of people were creating their own companies. Within reach: those goods that had so long been out of reach.

Now the game has changed a little, with Poland part of the European Union and the opportunities for an even greater economic leap out there, through both funding and more networking. Indeed, thanks largely to EU funding, Poland managed to avoid the recession that plagued much of the rest of Europe during the last world economic crisis. According to economist Walewski, the Poles are still aggressive in their will to earn more money.

No kidding. When Justyna Bakalarska, a 27-year-old teacher in Warsaw, looks around a room full of part-time students, she sees people like herself in their seventh consecutive day of busy-ness; Bakalarska herself works every single day. She spends Mondays through Saturdays writing — marketing content and some 20 to 30 articles a month. On Sundays, she works for leisure and some extra cash and teaches two groups of students at two universities. Bakalarska, who is new to freelancing, says she’s feeling the best she has in years. Her breakthrough moment came last June, at her sister’s wedding: “I realized I hadn’t had a free day since March.”

The great irony is that this zealously industrious population doesn’t seem to be getting much in return. The average salary in Poland is $950 a month, or $11,400 a year — but the majority of the working population earns less, says Izabela Styczyńska, vice president of the Warsaw-based Center for Social and Economic Research. And here’s something to mull over: Even the unemployed work in Poland! According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, the unemployment rate in Poland was 8 percent in January 2015, a longtime low. But the Polish statistical office says it’s still at 12 percent. The reason for this difference? According to labor pros, some Poles are working but are registered as unemployed — so they can get free health care benefits. A third of the unemployed counted the Polish way can’t take on a new job, says Walewski, because they’re already busy working on temporary contracts.

All work and no play makes Poland a fascinating bit of bar conversation. But experts don’t think this is a permanent state of affairs . Other countries have made the leap from long-suffering workhorse to comfortably middle class. Harry Holzer, economist and public policy analyst, and professor at Georgetown, likens it to how college students have crappy jobs and then go on to find the “real” jobs; even then there is still a fair amount of bouncing around and job turnover for several years, until they’ve established themselves. Poland must figure out a pathway to attaining skills that would attract high-paying employers. “To make the move up you first have to have a marketable skill,” he says. “It all starts with the skill.”

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