The Vanishing American Vacation


In 1882, New York clamored for an appearance by the champion of laissez-faire capitalism, Herbert Spencer, who provided Charles Darwin with the phrase, "Survival of the fittest."

Spencer agreed to meet the captains of American industry, but his appearance was a disaster. Spencer told the assembly they didn’t understand his ideas, for he disapproved of American capitalism. Americans, he claimed, are pathologically obsessed with work.

Overwork risks their mental and physical health and they need a "revised ideal of life" that includes relaxation. "Life is not for learning, nor is life for working," said Spencer, "but learning and working are for life."

Almost 125 years later, Americans still haven’t gotten the message. Compared to people in other developed countries, Americans don’t ask for more vacation time, don’t take all the vacation time their employers give them, and continue to work while they are on vacation.

There are a number of theories about why Americans don’t demand more vacation time: fear of leaving work that will pile up in their absence; fear that other employees will show more devotion to the job and get promoted above them; a distaste for relating to a mate and children outside of their tightly structured lives; and they’ve been convinced that economic success depends on subservience to employers who control their work lives. Consider that:

* Some 88 percent of Americans carry electronic devices while on vacation to communicate with work, and 40 percent log-on to check their work email.

* A third of all Americans don’t take their allotted vacation and 37 percent never take more than a week at a time.

Many employees have no choice because they are at the bottom of the pay scale and are forced to work to make ends meet. A third of all women and a quarter of all men receive no paid vacation. We’ve been globalized, downsized and privitized until we are little more than production units.

The U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave. France leads the world with 30 days off a year. Employees in Britain, German, Australia, Spain and Sweden have 20 or more days off a year, and Canada and Japan have 10 days off, about the same as some American corporations allow their workers. Even the Chinese get three weeks off a year, and this is only the legally mandated vacation time. Many employees in other countries take six or more weeks off a year (the French average 39 days and the English 24).

Meanwhile, those who profit from our labor amass wealth. For the fifth consecutive year in a row-a Bush record-the average American’s income remained below what it was in 2000. Those making over $1 million a year (less than a quarter of one percent of all taxpayers) increased their income 26 percent, and 62 percent of that increase came from Bush tax cuts on investments: capital gains and dividends.

Our mythology claims the work ethic makes America great, but does it? We have the highest productivity in the world because we work more overtime-40 percent of Americans work 50 hours a week and some workweeks typically run 60 to 70 hours.

Workers in France, Ireland, Norway and Holland are more productive than American workers: Germany and Britain lag slightly behind, and all of them have more vacation time than we do.

It’s not like we don’t need vacations. One in three American workers are chronically overworked and report job stress. We are working longer hours, our jobs are more demanding, and we have more tasks to perform. Forty percent of parents with teenage children report high stress levels, and those making over $50,000 a year report the highest levels of stress.

We can’t expect to wait until retirement to have more time off, either. For the first time in history-another Bush record-four generations of Americans are now working. After decades of decline, the number of workers 55 and over has increased. Today 6.4 percent of those 75 and older work. The number of those receiving pensions decreased by half since 1980 and the age to receive full Social Security benefits increased to 67. Over 60 percent of those between 55 and 64 in California are working, an increase of 7.4 percent since 1980.

Whether it’s greed, an ingrained protestant work ethic, economic necessity or some other reason, there’s no excuse for not having mandated vacation time.

No one is ever taken advantage of without their agreement, so perhaps Americans live to work. If not, it’s time for Americans to take Herbert Spencer’s advice, demand more vacation time, relax and enjoy your life.

DON MONKERUD is an California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political issues. He can be reached at monkerud@cruzio.com.

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