As I See It: The Incredible Shrinking Vacation
Published: September 18, 2006
by Victor Rozek
For the first time in more than three decades, I went to Yosemite this summer. (An experience, incidentally, I recommend avoiding like a rabid dog because it has been stripped of most of its wilderness value. Huge visitor volumes and ubiquitous commercial interests have transformed Yosemite into something resembling a genteel albeit jam-packed Disney attraction). In any event, there amidst the masses of humanity ogling the masses of granite, I noticed something peculiar. Almost no one spoke English.
There were plenty of Pakistanis and Indians, the women dressed in their colorful saris; lots of Japanese, laden with the latest electronic gadgetry; plenty of Australians looking fit and eager; and what appeared to be a generous sampling of the entire European Union. There were Fins and Norwegians, French and Belgians, Austrians and Brits, and Germans by the battalion. But where were the Americans?
I didn't think much of it until about six weeks later on Labor Day when I heard the results of a study being discussed on the radio. Apparently, 43 percent of Americans surveyed said they had no vacation plans this year and had yet to take even a week off.
So that's where the Americans were: at home or working.
When future historians discuss the failings of this great nation, no doubt the most confounding will be the American antipathy to leisure. The ten-day American vacation ranks as the second most grudging in the industrialized world. Only our southern neighbor, Mexico, offers workers less vacation time--a paltry six days--which certainly explains why so many Mexicans would seek employment here.
Alas, geography is destiny, for if Mexico abutted Europe, vacation options for immigrants would be much more generous. The Danes, Austrians, and Fins, for example, enjoy six weeks off. The Norwegians and French get to play for five weeks. The Brits, Swiss, and Irish savor a month off, while the Germans, who receive 24 days of base paid vacation may, over time, earn up to 15 weeks off each year! With that kind of paid time off, ich bein ein vacationer, too. Plus, some European nations award employees an additional two to four weeks vacation bonus pay. And, in spite of it all, they somehow remain competitive.
Americans tend to dismiss people who delight in their leisure as having a poor work ethic. But that's not true. Europeans just don't obsess about it. Those type A personalities who forever sing the gospel of work and grinding competition should find a new song. A little more time off will not send the country into a downward spiral of self-indulgence and ruin. Guess what? Economically, the European Union is bigger than the United States. And, as far as I know, those "lazy" Europeans are mostly living indoors, enjoy such modern amenities as running water, and can even use their cell phones deep within their subway systems (try that in New York). Plus, they can actually afford to take foreign vacations.
The problem with having only ten days off and being a product of the Puritan ethic is that when we're forced to choose between obligations or going on vacation, we often choose the burdens of responsibility over the lightness of leisure. Thus, we Americans pollute our vacation time with all sorts of peripheral activities that may be nice and even necessary, but have nothing to do with what Europeans call, "being on holiday."
Being on holiday means leaving duty at the curb. We're all familiar with "Duty Vacations," a frequent compromise for busy families that can suck the joy out of winning the lottery. Duty Vacations include required visits to family or in-laws. You'll know it's a Duty Vacation if 20 minutes after you've arrived, said your hellos, and remarked how nice the house looks, you have absolutely no idea what else to say and are ready for that root canal you're been putting off. There's nothing wrong with a week-long Duty Vacation, (especially if you have four more weeks of vacation time available), unless you'd rather be somewhere else. But if you really want to be there, remember to be quiet because the folks go to bed at 10 p.m. On second thought, get some rest yourself because tomorrow you'll be so bored you'll probably start doing all of the maintenance projects Grandpa can no longer do.
Which brings us to Working Vacations. Those include remodeling the house, painting, roofing, landscaping, or doing those things for some other member of the family. While there is undeniable satisfaction in completing projects or helping loved ones, the practical result is that if you use up this year's vacation time, it will be, at best, two years between vacations. Few people can maintain focus and a sense of well-being without some break in the action. There's always something waiting to separate you from your limited vacation time. At some point, self care must take precedence over service least weariness and resentment set in.
Another favorite is the Family Vacation, which can be fun unless, as Erma Bombeck once remarked, it entails stuffing four or five people into a space no larger than a rolling phone booth and then setting off on a cross country trip. What could possibly go wrong? When getting there is more stressful than the relief of being there, go to plan B.
But even when American workers manage to get away, many of us don't leave the office behind. Technology such as the Internet and cell phones have seen to that. Vault.com, a career information site, reports that 47.3 percent of us have done office work while on vacation; 73.9 percent keep in contact with the office; and just under 20 percent cut vacations short and return early to work. Managers and employers have an even harder time leaving the office behind. Over 81 percent report working while on vacation.
Frequently cited reasons for such excessive devotion to the job include the fear that "I'll never catch up," concern about keeping the job, and having unique knowledge or expertise necessary for the smooth operation of the company. Money is certainly another factor. Undeniably, Americans are being squeezed. In the last 35 years, despite the fact that the gross domestic product (GDP) has nearly doubled, American workers are putting in longer hours and have seen real wages stagnate. In fact, as The New York Times reported, wages and salaries make up the lowest share of our GDP since such data was first recorded in 1947. Vacations are becoming a luxury many can no longer afford. And with gas prices being what the are, even a modest road trip costs much more than it did just a few years ago.
Although our national work force already clocks in more hours than workers of any other Western democracy, there is nonetheless a curious hostility toward the fraternities that produced the staples of American working life such as the 8-hour day, the five-day week, paid benefits, and yes, vacations. It is ironic that this Labor Day, when many American workers are hurting, unions are reviled rather than honored. And the rhetoric is pretty outrageous. The U.S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, called one union "a terrorist organization." Former House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, called unions "a clear and present danger to the security of the United States." And U.S. Representative Charles Norwood of Georgia claimed that unions engage in the kind of "tyranny that Americans are fighting and dying to defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan," and are thus "enemies of freedom and democracy." Gee, I didn't know Osama was unionizing. I guess Representative Norwood would like us all to get back to picking cotton and keep our mouths shut.
There are those, no doubt, who would like to see the paid vacation go the way of the pension and the health care benefit. Perhaps we should take up a collection and send those folks to Europe so they can see that civilization and leisure can in fact co-exist. In a Labor Day article published in the Boston Globe, James Carroll said facetiously "Work is burdensome, a defiance of how we're meant to be. If we could just keep August going forever, that's what we would do, no?"
Well, no. But it sure would be nice to extend it for a bit.