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 privatized 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 is the author of America Unhinged: Politics and Pandemic in the 2020 Election (2021). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Don.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Daniel said on August 28th, 2007 at 4:22pm #

    It’s amazing. Religion used to control people’s minds. To a certain extent it still does. Now Capitalism also controls people’s minds! Doesn’t say much for human intelligence, does it?

  2. Deadbeat said on August 28th, 2007 at 4:45pm #

    I wouldn’t assume all humans are Americans

  3. Michael said on August 29th, 2007 at 8:46am #

    I moved to Germany where I don’t have to worry about appearing unmanly for taking all my vacation…everyone does. It’s very nice.

  4. Don Monkerud said on August 29th, 2007 at 10:19am #

    This just came in from another person but I won’t put their name up as it was a private communication:

    Back in early 70’s I was working with 2 weeks annual paid vacation. I wanted to take an extended 3 week vacation, and asked for the 3rd week without pay. My manager, said, “We don’t do that around here, but I will ask the V.P.”

    The V.P. said, “We don’t do that around here, but I will leave it up to Curtis.” So I took the 3rd week off. They were pissed! They then sent a memo to everyone, saying not to ask for any time off that they did not have coming. That and a few other run ins with corporate management, and I new I was doomed. For this and other reasons, in 1978 I reinvented myself as an independent IT consultant. Since then I have averaged 3 months off a year. In the early and middle years I could turn down work. The last 6 or 7 have been much leaner, but we have always lived frugally, and can muddle along for 2 more years until I can take full SS and my wife early SS. We have saved a modest amount and have our home long paid for, and have no debt.

    I remember, in those early 70’s there was talk of a shorter work week or year, I did not wait around for that to happen. Deciding to not work 50 weeks/year was the best life decision we have made. It has allowed us to have a life rich in travel and hobbies, while raising a son.

  5. sharon said on September 2nd, 2007 at 3:12am #

    I have always been a lousy employee–or almost always–an attitude that I have come to consider not only entirely justified, but actually wise. I was certianly never rewarded by raises or promotions in those positions in which I was an exemplary employee.

    Looking back, I can see that my mostly poor performance and tendency towards absenteeism was founded on the clear-eyed realization that whatever job I was doing was either destructive in its essential nature, or was more or less bullshit–writing reports and summaries that no one ever read, for example–or worse, meticulously editing printed materials that, had they never seen the light of day, the world would have been a better place. Teaching is another pure bullshit occupation in which, I am ashamed to say, I have participated.

    In order for employment to work out well for you, the chief requirements seem to be an incandescent enthusiasm for lies and bullshit, a strong aptitude for multiplying the existing structure of lies and bullshit on your own behalf, a happy penchant for sucking ass, and an unconquerable belief that this will lead to material advantage–usually in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The workplace, I’ve discovered, is unfriendly even to the diligent worker who is unskilled in and unconvinced by the above. In fact, it’s unfriendly to the diligent worker who does not actively and enthusiastically embrace all of the above.

    As a result of this long and checkered career, I am now marginally employed at a job that is not very well paid, but allows me a lot of freedom.

    Friends sometimes suggest other employment opportunites for me–presumably better ones, and certainly better paid ones. Although I’m frequently tempted, somehow I rarely get around to applying. The reason, I think, is that I no longer want to live my life like that. I’d rather be poor than be constantly immersed in and battered by the deadening, demeaning, and prehensile culture of the workplace.

    An all this, in a nutshell, is why the objective of every sane person in this society is to avoid regular employment whenever the possibility presents itself: get that unemployment comp, workman’s comp, SS disability, or whatever.

    While this is probably not an option for people with families to support, crack habits to support, or shopping habits to support, I heartily recommend avoidance of the traditional workplace–and preferably any workplace at all–to all others. What’s the point? As most will freely admit, they are working their asses off at jobs that ocmpromise or offend their basic values–and doing it for a pittance.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 4th, 2007 at 9:49pm #

    How does the US parasite class manage to brainwash the people of the US in to not only wasting their precious lives as wage slaves, but also convince them that the most unequal rich country, with the shoddiest public health, welfare and education in the developed world, is a Paradise on Earth? Has it something to do with the prevalence of a primitive, fundamentalist type of deeply obscurantist and anti-intellectual religious superstition? The US has long been a menace to the world, and increasingly its less well-off citizens, but these malign tendencies are now reaching truly horrific levels. Where lie the well-springs of US self-delusion and its phantasies of virtue and omnipotence?