Have We Forgotten How to Vacation?

Author Walter Kern recently attacked the idea that Americans are vacationing less and working more while supposedly on vacation. He describes the basic problem thusly:

. . . a nation of remarkably productive, often well-paid workers who are becoming increasingly reluctant to pause from their labors and refresh their souls — a nation whose cash-drenched corporate employers typically don’t pay for much time off (less than two weeks annually, on average), a nation whose globe-gripping federal government is the only one in the whole industrialized world not to legally require generous periods of paid kick-back-and-hang time — is a nation that’s socially screwed up, particularly in comparison with European countries like France, which orders its citizens outside to play for the entire month of August and a few other weeks spread through the year.

He argues that workers are afraid of obsolescence when others perform their tasks in their absence, perhaps better than the vacationer, while at the same time, both workplaces and our daily lives contain ever more elements of the escape that vacation is to provide, citing day spas and movie theaters as new temples of rejuvenation. Thus, so Kern, the desire to vacation less is rooted in market-wide job insecurity; and we’re not as vacation-starved as it appears, as we take mini-vacations through a number of activities which have become mainstream enough to appear in every strip mall.

Yet can a weekly yoga class take the place of a four-week vacation every summer? I believe the answer, very clearly, is no.


Waiting in Line at the Uffizi

Anyone who likes to travel any distance on their holidays will tell you — two weeks’ paid vacation is altogether too short for a trip. This is why you find Americans in Italy suffering from the “If this is Tuesday, it must be Rome” syndrome, which can alternately be called, “Hurry up and enjoy your vacation already!” or, “You’re only going to be here once, so you better see it all!” The general time crunch on vacation and the inability to release oneself from productivity mode into one more unstructured is why Americans get annoyed when Italian waiters don’t bring the bill in a timely fashion, when the line at the Uffizi keeps them from marking off another item on their checklist of attractions, and is what keeps them from slipping into the rhythms of the locals or the other tourists. It is hard to understand how the others can linger over tables when there is still gelato to be eaten on the way to this church or that famous piazza. The contempt of the 10-day traveler can be heard in Kern’s snide comments about the French and his comparison of his childhood vacations to a Nazi summer recreation program. (Is it simply a bizarre coincidence that Spiegel came out with an article about this the same week?)

Working Europeans have a minimum of four weeks’ paid vacation, and six is not unusual. They rarely travel anywhere distant on vacation for less than three weeks. This naturally lends itself to a very different kind of travel and allows them, no matter where they are, to slow down rather than speed up.

Susan Sontag touches upon the inability of Americans to relax in her classic text, “On Photography.” She notes that travelers from the world’s most productive countries — Germany, Japan, the U.S. — are also the most avid photographers while on vacation. Travel photography in fact becomes a happily assumed form of work, with the camera lens often standing between the traveler and what he seeks to experience. At the same time, the photographer produces proof of his vacation and his enjoyment of it for those back home. Our limited time frame often makes us into conspicuous consumers of places, yet this consumption mimics that of everyday life. Perhaps this is why Kern conflates recreational activities with true vacation.

I think that such a vacation — whether a world trip, a stay at the cabin or the beach, or time spent in your own garden or backyard — transcends everyday life and consumption. As our lives become more saturated, we find the need for ever more time to decompress from this state. Two weeks (and really, how many people are able to take their two weeks all at the same time?) simply isn’t cutting it anymore. And so people stay plugged in and online and they even fail to take the few vacation days offered because vacation American-style has long failed to offer a reprieve from this everyday.

So why has America failed to provide its workers with more time off? Part of the discrepancy could previously be explained by comparing U.S. and European wages. American workers preferred to be paid more, while European workers were given more leisure time. This trend continues today — yet as the euro continues to gain on the dollar, these differences narrow dramatically. It is not unimaginable that American workers will soon find themselves holding the short end of the stick on both wages AND vacation. This is just another reason why I am trying to find work on this side of the pond.

Finally, I have to note that our inability to remove ourselves from our work is illustrative of our self-identity being so neatly wound into our job titles. Kern also falls prey to this, writing how his long vacation (poor thing) has resulted in work piling up while he was away. Those hundreds of emails and voicemails that arrive in our absence show we are needed, we are wanted, we are irreplaceable. Checking in over vacation, while perhaps in part a force of habit, reinforces we have not lost our place in society.

Why do you think American workers are loathe to demand more vacation? Why are employers afraid to award it, seeing as most employees don’t use all the vacation they already have? If you had 2-3 times more vacation per year, what would you do with it? And what might you be willing to give up in order to have it?

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7 Responses to Have We Forgotten How to Vacation?

  1. TheGnat says:

    As a future worker drone, I fully intend not to work in the U.S. Admittedly, I want to work in Japan, but that’s still an improvement (especially so since I’m choosing a field that isn’t highly valued in the States but is in high demand over there).

    I think Americans really are very tied to working, profession, and feeling “productive”. After “what’s your name?” comes “what do you do?” meaning, “what is your job title?”. Many people work at jobs they seem to loathe, yet rarely take vacation. And even when they do, even if they have say, a year (!!) off, they *still* try to get in as much as possible.

    When I was studying in Japan for a year, I found a huge difference between the American students and all of us non-Americans. The Americans never seemed to not be sight-seeing. From their choice in restaurants, to how they spent their weekends. Everything was “check off the most as quick as possible”. The rest of us tried to develop a routine and spent a lot of time of our trips at the hot springs. And even though before going to Japan I was an avid photographer, I took a grand total of 4 rolls of film in Japan. For one whole year!!

    I would be willing to give up some wages to have nice vacations every year in my future job. I would also happily try to make sure my vacation times were as convenient for the company as possible (such as not taking a vacation during tax season, if I were an accountant). But I wouldn’t give up job security. But then, I more or less think of job security as a right.

  2. Mary says:

    It was so interesting to read this after just having spent a week in Amsterdam. I met my husband there as he returned from a four-month stint of working in India. We spent the first part of the week “checking off the list:” the canal and boat tours, the Anne Frank house, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Those things were interesting and/or enjoyable (especially the Van Gogh Museum).

    By the last half of our seven days there, though, our favorite thing was to hop on a tram and go to (the?) Leidsepleine, where we stumbled upon the Gay Pride parade on the canal on Saturday(which was, well, fabulous). Other days we would go to a pancake restaurant, or buy a pastry and sit around in Vondel Park, then buy a sandwich at the same bakery (croisant brie for me) and go back to our hotel and enjoy it with a glass of wine. We kept talking about going on a day trip to the Hague or something, but it was too late. We had discovered our inner European.

  3. akdmyers says:

    I think there is something to the fear that being away from work for too long will result in becoming obsolete, or at the very least having too much to deal with when you return. I recently took two weeks away from work, which were a combination of work-related travel and vacation. Near the beginning of my trip, I told a table full of other professionals that I did not plan to check my email at all while I was gone; this was received with gasps of awe and amazement that anyone could blithely ignore the call of the job while away. (I did cave on the trip and check email, mostly because as long as I was checking my personal account, I might as well check my work account.) I am still working my way through the things that piled up while I was away, and while I have been joking with a coworker that I will never take two weeks off again, I know that the absence was good for my soul.

    I feel I get a pretty generous vacation package here – 25 days a year. But if I had 2-3 times that, what would I do? I would take a three day weekend every month just to unwind. If I could afford it, I would take more short trips to visit friends and family, and at least one long (2-3 week) trip every year. I would be happier, more relaxed and more content at my work knowing that I would be able to get away whenever I needed. However, I don’t think I would be willing to give up anything. Maybe some retirement benefits – I don’t think I would mind working for more of my life if the quality of my life while working were higher.

    I’ve also been thinking about your comments about Americans’ inability to unwind while on vacation. I know that for me, it is so expensive to even get to Europe that the last time I was there we tried to pack as much as we could into three weeks because we didn’t know when we’d ever be able to get back. By the end of the second week, we were exhausted, and guiltily allowed ourselves to do nothing – see no sites, just wander aimlessly and eat ice cream. It was like a vacation from our vacation, and it was wonderful. I don’t know that I’d necessarily change the way we do things if we ever have enough money to go again, though – as long as I’m there I want to make the most of it!

  4. B Barron says:

    Wow, does this ever hit a nerve! I have been thinking along similar lines, but not about vacation per se (stay tuned to a future post, if I ever get enough time away from work to write it).

    I don’t think we Americans have forgotten how to vacation – I don’t think we’ve ever known how. Do you think the Pilgrims took vacation? I was a “worker drone” for almost 25 years, and during that time I can say without question that my employer made life incredibly hard when anyone took vacation. In a consulting firm, where $$ is made by selling people’s time, any “downtime” is $$ lost. There was no concern for refreshing one’s soul. If someone burned out, he/she was replaced by another, generally younger drone eager for a chance to make it to the top.

    For the last 10 years, I’ve been a senior partner in our own small consulting firm. I’m one of the bosses! I can take all the vacation I want, right? Ha-Ha. I rarely take as much as 2 weeks away, because among other things my ego is so invested. My inability to unwind is strictly self-imposed.

  5. Dana says:

    Interestingly, when my mom and I were in England this past spring, we got a lecture on this very subject from the guy who drove us from the airport to our friends’ flat. He does a lot of corporate driving, and he says he always tells the American entreprenuers that they will have to be willing to give their European employees European amounts of vacation, because the American model just won’t fly there. When driving them back to the airport later, they all tell him he was right, and seem puzzled/shocked. As he put it, “We English work so we can go on our next holiday.” I’m totally in favor of this attitude.

    I think part of the problem is the difference between a “relaxing vacation” and a “destination vacation.” Like Ann says, if I’ve spent the money to go somewhere far away and expensive, I’m going to feel more pressure to do stuff, because this may be my only shot. In contrast, when I go to my family’s beach cottage, a place I’ve been nearly every summer my entire life, I have no problem getting into the totally relaxed routine of beach vacationing. I suspect this is true of most people who have a habitual “relaxing vacation” place in their lives.

    The best compromise I’ve found for this issue is to do destination vacationing by visiting someone who lives there. That way, I won’t feel pressured to go do all the touristy things I can, because the person I’m with can show me the few things they actually think are cool, and also the stuff that I probably wouldn’t see as a tourist. (Many thanks to Heather, Jan, Danola, Mickey, and Sharon for having been my guides/hosts in this manner so far.) This is, of course, a problem if I don’t know anyone who lives in place I want to go. Then it comes down to either traveling by myself, which I don’t like as much, or negotiating the tricky problem of finding the right travel partner with the same mixture of desire to relax/see things.

    If I had more vacation time that I felt I could take all at once, I would:
    – go to the beach for a whole week (and read)
    – go on a study trip somewhere interesting (which would cost money, but oh well)
    – go to an intensive language school session
    – just plain travel

  6. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Dana, you and people like you (who wish they knew more people in the places they traveled) might be interested in Hospitality Club. After making a free profile, you can search for free accommodation around the planet. You can also play host to travelers in your area. This is how I have made a number of friends around Europe and these days I find hotels pretty boring.
    I’ll blog about this soon over at my new travel blog, Less Than a Shoestring.

  7. Travel Guy says:

    I think it all depends on what your job entails. I happen to be one of the lucky ones who LOVES my work and when I’m on vacation I enjoy keeping up with what’s going on, whether it’s necessary or not. When I travel I wholeheartedly take in the destination and tour the locale to the max, however I don’t think it should be a negative if I’m checking my email after an escorted tour through Rome. I see people reading and knitting on vacation all the time. For me there is little difference. Just another opinion. :- )

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