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.
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?