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America is the no-vacation nation

We get very little vacation time and we still don't take it.

By Karen Datko Oct 7, 2009 10:52AM

This post comes from Nora Dunn at partner blog Wise Bread.


Here is a frightening (or enlightening, depending on how you look at it) passage from Wanderlust and Lipstick about the American approach to vacations:

A 2009 survey from Expedia found that 1/3 of employees don’t take all of their vacation time. While this speaks (to a certain degree) to how individuals make personal choices, there might be something else underlying our reluctance to hit the road.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research calls the U.S. the "no-vacation nation." In a 2007 study, they determined that the U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation for employees. That means you can take a job, work your 40 (or more) hours a week, and it’s considered a bonus to be given paid vacation time.
But when we are blessed with vacation time, what keeps us from taking the time off we earn and deserve? According to the Expedia survey, people who don’t take their vacation time do so for several reasons. They hope to receive compensation for unused time, they have a hard time planning ahead or their partner can’t travel during the same time period. What’s worse? One in five respondents admitted to canceling a vacation because of work.

No wonder we have so much trouble balancing work and life. No wonder a buzz term like "work-life balance" even exists; why is work considered a separate entity from life to begin with? From my travels, I have not found that other western cultures maintain the same distinction.


I am traveling and living in Australia, where my boyfriend landed an entry-level job with seven weeks of paid vacation per year. Seven. Weeks. This is not an isolated perk in this area of the world either; an Aussie friend recently enjoyed 14 months of paid long-service leave, then he cut his hours down to two days per week for a year, and now he is taking five more months off (at half-pay), then fully retiring -- at the age of 50.


How long do you have to work at a company in America before earning seven weeks of vacation time per year? And would you suppose that a paid leave of absence on top of it is too elaborate? In other places, it is not unheard of.


When I vacationed in South Africa many years ago and was chatting with the European-influenced locals, the common question asked of me was "how many months are you here for?"


I looked at them like they were crazy for asking such a question. Who on earth can get months off from work at a time?


They, in turn, looked at me like I was crazy. Who on earth travels all the way to South Africa from North America for only a few weeks?


These are people who have business or work obligations; they are indeed rooted in reality. One fellow worked for a chiropractor in England, and traveled to South Africa for four months out of every year. He struck an arrangement with his employer to allow him the time off, with the proviso that he would do a few small side projects during his time in South Africa. No problemo.


So where is the disconnect? Why is America fostering a population of people who are tethered to their desks for life, with no respite? Although you might think that America at least dominates the world in productivity given all these hours spent at the office, recent studies indicate that it’s not necessarily the case:

Americans may take less vacation, but are they really more efficient than their European colleagues? Figures from the World Economic Forum certainly show the U.S. remains the world's most competitive country. Yet other data, including countries' GDP per hours worked, reveal Europe still gives America a run for its money. That means many parts of the Old World are at least as productive as the U.S., if not more, with the added bonus of up to eight weeks off a year.

So why are Americans more committed to their jobs than to themselves? You may know -- or be -- one of these people if you have heard them say they don’t have time to work out or eat well because of their work schedule.


Do we accept extra work being dumped on us because the company is laying people off and we consider ourselves lucky to have any work at all? In this economic climate, this could be possible. It doesn’t, however, speak for the same work ethos that existed when economic times were better.


Are we working all those extra hours to pay off our consumer debt? (And what of the extra hours worked by salaried employees who don’t receive overtime pay)? I wonder if we are caught up in a lifestyle based on consumption, which in turn perpetuates people’s need to work hard -- to earn enough money to pay off their last (or their next) purchase.


Do we opt out of taking vacation time because we can’t afford to go anywhere anyway? Maybe a "staycation" or frugal vacation is possible, or just relaxing and reading a good book for a few days. It doesn’t have to be "work or bust."


Why do some people brag about having accumulated months of vacation time by not having used it over the years? Do we burn the candle at both ends because we truly love the work? Or have we simply lost sight of the forest for the trees?


It seems from the opening quote that there are three core issues that indicate a lack of balance in American society:

  • We are not using all the vacation time granted to us.
  • We are not granted nearly the same amount of vacation as most of the rest of the western world.
  • We (or at least some of us) are prepared to cancel our vacation because of work.

This does not appear to be a sustainable model, and I wonder if we are already seeing signs of its breakdown in the form of depleted health and happiness. It is my hope that by redefining what the workplace and work are, we can find out how they fit into our lives in a more balanced way.


Related reading at Wise Bread: 

Published Oct. 7, 2009

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