Vacation Starvation

Hours and burnout are up, vacations down. We gotta get out of this place.


| March-April 2000



I’m at the Milwaukee airport, dueling with a Burger King fish fillet. At the table next to me two guys in suits are immersed in their Whoppers. They’re staring into space beyond each other in the way that business associates do for the lack of nonwork things to talk about, when the older of the two thirtysomethings breaks the silence and this verbatim exchange takes place:

“One thing I’ve been wondering about—vacation,” he says, out of the clear blue. “I don’t know how much I’m getting or how I get it. Is there a company policy on that?”

His partner pauses to think about it, popping a hunk of bun in his mouth. “You got me on that,” he concedes.

“Well, other stuff comes first,” responds his colleague. “Get to that later.” And as suddenly as the thought occurred, it’s gone, his vacation, whatever it was, if it was, just an ephemeral notion between bites of burger.

I thought to myself, Thank you, gentlemen, for providing the lead to my next story, and for neatly summarizing how absurd we are in this land of the overworked and underplayed, where grown adults have not so much as a clue about their own vacation time and where, not surprisingly, we have the shortest vacations in the industrialized world. It occurred to me that it was time for an update on the state of U.S. vacation time and, more than that, way past time for action. So, workers and travelers of the world, unite. Let’s get this taboo topic out of the closet and onto the table of public discourse with a little trip through the sordid state of things-and the official introduction of a new ESCAPE committee, Work to Live, designed to do something about it.

About six years ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Why Germans Get Six Weeks Off and You Don’t.” I learned then, as anyone will when meeting Europeans on the road, that the Germans, Brits, French, Danes, Dutch, Italians, Belgians, Austrians, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Spanish and Swiss—plus the Australians, in a league of their own—get two to three times the amount of paid leave a year that grindstone Americans do, allowing them to gallivant the globe for four to six weeks a year and leaving us with drool on our faces and the distinct notion that something’s rotten in Wal-Mart.