Vacation Starvation

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.

Since then nothing’s changed, except for the worse. Western Europe and Australia still kick our butts, with five weeks off the norm, while we eke out 9.6 days at large U.S. companies after one year, 17 after ten years; at small business operations (where the vast majority of us work these days) it’s eight days after a year, 16 after 25 years! But that’s only part of the story. Add up the growing number of hours in the day that Americans are working, and we now log 2,000 hours a year–two weeks longer than the next nearest zombies on the list, the Japanese.

“The gap between Europe and America seems to be growing,” agrees a baffled Orvar Lofgren, a professor at Lund University in Sweden and author of an excellent history of vacations, On Holiday (University of California Press). “I’m a bit amazed at this because Americans love having fun. But what I found out was that the prolonged weekend was the American time unit. You should try to squeeze a holiday into that.”

Don’t blink or sleep, and you might be able to stretch those three days to four. So where did we go wrong? We started out on a level playing field, with a week to two weeks in the ’30s, when paid vacations were introduced in Europe and the U.S., says Lofgren. But “there was a decision made at some stage–do you want more pay or longer vacations? The unions in Europe went for longer vacations. The state in many European countries was very much concerned that vacations were good for you, that everyone should have holidays, that there should be legislation about vacation time. I don’t think the state played the same role in the U.S.”

After that the Europeans shot ahead of us, adding a week each in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. When I called him in Stockholm, Lofgren was enjoying two weeks off for the Christmas holiday, as most Swedes do, which is on top of the five weeks he and his countrymen already get by law. And don’t forget the public holidays, he reminds me, which are used to milk the “squeeze days” between an official holiday and a weekend for an extra Friday here or Monday there. Rub it in, Orvar.

Meanwhile, we remain stuck in a ’30s vacation twilight zone of nine days–with a zooming work-hour whammy on top of that. One recent study found that Americans now work 142 more hours a year than in 1973, a full three and a half weeks. The technology that was supposed to have freed us–remember the paperless office and the four-day week? –is imprisoning us in a spiral of workaholism, as we become more and more buried by an avalanche of busyness. Job stress is at an all-time high. Stress accounted for 6 percent of workers staying home in 1995; it’s 19 percent today. A study that researched the growing phenomenon of healthy people calling in sick calls the trend “entitlement mentality,” with workers using sick time to take days they feel they deserve.

Houston, we have a problem. Our thrusters are on empty, our lives hurtling by like meteor dust. If we have no time to enjoy, no time to explore, no time for family and friends, no time to refresh and recreate–the root of recreation, after all–no time to think about why we are afraid to think there could be, should be something more then what exactly do we have?

One tired nation. Estimates are that about half of all U.S. workers suffer from symptoms of burnout. Pam Ammondson, author of Clarity Quest (Fireside) sees the wreckage in her Santa Rosa, California-based Clarity Quest workshops, designed to help burnout cases reclaim their lives. “I see a lot of people who work 12 to 14 hours a day routinely. They want to make a change, but they’re too tired to know how to do it. ‘Overwhelmed’ is a word they use a lot. It’s interesting that we allow downtime for machinery for maintenance, but we don’t allow it for the employees.”

We all play our part in this marathon, though, seduced by the culture into believing that who we are is what we do, and that if we stop doing it even a little bit we won’t be anybody anymore. It’s this lack of nonwork identity that allows so many of us to be consumed by the frenzy. “Americans compared to almost any other society are encouraged to achieve and display identity through labor,” explains Mark Liechty, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “Most Americans labor to consume and construct the self.” In Europe, he points out, there’s more of a separation between identity and work, with work life subordinate to other kinds of social spheres.

The leading casualty of our sprint to the death is time, that commodity we seemed to have so much of back in sixth grade, when the clock on the wall never moved. Time is the fastener of friendship and family and gives us the space to explore more than the buttons on the snooze alarm. Without it, we’re a nation of strangers, even to those close-outs to us-and to ourselves. “People are spending less time with their family,” observes Barry Miller, a career counselor at Pace University in New York. “They’re not taking the time to rejuvenate and connect with their family members. Intimate relationships are falling apart. Their relationships with their children are falling apart.”

I was thinking all along that the whole issue of more time off was complicated. There’s the no-no of government regulating the private sector, runaway consumers needing to overwork to support their habit, the lack of nonwork identity, the fear that global competition would turn us into roadkill–and just plain ignorance about the kind of vacation time the citizens of Europe and Australia enjoy. But I’ve changed my mind. These are all just projections and pretexts that, like all excuses, crumble with a hard look in the mirror and at the facts. For instance, business can be regulated for the good of the citizenry without jeopardizing profits. Some of the most basic tenets of the working world come out of federal legislation, from Social Security to minimum wage to the 40-hour week-passed by Congress in 1938 in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Business was dragged kicking and screaming every time, but today all of these laws enjoy universal support.

Some on the left hold that we don’t really want the extra time because we’re too busy consuming goods and running up our credit cards. Yet a survey by the Families and Work Institute found that 63 percent of Americans want to work less, up from 46 percent in 1992. As for the nation’s instant economic demise to global forces once we get real vacations, it doesn’t appear that the Swiss or Swedish economy is in danger of immediate collapse. In fact, here’s another zinger from Lofgren–25 percent of Swedes have second homes in the countryside. Let me hear you say Ja!

When I raised the vacation issue six years ago, some irate letter writers predicted the Asian Tigers–Korea, Thailand, Taiwan–would eat us up if we “gave” any more vacation time. A few economic meltdowns later, we’re not too worried about the Tigers anymore. Now the argument will be China. They’ll clean our clocks! Hello, out there. We’re blowing away the world’s economies, with the lowest unemployment in 30 years. Why are we so insecure? Maybe it’s time for Alan Greenspan to open up a Federal Reserve therapy center. Tell us we’re okay, Alan!

Another impediment to rational discussion in this debate is the idea that employers are giving something away. But it’s just the opposite. “In essence, companies get more for their money,” says Miller. “Not only are they going to get more productive employees, but they’re also going to get retention and loyalty. My stepson got a week off for paternal leave from his company. He is so loyal to them, he’ll never leave. He has more of a commitment to them because they have an interest in him.”

And besides, it’s not a giveback so much as a rightful return. Men in the U.S. work an average of 49.9 hours a week and women, 42, according to the Families and Work Institute. That means men are working an extra week every month of the year–do the math: that’s three months extra a year–and women an extra two weeks a year. So it’s more a case of returning a few hours to their rightful owners. So how do we get the ball rolling here? First we have to begin the discussion, raise the awareness level, that on this very planet there are people who go to work up to four weeks less a year than we do–who live in countries with sound economies and a lot more charter flights to exotic lands. Once it sinks in that there is another way and that ours, logically, is insane, opinions change.

For instance, I gave a talk at the World Congress on Adventure Travel and Ecotourism a few months back about the future of the adventure industry, and I threw in a section on what I consider to be the most serious threat to travel-vanishing vacations. I didn’t know how it might be taken, because these were employers in the audience, owners and operators of adventure businesses. But I thought if it was in any industry’s self-interest to change how it looked at employee benefits, this was it. The message turned out to be a hit, but what staggered me was that this was the first time that travel professionals had heard the topic brought up. It was very gratifying when a bunch of people came up after the talk to join the cause.

One of them, Roger Beadle, president of the Yuma Convention and Visitors Bureau, has decided to change his office policy. “After hearing those statistics, I started giving it some thought,” Beadle told me recently. “I totally concur with the concept that if you don’t encourage people to take time off, they’ll burn out quicker, they won’t be as productive. So I’m going to be approaching my executive committee to increase two weeks off to three after two years and four after five years.”

With the facts, fellow travelers, we can build a consensus in this country that 1) we’re maxed out, 2) we don’t have to live this way and, most importantly, 3) it’s counterproductive for business to burn out employees–mistakes and hiring costs are high, retention low. One software company based in North Carolina, SAS Institute, has reportedly saved “tens of millions” of dollars in turnover costs with an employee-friendly policy of no overtime and a 35-hour week, according to a study quoted in the New York Times. The common perception is that multiweek vacations could never happen in the U.S. Business would never go for Euro benefits. Well, they already do. Four-week vacation packages for management are commonplace at major U.S. companies. We just need to spread the wealth. And here’s how: I propose that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year get three weeks off, going to four weeks after three years–by federal law, as they do in Europe. Work to Live, will be pressing–with your help.

The time has never been more ripe to change the system. Nine years of unprecedented economic boom times have created a full-employment economy. Companies from McDonald’s to dotcoms are scrambling to find employees. It’s a seller’s market. If we can’t get this issue on the table now, when workers are feeling confident and employers generous, we may as well bronze those backpacks. And there’s one more auspicious sign. It’s a national political season. There are votes to be won, candidates to be grilled on the quality-of-life issue of vacation time.

I made some calls to the campaigns of the leading presidential contenders to see if any of them was brave enough, or smart enough, to address the issue. I found plenty of support–at the worker bee level. At George W. Bush headquarters, an aide answered my pitch for more vacation time with: “That sounds great. We need that here.” But no support from George W.

“You’ve got my support,” laughed the spokesperson for John McCain. Would her ballyhooed “maverick” boss be willing to stick his neck out on this issue? She called me back later and said, “Senator McCain is a strong supporter of family vacations, but he would not support any legislative mandate for vacation time.”

None of the candidates had a position on vacation time, not surprisingly, since it had never come up before. Vice President Al Gore was too busy getting out the vote in New Hampshire for a comment. Bill Bradley’s office said the senator had a detailed proposal for family leave but didn’t have anything on vacations. Of course, even if the candidates were aware of the issue, supporting more time off would be seen as a colossally bad political move-anti-business, instant suicide.

Courage for politicians is a little like El Niño it only shows up when the heat is applied. That’s where we come in. Let’s turn up the temperature on the candidates, congresspeople, and local representatives and reclaim our time, our lives. Send faxes; hit their websites.

While there’s no doubt that we’re the home of the brave, a nation ready to work till it drops, can we really be the land of the free with nine days off? I asked Lofgren to imagine what it would be like for him in the American vacation system, no five to seven weeks, just that long tunnel of 11 and a half months. “I would think, how could I survive? I would feel claustrophobic.”

“It’s a question of priorities,” he added. “In Europe, vacations are a basic facet of the quality of life.”

Are we not worthy?

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