In Pursuit of Happiness but Not Better Employment Benefits

Author and sociologist Claude S. Fischer attempts to discover why Americans are reluctant to seek better employment benefits and catch up to their European counterparts.

| December 2014

In Lurching Toward Happiness in America (MIT Press, 2014), sociologist Claude S. Fischer explores the data, the myths and history to understand how far America has come in delivering on its promise of happiness and the good life. In the end, Fischer paints a broad picture of what Americans say they want. And, as he considers how close they are to achieving that goal, he also suggests what might finally get them there. The following excerpt from Chapter 5, “The Leisure Gap,” addresses the disparity in employment benefits between American and European workers.

Summer in America: folks sprucing up RVs, parents packing kids’ camp gear, airlines adding flights, and hotels raising prices. We know to expect much longer lines at the airports and traffic jams on the way to the beach. But what seems like a flood to us is a trickle compared to the tsunami of summer holidaymakers in Europe, as anyone who has been sardined into a European train, plane, or lane at the beginning of July and August knows.

Americans just don’t vacation like other people do. Western European laws require at least ten and usually more than twenty days. And it’s not just the slacker Mediterranean countries. The nose-to-the-grindstone Germans and Austrians require employers to grant at least twenty paid vacation days a year. In the United States, some of us don’t get any vacation at all. Most American workers do get paid vacations from their bosses, but only twelve days on average, much less than the state-guaranteed European mini­mum. And even when they get vacation time, Ameri­cans often don’t use it.

Perhaps Americans are Protestant-ethic work ob­sessives; we are likelier than Europeans to say that we want to work more hours than we do. But this leisure gap is a recent development. In the 1960s Americans and Europeans worked about the same number of hours. Leisure time then expanded everywhere—only more slowly and much less in the United States than elsewhere, leaving today’s disparity. Some argue that high taxes in Europe discourage working, but economist Alberto Alesina and his colleagues point to legislation—that is, politics. The right to a long vacation is one of the benefits that unions and the left have in recent decades delivered to Western work­ers—except American ones.

Which brings us to the larger question. Just about everywhere in the West except the United States, where there is no mandatory paid time off, workers not only get vacations but also short work weeks, government health care, large pensions, high mini­mum wages, subsidized childcare, and so forth. Why is the United States the exception?

The answer comes in two general forms: one, Ameri­cans do not want such programs and perks because we do not want the kind of government that would legislate them. Two, Americans want them but can­not get them.