America on vacation

Americans spend less time away from their jobs than workers in any other Western nation. What do we have against vacations?

How much vacation do Americans take?

On average, just 10 days a year. And as companies get leaner and meaner every year, the trend is toward less time off, not more. About one in four Americans either gets no paid vacation or chooses not to take all the vacation time allotted to them. One recent study found that American workers give back 415 million days of vacation days to employers every year. Europeans and Canadians, says psychotherapist Barbara Bartlein, view this behavior with a mixture of amazement, pity, and scorn. “We are looked at as the workaholism capital of the world,” Bartlein says.

What’s it like elsewhere?

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You don’t want to know. The British take an average of five weeks, and the Italians and Germans six. In France, the law guarantees everyone five weeks, and most full-timers get two full months. To this day, the French revere Léon Blum, the Socialist prime minister, who in the 1930s first forced businesses to grant workers the right to paid vacations. Blum is regarded as “a patron saint,” said Matthew Kaminski in The Wall Street Journal, “nay, a secular god, of the month-long summer holiday.” The Japanese rival Americans in their devotion to work; indeed, they have had to add a word to their language for “death from overwork,” “karoshi.” Still, they manage to get away for an average of 18 days a year—almost twice as much as Americans.

Why do Americans work so hard?

Like so much in our national character, it is a legacy from our Puritan forebears. The stern Protestants who first settled this country believed that idleness corrupted the soul and that work was “a means of glorifying God,” said Cindy Aron, author of Working at Play, a history of vacations in the U.S. Early American farmers had no reason to challenge this view. They had to work constantly just to make sure there was always food on the table, and roads were so bad back then that traveling was an ordeal, not a respite. The lucky ones managed to take a day off on July 4, but even a single day of sloth was enough to make our ancestors feel guilty. Even Benjamin Franklin, who was considered by his contemporaries to be something of a bon vivant, scoffed at the idea of simply doing nothing. “Leisure,” he wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “is Time for doing something useful.”

When did we start taking vacations?

In the early 19th century, but the idea caught on slowly. Initially, only the very rich could afford getaways most of us would recognize as vacations. They started by traveling to outdoorsy spots, mainly the seaside or natural springs. Doctors told them the fresh air would do them good, and that gulping down mineral water might cure rheumatism, gastrointestinal problems, respiratory infections, and other maladies. The resorts—in Newport, R.I.; Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York; and at a string of mineral springs in Virginia—attracted more and more visitors by offering nonstop diversions, in the form of evening dances and outdoor sports. By the end of the century, these getaways became so popular that big industrial firms felt pressed into offering white-collar employees a week of paid vacation.

What about other workers?

The middle class only began taking vacations about a century ago. Thanks to the expansion of railroad networks, the obstacles to long-distance travel began to fall away, and vacation spots began to spring up. Later, the automobile opened more of America to the masses, and pressure built to provide workers with time off.

How did employers respond?

The National Cash Register Co. has been credited with pioneering the idea of vacation for all. In 1902, it shut down its Dayton, Ohio, plant for two weeks every year. Workers were unpaid at first, but later the company decided people would appreciate the time off more if they didn’t have to sacrifice their salaries. The idea caught on, and more companies began offering paid vacations to nurture loyal and well-rested staffs. Americans set out for beaches and parks in record numbers. “There is such a thing as exhausting the capital of one’s health and constitution,” President William Howard Taft said in a 1910 New York Times article. Taft suggested two or three months of vacation in the summer to recover after “the hard and nervous strain that one is subjected to during the autumn and spring.”

So why do we still work so much?

The Protestant work ethic—and the hunger for profits and material goods—proved stronger than Taft’s vision. In recent years, modern telecommunications has made it even harder to leave the job behind: 83 percent of us now admit to staying in touch with the office while we’re on vacation. Half of us take along a cell phone, and 18 percent pack a pager. Technology, says The Hartford Courant, has meant “the death of the traditional sit-in-a-chair-and-do-nothing vacation.”

What’s so bad about that?

Nothing, if you don’t mind dying early. A recent study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine determined that men who went on annual vacations were 32 percent less likely to die of heart disease over a nine-year period than those who didn’t. Too little play and too much work can cause everything from irritability and insomnia to hypertension and heart disease, said Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American. “Americans are literally working themselves to death,” she says.

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