October 30, 2005

Moving Back to America: Vacation Time

FlagI recently had dinner with a man who works for a major French bank. He gets eleven weeks of vacation per year—in addition to national holidays, sick days, bonus vacation days for exceeding the 35 hour workweek, etc. It’s more vacation than I would know what to do with. Eleven weeks vacation is 55 days, so he could take one day off each working week, and still have a week left over. Or he could spend August at the beach, take December off to ski, and then take two more weeklong holidays during the year.

The minimum annual vacation under France law is 25 days and the average number of total days off 39. The minimum by law in the UK is 20 days. And in general, people in Europe take off all of the days to which they are entitled.

There is no minimum in the United States. The American average is 12 vacation days, but people feel so pressured to be at the office that they take only 9 of them. As Juliet Schor points out in her excellent book The Overworked American, productivity suffers when we work without a break. Our vacations aren’t long enough to be restful, and they are often “working vacations” with the cell phone on and the email up. We go to extremes: a friend of mine postponed his honeymoon three times because of a pending deal. And the impact on family life is devastating; working parents find they don’t know their own children as well as they’d like.

Some argue that if workers were given more vacation time, the economy would be damaged. But Britain’s economy has been booming for years in spite of a reasonable vacation policy. Others raise the specter of China to justify working to exhaustion, just as people tried to scare us with Japan in the 80’s. But we won’t safeguard the American way of life by trying to out-China the Chinese. We could work 100 hour days, 365 days a year, and it wouldn’t change the fact that China has a much larger population, much lower wages, and a currency which stays low because of our huge national debt. No, to compete with China we have to develop our own competitive advantages based on high technology and innovation, and we need to return to sensible fiscal policy. But those are topics for another post.

So what is the vacation time sweet spot? Ideally, an employee feels well-rested enough to be at their most productive. That means two or three weeklong breaks during the year. We could also use some vacation time to fill in around the New Year when not much gets done at the office anyway; that’s important family time. A few more days to celebrate the religious holidays of our choice would mean a lot to many families, including mine. And it would help employees concentrate at the office if they had a couple more days to catch up on bills and to get things done around the house.

In order to meet those needs, we would need a minimum of four weeks per year, with a slightly higher average. That’s the same amount as in the UK. A little more couldn’t hurt – beyond that we’re getting into luxurious, Bush-like vacation numbers. I know that a four week minimum sounds like a lot in the US, and I don’t expect to have that much time off when I move back. But it would be sensible policy, and I’m surprised that it’s not a major political issue.

By the way, friends and readers across the political spectrum have asked me variants of the question: “if you like Europe so much, why don’t you just stay there?” That one’s easy: five years is a long time to be away from friends and family. And there are plenty of things I love about living in the States; I promise to balance things out with some posts about the advantages of living in America when I get back. Things can’t have changed that much in the last five years, right?

By Will Friedman in Commentary | Permalink  | 


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