Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Would You Like More Happy Time?

"One of the gladdest moments of human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of routine, the cloak of many cares and the slavery of home, man feels once more happy."—Sir Richard Burton

Americans love their vacations. I can say this with some authority as I am, in fact, an American and I love my vacations. Naturally, I would not expect you to rely on a sample of one to support such an audacious claim. I have asked several dozen other Americans as well. And, yep, they also place a high value on their vacation time. That may be because there is so little of it.

 Sunset off the deck of a cruise ship. Ahhhhh.

Did you know that the United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time? This is according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. They found that 1 in 4 private-sector workers in the U.S. does not receive any paid vacation or paid holidays. My husband is one of them. Time off equals no pay. Since I am self-employed, the same applies to me.

We are not whining, though. We are grateful to have work in these difficult times. Still, a lousy job market does not justify giving less benefits to employees, especially since these conditions also existed in the best of job markets. It is, however, a handy excuse for doing so.

Let’s go back to the report, entitled No-Vacation Nation.* This report, which came out in 2007, prior to the big economic worldwide meltdown, found that European workers are guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with 25 and even 30 or more days common in some countries. The gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is even larger when holidays are included. The U.S. does not guarantee any paid holidays, but most rich countries provide between 5 and 13 per year, in addition to paid vacation days. Current economic conditions have not changed this.

“Too much work, too much vacation, too much of any one thing is unsound.”—Walter Annenberg

This may be shocking news to some of you, but according to one of the report’s authors, John Schmitt, “Relying on businesses to voluntarily provide paid leave just hasn’t worked. It’s a national embarrassment that 28 million Americans don’t get any paid vacation or paid holidays.”

Are you embarrassed or is it just me?

To give you an idea of who has the most time to enjoy life—and who has the least—here is a handy chart of government-mandated paid time off, which was reported in the study. Notice the U.S. at the bottom.

Based on the above chart, if you want to “work to live rather than live to work,” the best places to set up shop are France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Italy or Belgium. They all have an average of 30 or more days off a year that are government-mandated.

“Socialism!” you may cry, worried sick about Big Business and how CEOs will ever survive. Hey, hate to tell you, Pal, but Big Business loses no sleep over you. Here’s something to think about: despite our lame economy, the 25 highest paid CEOs in this country made between 15 and 87 million dollars last year, according to the AFL/CIO website. They also have vacation packages that are guaranteed through employment contracts. Not so for the rest of us poor rabble.

In fact, for the average worker, the U.S. lags far behind the rest of the world's rich countries. The lack of paid vacation and paid holidays in the U.S. is particularly acute for lower-wage and part-time workers, and for employees of small businesses. So the people who make the least amount of money also have the least amount of time off.

Why can our European counterparts supply guaranteed minimum vacations for their citizens and we can’t? I have no idea. You may find it interesting to know that government-mandated time off is not limited to the world’s wealthiest countries, either. Here are other countries, not nearly as well off as the U.S., that provide guaranteed vacation benefits, according to CNBC (notice that the U.S. proudly maintains its position at the bottom of the chart):

So from an R&R standpoint, Brazil, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, South Korea and even India look better than the United States. Holy cow!

Again, why can European countries as well as poorer countries like Brazil, South Korea, and India provide more guaranteed time off than the U.S.? Don’t know. Maybe they just all like to goof off more than we do.

Or maybe not. A recent article in The New York Times put it this way: In Europe, people work from the time they get to work in the morning until they leave. They do not talk at the water cooler or otherwise socialize. They put in a solid 8 hours of work. Yet, when 6 p.m. rolls around, everyone leaves. In the U.S., more time is spent at work, but our productivity is much lower, since people socialize and often surf the web during their workday. Despite the different approaches, overall productivity, according to the article, is fairly similar with both approaches. Given that our work output is supposedly equivalent, it is curious that Europeans receive government-mandated vacation and holiday time and we don't.

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.”—Bertrand Russell

In Europe, people pay considerably higher taxes than we do, but in return, they have socialized medicine, subsidized university costs (varies with country), and government councils that safeguard guaranteed vacation times and employee benefits. They also have broad safety nets for extended unemployment, maternity leave and illness. Yes, this is called socialism. I am sure it is not perfect and has lots of problems, but I do not think this way of life deserves the vehement vilification that our wealthy politicians and their well-heeled lobbyists rant about. Why would our well-to-do legislators and corporate-owned media want us to hate socialism so much? Well, socialism tends to be bad for the rich and not so bad for the average person.

Neither the U.S. nor European systems is flawless. I am certainly no expert on either. I must confess, however, that whenever I consider the 30 days of vacation my European, Brazilian, Russian and Lithuanian counterparts enjoy, I suffer from an incredible case of leisure envy.

*No Vacation Nation is available for your reading pleasure at:

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