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Americans vs. vacation

The Economist's Lexington columnist isn't getting much of a vacation this summer, but he sees that as fitting. After all, he writes about America, and we don't get much in the way of vacation, either:

As all the world knows, Americans find taking time off, let alone filling that time with leisure, painfully hard. One travel website,, believes (what a surprise) that “everyone deserves and needs a vacation.” Indeed, it has compiled comparative international data on the scandal of “vacation deprivation”. These show that in 2009 the average American adult received about 13 days of holiday, whereas the average Briton enjoyed a luxurious 26. The average “working” Frenchman, infuriatingly, had 38 days. Worse yet, more than a third of Americans do not even take all the days they are allowed. In 2009, harrumphs Expedia, Americans “gave back” a total of 436m vacation days. In fairness, America does indulge its children: their school year is one of the shortest in the world, as is their school day. But the indulgence ends with adulthood.

Lexington speculates that this is at least partially related to the Puritan work ethic, or something similarly essential to the American character. I'd say it's more closely related to the fact that it's hard to pass social welfare legislation in the American political system, and thus America is the only industrialized country that doesn't guarantee its workers some amount of paid-vacation leave. Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt bring the graph:


That isn't to say no one in the country gets vacation, of course. More affluent workers are able to demand paid vacation as part of their compensation package. But lots of workers aren't, and so they really can't afford to take vacation days, even if they're offered.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 31, 2010; 11:34 AM ET
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Where is China on this graph?

Posted by: daveredhat | August 31, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Don't worry, Obama is taking enough vacation for all of us.

Posted by: Natstural | August 31, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Really? You think when Obama is out of the White House that he is goofing off and that Iraq/China/middle East/economy/government/hurricanes etc are just being ignored? You don't think the President works during "vacation"? Really?

Posted by: ClarkKent1 | August 31, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

@Natstural So you must have been really bothered by the record-setting amount of vacation taken by GWB? Reagan also took significantly more vacation during his first year in office than Pres. Obama.

Posted by: ericvsthem | August 31, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Primary violation of the TINSTAAFL principle.

Paid vacation is nothing more than a different form of salary.

Posted by: krazen1211 | August 31, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

The tourism industry in this country is large enough and profitable enough that it ought to be able to muster the lobbying oomph in Congress to get some sort of guaranteed vacation time for American workers.

The problem is, all these travel-related businesses like hotels, airlines, attractions and even Expedia, are employers too! Granting their own employees vacation time is viewed in the short run as a "cost center" to be reduced, discouraged or eliminated.

It's going to take some visionary leadership to see guaranteed-time-off legislation as a level playing field for all competing corporations.

I just don't see anything visionary coming down the pike from the lobbyists, Congress, or for that matter, America's C-suites.

Posted by: Rick00 | August 31, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Maybe the lack of tiem off correlates with the increasing detachment from reality of a substantial part of the American public. When I vacationed in France years ago I was surprised to see so many families out vacationing and enjoying things together. We think of ourselves as a family-friendly society but really we aren't. Adults are forced to work harder than in any other industrialized country with much less in social services, and kids get short-changed in terms of education because people don't want to pay for it. We aren't really family friendly compared to other societies. But then most Americans know nothing of other societies, so they remain as blissfully ignorant of what other people have as the old Soviet people.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 31, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I haven't taken one in three years now. Worst of all, I just got married and am looking at roughly a year before we can actually go on a Honeymoon. Sure, I'm as hardworking as anyone and I don't even particularly like vacations unless it's something that really gets my interest up (the wife suggested Gettysburg for our Honeymoon, which tickles me just right) but the fact of the matter is, I just can't afford it, and I assume the same goes for most of my fellow Americans. I've been at my job for seven years, I'm literally a stones throw away from my Masters degree, and my "reward" for all these years of service? Still haven't even caught a whiff of a promotion. My hard work means, well, more hard work. Add on top of that my vacation pay is only half of what I earn hourly (I make half my money on a built in gratuity on the events we do at our hotel, when it comes to tabulating that for vacation purposes, they only pay me my base wage, which is a fat $8.50 an hour) making it even harder to go on vacation knowing I'm only going to get half the pay when I can barely scrape together the vacation money in general.

Y'know who I bet takes a lot of vacations? Politicians and Wall Street CEOs. Something tells me they're never hurting for money or that ability to travel. Didn't I see something about the most bonuses paid out ever in the financial sector despite a slow economy? Yeah, shows what I know. Should have taken my higher education and became a liar for a living.

Posted by: johnconstantine | August 31, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Its funny to see another Ezra post that might as well be called: Why aren't we more like Europe.

Posted by: Natstural | August 31, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

"That isn't to say no one in the country gets vacation, of course. More affluent workers are able to demand paid vacation as part of their compensation package. But lots of workers aren't, and so they really can't afford to take vacation days, even if they're offered."

I'm not sure I understand what this even means. As an initial matter, Ezra says that "lots of workers aren't [able to demand paid vacation as part of their compensation package], so they can't afford to take vacation days, even if they're offered." Does he mean that there are lots of employers out there who give unpaid vacation days, or that they're not paid enough to allow them to use their vacation days.

More importantly, what does "lots of workers" mean? Does Ezra have any data on this? I'm truly curious because I think Ezra may be mistaking the lack of government-mandated vacation days with a lack of vacation days period (because he knows to a certainty that every business owner has to let their inner Scrooge out regularly). In my immediate family, none of whom makes more than $30 or 35 thousand a year, I can't think of anyone who doesn't have at least two weeks of paid vacation a year; my parents, who work for a small business in the Midwest where the workforce is not unionized have just accrued their fifth week. Admittedly, their annual vacation is capped at five weeks, so they'll never reach the level of the French. But it's still pretty darn good.

And here I sit, one of Ezra's affluent workers pulling down a low six figure salary, and my professional services firm has no paid vacation allotment for associates and the hours requirement effectively means we can take one or two weeks off at most. (My parents - my dad, especially, who's probably never made more than a sixth of what I make now - wonder why I do what I do. They firmly believe the money's not worth it.)

Again, I'd like to see the data, but until I do, I'll continue to think that the above post is Ezra's prejudice and not his reason expressing itself.

Posted by: richao | August 31, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

"We think of ourselves as a family-friendly society but really we aren't. Adults are forced to work harder than in any other industrialized country with much less in social services, and kids get short-changed in terms of education because people don't want to pay for it."

Really? We spend more on education per student than all but 2 countries.

# 1 Switzerland: $9,348.00 per student
# 2 Austria: $8,163.00 per student
# 3 United States: $7,764.00 per student

Posted by: krazen1211 | August 31, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Good graphic. Don't Europeans also work fewer hours per work week?

Krugman noted earlier this year that Europeans have chosen more time at home over more consumption--i.e., money for spending on "stuff." I suspect this greater consumption in America is concentrated at higher levels of income, which would mean low-wage laborers in America work more and consume no more than their European counterparts. But I don't have the data on this.

Posted by: pjro | August 31, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Moreover, anytime somebody uses statistics to prove that we work harder or longer or take less vacation than the Japanese, I ratchet down their credibility level several notches. I've spent half my life living and working in Japan, and there really is no comparison. The vast majority of workers would drive their careers into the ditch if they took 10 days of vacation a year (these mandated days are in addition to the extended New Year's and Golden Week holidays, where much of the nation shuts down for a couple of days). And since I started paying attention in the early 90s, statistics have routinely shown that the Japanese work fewer hours annually than we do. It's all bulls--t. Spend a decade observing work patterns and you'll begin to doubt the veracity of these statistic. Then spend some time chatting with friends - even white collar friends who also often have to clock in and clock out - and you'll learn about the pervasive practice of forcing workers to clock out after eight or nine hours on the clock and continue working until late in the night to avoid falling afoul of the generally toothless labor laws.

I imagine that European statistics are probably a more accurate reflection of hours worked (though one might argue that they're incomplete if they don't simultaneously show the unemployment rate), but anybody trying to make the case that American workers on the whole have it worse than Japanese workers is nutters.

Posted by: richao | August 31, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I like how this blog has devolved into "analysis" such as this- Ezra thinks something is good, subsidize it/require it. Ezra thinks something is bad, tax it/make it illegal

This is teenage girl liberalism of not even thinking about incentives, dead weight costs,etc..."I think we should triple our foreign aid to Africa" It's like you have never opened an economics text book in your life, haven't opened a newspaper in the past 6 months about European labor market reforms, etc.

You are simply embarrassing yourself... Can you come to grips with the fact that the Dems are going to get crushed in the midterms and get back to real policy analysis and away from these trite political posts? If you want to be more like Yglesias, just start downing a daily box of twinkies instead of writing drivel like this.

Posted by: cdosquared5 | August 31, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

The graph is out of date. Now all countries in the EU get at least 20 days vacation and paid public holidays. There are 8 (I think) in the UK which pretty much brings every EU country to six weeks off.

Posted by: sam_mar | August 31, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

CDOsquared -- wow! Teenage girl liberalism -- how true. Why do people say Obama's vacations involve any significant work? All the photos are of him biking, shopping, and so on. But there is a boldness in even posting about vacations, given the luxurious getaways of so many in ths administration. The post seems to be saying, yes, of course there is a double standard, of course top officials should live it up while asking the middle and lower classes to "have skin in the game."

Posted by: truck1 | August 31, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Another one of those Ezra articles that basically says America bad, Europe good. I really wonder sometimes why Ezra doesn't just move to Europe and enjoy his 2 or 3 months of vacation and be done with it. I'm not sure why we'd want to be like Europe anyway with their bloated unsustainable welfare society, confiscatory tax system, chronic double digit unemployment and declining/aging populations. In America we work hard and don't get to lounge around for 3 months on vacation like the typical European citizen but we also have a much lower unemployment rate (usually), more dynamic forward thinking not afraid of change society, lower taxes (so we can spend our money where we want to) and one of the few first world industrialized countries who's population is actually increasing. America is also an economic and military superpower whereas Europe has been decling into irrelevancy for years. Of course once Obama and the Democrats get done with this country we may be just like Europe with the same high taxes and bloated government but until then I'd much rather live in this country even with less vacation.

Posted by: RobT1 | August 31, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

@RobT1 - you are either a master at self-deception or so lazy that you can't spend five minutes to locate data supporting your assertions. Either way you may be more at home at Drudge or WND.

Posted by: Scott85 | August 31, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

@RobT1 - yes, look how great our nation is because we're a military superpower. Ha! You haven't joined the 21st century yet!

Posted by: goadri | August 31, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

The “Puritan work ethic” is always a popular prop when American work hours are discussed, but given that they are the fattest, most self indulgent people on earth the correct response must be, “what the hell?” It was not so long ago that vacation days were expanding so regularly that stories of the future featured automated everything and 3 hour work weeks. That vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines, etc took off in America before any where else hardly speak of a natural passion for labor. I suspect Ezra is closer to the mark. In America the power relationship between the employer and employee is far more skewed toward the former than elsewhere in the world. The result is a rebirth of a 400 year old work ethic among the fattest people in the history of the world.

Posted by: Tonyvd | September 1, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Another problem with the US's vacation model: most businesses still base your vacation on seniority. That may have been fine back in the days of pseudo-lifetime employment at one firm. But nowadays, jobs are much more temporary whether we will it or not, especially among the young. A number of professionals I know are in their 30s and 40s and still getting only ten days per year, because of job changes and a lack of leverage in a down market.

Posted by: brickcha | September 1, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Where's South Korea?

I think there is a real culture difference. It's ludicrous to call it "Puritan", but people here ask you what you do for a living as a primary question. We set our relative status on the basis of our success at work.

"In 2009, harrumphs Expedia, Americans “gave back” a total of 436m vacation days."

If vacation hours go up, salary goes down to cover the lost productivity. How much simpler does it get? Do you want to get paid less or work more? Anyone who's working to support their family and derives much of their identity from their job is probably going to work more. I've seen people fighting for overtime hours.

Posted by: staticvars | September 3, 2010 1:02 AM | Report abuse

This is not new information, the International Labor Organization (and others) have been publishing national vacation statistics for decades. The USA and Japan are always at the bottom.

And frankly I don't care. If Americans want more vacation time, negotiate it with the employer or find another line of work or a new job. Vacation is the same as any other element of compensation, and if you don't like it, you can change it. It's entirely your decision. That's the right of being an American.

I suppose it's too bad that the federal government doesn't "give" us all more vacation. It's a constitutional right, yes? A "positive freedom" and not merely another one of those antiquated "negative freedoms."

By the way if I want three months vacation I'll quit my job and take three months vacation. I've done it several times during my career. So can anyone else.

Posted by: Garry4 | September 3, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

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