Why Can’t Americans Take A Vacation?

Excepting the Dish, of course. But I’m still kinda European I guess.

Aug 11, 2023

(This is adapted, and slightly updated, from a piece I wrote for the Sunday Times of London, back in the summer of 2001, a month before 9/11, trying to explain to vacationing Brits why Americans work so hard. Re-reading it, not much has changed.)

I guess I know I’m now fully an American when I bought a beach cottage on Cape Cod, moved here in early May, and haven’t taken a day off work since. No, I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m beyond blessed to be able to work within walking distance of a beach. But there are moments when I wonder why I can’t really bring myself to, you know, take a holiday.

And then I look around me at all the hustle and bustle on the Cape, the phones trilling late at night in restaurants, the packed social schedules of networking East Coasters, and I realize that, compared to most of my peers, I’m a slacker. Even here, even with miles of empty dunes and clapboard cottages, even with sunsets that give a neon glow to the small boats bobbing in Cape Cod bay, even in the beginning of August, the work must go on.

Actually, the absence of August is the least of it. The truly remarkable thing is how crammed with work the rest of the year is. Juliet Schor, author of the now-classic tome, The Overworked American, calculated 20 years ago that American manufacturing workers work 320 more hours a year than their counterparts in France and Germany. If you add in necessary chores at home, the average American spends over 55 hours a week working. Many women, who juggle children, jobs and housework, can be toiling for up to 90 hours a week. They basically work, eat, watch a half-hour of TV, and sleep.

The irony is that, as Americans’ standard of living has soared, Americans have not taken that as an opportunity to rest on their laurels. The average standard of living is way higher than in any European country — and the median standard is even higher. The last two decades have only magnified the gap, as Europe lollygags behind.

But the actual quality of life — i.e. the amount of time people spend just chilling out and goofing off — is arguably far lower than in cushy, lazy Europe. Between 1970 and 1990, Schor calculated, the average American added 163 work hours to their lives — about an extra month. (Oh, that’s where August went.) But this number disguises the impact of feminist triumph. In those 20 years, while men added a meagre 98 hours a year, the average woman added a total of 305 hours — a whopping seven-and-a-half extra weeks on the job.

No wonder George W Bush had to find all sorts of activities to distract from the notion that he was actually taking a break from work for a month on his ranch in Texas. It’s a “Working Vacation,” we’re told, which is as quintessentially an American oxymoron as you are likely to find. He’ll be touring the country, touting faith-based social work. He’s already spent some hours volunteering as a construction worker for Habitat for Humanity, the charity for the homeless. He spent the first week of his break preparing his speech broadcast on Thursday night, endorsing limited federal funding of stem-cell research. A bevy of senior aides are hovering around, giving the impression of business. Meanwhile, on the steamy East Coast, the New York Times has been goading the president into cutting short his vacation. The editors pointed out that most Americans get two weeks off a year. There’s no European August collapse over here.

Globalization and technology have only been making matters far, far worse. The shake-out of the early 1990s and the Great Recession led to much more streamlined workplaces, more efficient workers, more international competition, and, yes, more work. To make matters worse, the new economy was even more punishing than the old. Technology that allows you to work from home, however comfy it sounds, means that people are never off-duty. Phones beep them late at night; bosses call them early in the morning; emails demand attention, wherever you are. It says something, I think, that we have to designate only one carriage on a train as the “quiet car.” Even then, the quiet is effectively a low soft drumming of typing on laptops.

And then when Americans get an hour to kill, what do they do? They work out, of course! Every serious upwardly mobile human being in major American cities has a gym membership, where he or she can dutifully “work” out. In Washington, you can look in and see rows of young interns and careerists in the local gym, taking spinning classes, where they go immediately after work, pedalling furiously on stationary bikes, interrupted only occasionally by an incoming call, or a social media notification. Back in the 1990s, even the name of my gym had a Puritan ring to it. It’s called “Results: The Gym.”

If you want to find a reason for all this, you can state the obvious. Americans like more things than other people. And they like their things bigger and better and newer than most others. The only way to keep up with the frenetic Joneses is to be even more frenetic. So work they must. Census figures show that in the last ten years, Americans have far more of everything than they have ever had before. Ninety percent own a car, almost 20 percent own three! Houses and cars have simply become bigger and bigger. The average suburban car now resembles something like a small tank. The 1990s also saw the introduction by McDonald’s of the Super-Sized portion. A small European army could live off it. And the vast and increasing bulk of Americans only ensures of course that the cars get bigger and the houses larger. Not to speak of the gym memberships required to burn all that fat off. All of which costs even more money, which means more work.


Categories: Lifestyle

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