As this first summer of the new millennium approaches, I can't help but wax nostalgic about my two years as a professor in the Netherlands. There, I was entitled to about nine weeks of paid vacation. It seemed that few professors took all that time, but three to four weeks was virtually obligatory. Late spring was the time of year the lunchroom conversation turned to holiday destinations, perhaps because this was when the vacation allocation arrived in the paycheck — a fat 8 percent bonus. It was the government's way of making sure every Dutch worker had money to take a proper holiday.
Back in the US, vacation practices seem downright archaic. Unlike most of Western Europe, where paid vacations for regular workers are typically four to six weeks, the US has no official vacation policy. Employers are not required to provide them, and the starting norm in good jobs remains a paltry two weeks. Millions of the hard-working poor, without steady employment, have no paid vacation at all. And millions of the hard-working well-to-do have nice allotments that exist only on paper — the excessive demands of their positions make planning and taking significant time off almost impossible. Furthermore, Americans are much more likely to keep working while they do go away.
The failure to increase vacation time in the US is especially scandalous these days, given how much harder most Americans are working. According to the National Survey of the Changing Workforce, US employees in 1997 were working 3.5 more hours a week than they did 20 years earlier. They are working more hours than they are scheduled to work, they do more overtime, bring more work home, and take more business trips. And 60 percent still report that they don't have enough time at work to finish “everything that needs to get done.” This, despite the fact that 68 percent report having to work “very fast” and 88 percent reporting having to work “very hard.” American corporations seem downright ungracious about vacations when viewed in this light, or when we consider that they give their European employees the same month to six weeks that European companies do.
The Western Europeans understand that being a good, hard-working employee requires an annual period of serious relaxation. Not just a three-day jet to the Bahamas, but a genuine unwinding, not only from work, but also from the hectic pace of daily life. In the US, we tend to use vacations as opportunities for consuming, whether it's expensive hotel stays, outlet shopping, or exotic luxury destinations. This is part of our larger pattern of work and spend, using economic progress to consume more rather than give ourselves more time off. Europeans, by contrast, are more likely to go camping, or hiking, or stay in the country, where they can live more simply, enjoy nature, and reflect on their lives. The vacation bonus ensures that everyone can afford to do this. In Western Europe, vacations have become a basic human right. In the US, they feel more like an endangered species.