Vacation

VACATION….Ezra Klein is in the LA Times today griping yet again about the fact that people in other countries get more vacation time than we do:

This is strange. Of all these countries, the United States is, by far, the richest. And you would think that, as our wealth grew and our productivity increased, a certain amount of our resources would go into, well, us. Into leisure. Into time off. You would think that we’d take advantage of the fact that we can create more wealth in less time to wrest back some of those hours for ourselves and our families.

But instead, the exact opposite has happened. The average American man today works 100 more hours a year than he did in the 1970s, according to Cornell University economist Robert Frank. That’s 2 1/2 weeks of added labor. The average woman works 200 more hours — that’s five added weeks. And those hours are coming from somewhere: from time with our kids, our friends, our spouses, even our bed. The typical American, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sleeps one to two hours less a night than his or her parents did.

Lazy punk. Listen up, Ezra: When I was your age I worked six days a week for 50 weeks a year and I was thankful for the opportunity. And everyone knows that young people don’t need more than five hours of sleep anyway. So suck it up.

Joking aside (Ezra actually strikes me as almost scarily non-lazy), I remember this as one of the most pervasive areas of head-nodding culture shock between Americans and Europeans back when I traveled to Europe fairly frequently. Almost to a person, the Europeans I dealt with literally thought we were crazy when I told them that, no, this wasn’t just an urban legend: Most Americans really do get only two weeks of vacation a year. And this wasn’t just in stereotypically easygoing countries like Italy or Spain. Hardworking Germans and Swiss had the same reaction. Basically, they just felt sorry for us, the way we might have felt sorry for some poor schlub from the Soviet Union back in the 80s, toiling away in some gray, endless job with nothing more than a few shots of vodka to dull the pain at the end of each day.

Of course, I’m hardly one to talk. In theory, I agree with Ezra, and I would have preferred a job that paid 10% less but provided 10% more vacation. In reality, I rarely even used the two weeks of vacation I got. Partly this was because I was caught up in the work ethic feedback loop that’s spiralled almost insanely out of control in America, but also, ironically enough, because I only got two weeks of vacation. So I hoarded it. You never know when you might need it, after all! Maybe if I’d gotten six weeks of vacation time I would have actually used more of it.

But I was hardly the worst. The really disheartening cases were the people I’d call into my office and practically order to go on vacation. They had accumulated, say, 300 hours of vacation time and weren’t allowed to accumulate any more. Take a couple of weeks off, I’d urge. If you don’t, you’ll be working for free, burning through vacation hours you’re no longer earning. Sometimes my exhortations worked, sometimes they didn’t. Very sad.

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