Vacation: The American Approach

From USAToday:

As a professor, “vacation” is tricky since much of my time “off” is actually time “on” and I like what I do so much my time “on” is also “off”! Still, Kris as a psychologist is paid for work done and she can take vacation as she wants (knowing she won’t be paid). A professor’s “vacation” time coincides with the ordinary schedule of the USA: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Spring Break, etc…

But this is an issue of mandatory and paid vacation time, and the European (and world) models are at variance with the USA’s model.

What do you think? Is the American approach — no mandatory paid holidays — something to be avoided or applauded? Is this so “systemic” that the systems adjusts to it?

How much time do you get for vacation? Does it make you more “productive” or less in your work?

What do you do on your vacations? Travel? Sail? Go to a big city (and sail)? Cabin? Up North? Beach? Family?

The United States is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation.

Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. The average private sector U.S. worker receives 16 paid vacation days and holidays. One in four Americans does not have a single paid day off. Based on a report released by the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR), 24/7 Wall St. identified the countries where workers get at least 30 days off a year.

Several nations providing workers with a great deal of time off can afford to be generous. Germany, where the economy remains strong, had an unemployment rate of just 5.5% in 2012. Similarly, New Zealand’s unemployment rate was just 6.9% last year. Both are well below the 8.0% Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) unemployment rate, as well as the 8.1% rate in the United States.

Still, some nations giving workers a generous combination of paid, legally-protected vacation days and holidays currently are struggling economically. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain each had an unemployment rate in excess of 10% last year. Spain’s unemployment rate of 25.1% was the worst among the 34 OECD member nations. The gross domestic product (GDP) of three of these four nations shrank in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In France, GDP rose by just 0.03%.

Because time-off is time not spent productively working, it would seem to be an expense that countries with struggling economies cannot afford. To make matters worse, “workers who have vacation and paid holidays also tend to have much higher levels of other benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans,” said John Schmitt, senior economist at Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). Of the eight nations requiring workers receive 30 days off a year, only New Zealand’s government spent proportionally less than the U.S.’s 40.3% of GDP, while four nations spent more than 50% of GDP.

But experts consulted by 24/7 Wall St. expressed doubt that the overall effect of extra time off on the economy is negative. Schmitt told 24/7 Wall St. “paid vacation and holidays don’t appear to have any meaningful impact on macroeconomic outcomes.”  …

Because the United States is the second-most productive developed country as measured by GDP per capita and has no mandatory vacation time, some might argue that vacation reduces productivity. However, in another measure of labor productivity — GDP per hour worked — the U.S. was only marginally better than Germany and France, both developed countries that guarantee among the most vacation time. Of course, it is worth noting that the average U.S. employee also clocks 20% more hours per worker than those in Germany or France.

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  • A. J.

    I read a study that shows that most employees are the most productive shortly before they go on vacation 🙂 I live in Germany, work in the mostly underpaid education sector, work 39 hours a week and have 30 paid vacation days, not counting paid bank holidays. There are no things such thing as sick days – under law it is illegal here to fire employees due to illness. So, a pretty sweet deal. This year I had 40 vacation days, because I did not use ten last year. (Yes, they’re transferable to next year if you don’t use them).

  • Phil Miller

    Probably some of this can be attributed to the whole Puritan work ethic thing in the US, but I also wonder if some of it isn’t related to the fact the fact that so much of America’s past was rooted in an agricultural economy. When you’re running a farm, vacation days aren’t really part of your life.

    The thing that always gets me in these discussions is the idea that the government just automatically gives people vacation days. I just can’t imagine such a thing going over well in the US.

  • Great points! My experience with Europeans is that they see us as overworked and way too focused on business and less focused on relationships.

  • Phil Miller

    There’s probably some truth to that. I believe I remember reading somewhere that there have been several polls of American and European workers where workers are asked whether they want a job with the opportunity for higher pay and fewer vacation days or lower pay with more vacation days. Americans pretty much overwhelmingly chose higher pay, while the Europeans chose more vacation days. I think some Americans are afraid to actually take vacations, so they assume they will have vacation days they won’t be able use, so they might as well get paid more.

  • Peter Stone

    In the Uk we are guaranteed a minimum of 28 days a year (although some work places will give you more). While the government guarantees this it is up to the employer to pay it. What usually happens is because of the holidays we get paid less and this money is used to pay us when we are on holidays. I will take time off over being paid more any day of the week. for me spending time with my family and having free time is more important than living some sore of Economic dream.

  • Barb

    Before I retired I worked for a very large corporation. They changed their vacation accrual plans during the time I worked there but they never revised the top amount which was 4 weeks/year. I had to work 20 years to get to that level. 10 years to get 3 weeks. But we did get about 13 paid holidays each year–which included a week plus at Christmas. We also got sick leave and other nice benefits. When I retired one of the reasons was they wouldn’t give me any way to be more flexible with the time. My just starting out, daughter, works for a little company with no benefits–but they are pretty generous with vacation time. She gets 2 weeks the first year and 3 weeks after that. They also get the major holidays off. I have a German “sister” who couldn’t believe my reason for not visiting her was that I couldn’t take off enough time.

  • beth

    For several years I worked as an administrator of a low-income school & non-profit that asked a lot of our staff in terms of commitment & passion. We were unable to to pay any of them what they were worth so I worked overboard to give them any “fringe” benefit I could think of. This translated into everyone (regardless of rank/time with the org.) rotating through to get extra long weekends 1 time per year, as well as, times where they were encouraged to leave work early in order to go to doctor’s appointments, school plays, meet a repair guy at their apartment & etc. In 9 years, despite the low pay I only had one staff member resign and it was because she moved out of state. Those little nods of respect for their whole lives paid huge dividends. Limited flex time is demeaning. Wait, what? You trust me to build airplanes, manage stock portfolios, teach the next generation, etc. and you still ask me to punch a clock?! absurd.

  • beth

    the thought of you trapped in that cube makes me sad. 🙁