Sunday, April 27, 2008

State of the Union's Approach to Travel

A leisurely vacation overseas escapes the vast majority of American working dreamers. For most U.S. workers - lacking the time or the money, or both - traveling abroad essentially amounts to an unattainable or once in a lifetime (if they're lucky) luxury.

Having just returned from a quick four-day visit to Montreal, I was already lamenting having to wait a full calendar year to accrue the allotted 12 days of paid time off so that I could take something more akin to what I consider a real vacation. For me, if there isn't a trip on the horizon I'm just not a happy camper. So I put in for my time away next spring, this spring. That's how serious I am about taking time off. I was chatting about this with a friend in Paris and he mentioned to me that the new job he's considering offers―now would be the time to sit down and brace yourself before reading on―48 days of paid vacation. Um, yeah. I was floored, too.

I was reminded of that scene in Sicko where, "Sitting at a restaurant table with a bunch of American ex-pats in Paris, Moore is treated to a jaw-dropping recitation of the perks of social democracy: 30 days of vacation time, unlimited sick days, full child care, social workers who come to help new parents adjust to the strains and challenges of child-rearing." - Ezra Klein

In stark sobering contrast to what workaday Americans are guaranteed, in the way of paid time off in particular: "We guarantee zero. Absolutely none. That's why one out of 10 full-time American employees, and more than six out of 10 part-time employees, get no vacation. And even among workers with paid vacation benefits, the average number of days enjoyed is a mere 12. In other words, even those of us who are lucky enough to get some vacation typically receive just over a third of what the French are guaranteed." - Ezra Klein

Sigh. And a very heavy one, at that.

I'm now one of those Americans who enjoys "a mere 12" paid vacation days. After three years with the company that will increase to a whopping 15. If it weren't for the the fact that I love the company, the work, and the people, I couldn't commit to such a setup. Not unless there were the possibility of unpaid leave, which is what I enjoyed at my former place of employment.

Although, to quote Ezra Klein - "Very few individual workers in the United States can ask for four weeks of vacation. It is not only outside the benefits of their job but far outside the culture of our workplace. The incentives for most every individual, particularly if they want to keep their position and amass a reputation as a good employee, is to abide by those norms," I worked up the gall to ask my last employer for unlimited unpaid leave in addition to the standard two weeks (i.e., only 10 days) he outlined in the company benefits package. For some crazy reason, my request was deemed reasonable and I got my wish. It was fantastic. I even took it a step further when I opted for less monthly income in favor of a four-day work week.

That arrangement lasted for nearly six travelicious years before I decided it was time to move on and pursue my work as an artist more seriously, along with a career/day job that more closely matched personal passions; first and foremost, my love of travel. I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have found just such a place and position. Although I lost my lobby for unpaid leave in lieu of more fully-funded with my new employer, the fact that I enjoy my work counts immensely. Not many people―American or otherwise―can say that.

All that said, this still strikes me as shockingly medieval. This being where the U.S. ranks with the rest of the industrialized world in time paid to step away from the grindstone and catch up on some much needed R&R:

Kinda makes you want to scream and wish you'd been born a Brit or a Brazilian, right?
The reason it's so hard to get a vacation and so hard to enjoy one when you manage to squeeze part of one in is that the U.S. is the only country in the industrialized world without a minimum paid-leave law. As you can see from the chart [above], we've got a death grip on last place in the paid-leave standings. The first column details figures for statutory minimum annual leave and the right-hand column lists combined mandated leave with average additional time off by agreement with employers.
One of the most frequent remarks I'd encounter on my extended two, three, and four week trips abroad in the last five years is how atypical my length of leisure was for an American. Americans are often criticized for being an insular clan of overworked folks who take quick trips of five to seven days abroad and aim to squeeze in as much as possible within that tiny time frame. Going from Venice to Florence to Rome in the space of five or seven days doesn't sound like leisure to me; it sounds like stressful work. How can one possibly achieve a state of relaxation when so much time is spent traveling and sprinting about on the vacation itself? But given that "the average number of days enjoyed is a mere 12," what's a Yank to do? Spend the whole 12 on a single trip without saving time for family events or other piecemeal days off needed throughout the year? It's not like most companies allow a plethora of "personal days" or sick leave. That's right. For many Americans, sick time can often dip into vacation time because we're also lacking a logical allotment of paid sick leave.

It's kind of sad―though it's brought me unmeasurable pleasure, but I'm more and more thankful to be single and without dependents. Life is expensive these days and it's difficult to coordinate time off with friends, family, and partners. Especially when you're unwilling to take a five or seven day trip to somewhere 10 or more hours away by plane. I can't even imagine affording a real vacation, with kids. Let alone enjoying one! Not that it's not possible for those of us making less than $100,000 a year. I'm just saying that I can't imagine it.

In conclusion, I think that when one's government does not espouse or encourage a proper vacation by law, it is unarguably apparent that said government does not truly expect its people to be citizens of the world. Particularly puzzling when the nation in question is one of the richest in the Western World. The part that shouldn't come as a shock, then, is that in the United States, the vast majority of Americans can afford to be nothing other than what they are: untraveled people whose idea of a vacation is a three-day weekend (often spent working, from home!) It might also explain why Americans can be such ugly travelers, as they say. We don't get out much. Out of the country, that is. Our culture both in and outside of the workplace doesn't allow for much else (lack of support or mandate from the federal government; professional/social peer and personal pressure to work longer hours and to value material rewards rather than experiential rewards like vacations). Coupled with the ever increasing cost of living and the well-traveled American becomes the true overseas oddity. It's the truth, and it's a travesty.

Update: August 5, 2010 - Why don't Americans have longer vacations?

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.


  1. Fellow bookbinding here. Found you via your comment on the BEST blog. :)

    It sickens me that our countries (I represent your northern cousin, Canada) have the least paid vacation days in total. I think people would be much more productive if they received vacation times more along the lines of the European countries. My husband, for example, who is originally from the Netherlands, found it really hard to adjust to much fewer vacation days here in Canada.

    It's really a travesty! >:(

  2. Yes. Even though Canadians are guaranteed 10 days paid leave by law, that is nothing to do cartwheels about. Our respective vacation policies are inhumane! I absolutely concur: a relaxed and annually well-rested workforce would be much more productive.

    Glad you found my blog. Thanks for reading and posting your comment.

  3. Wow - I knew you guys had a lot less hols than us but I didn't realise just how few! Do those figures include your national holidays or are they extra? Luckily ours are extra unless you work for a tiny business in which case, the rules are competely different.

  4. Hi Arty! The typical paid leave given to employees of American companies is in addition to, or extra as you say, paid holidays. However, for example, most Americans only get Christmas Day and New Year's Day off. So many people choose to take a week or two of their paid leave, if they have any, for the winter holidays. Thus using up most of or all of their vacation time at "the holidays". Nice, but not a real vacation!



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