Why don’t we take much vacation in the U.S ? A few theories

On this labor day holiday, saw a tweet from Bill Maher that caught my eye:

And then happened to catch a short video clip from Fareed Zakaria on CNN on the same topic. In this video he summarizes that:

Nowadays the average European gets about three times as many days of paid vacation as his counterpart in America. Italy has the most vacation days, with the average worker there getting 42 paid days off, according to the World Tourism Organization. Next was France with 37 days, Germany with 35, Brazil at 34, the United Kingdom at 28, Canada with 26 and Korea and Japan both with 25. The United States was near the bottom of the list with the average worker getting 13 days off.

He goes on to say:

Why do we do this to ourselves?

The conventional answer is that this attitude toward work makes the American economy the envy of the world. America has a hectic, turbo-charged system that builds, destroys and rebuilds, all at warp speed. It’s what created the information revolution, Silicon Valley, hedge funds, biotechnology, nanotechnology and so on. And there’s no time in it for lolling on the beach!

In fact, it’s not clear at all that working for a few extra weeks in the summer is what makes a nation’s economy hum. The consulting firm Ipsos gives us numbers on the percentage of paid vacation days that were used up by the end of the year. The French predictably lead the pack, taking 89% of their vacations days. But Germany, which is growing briskly, takes 75%. Indonesia, which has been booming, takes 70%. And the U.S. – just 57% – and it has fewer paid vacation days than almost all major countries. But even with those 13 days off, only 57 percent of Americans take them all. To remind you again, 89% of the French use all of their days off.

As someone who is terrible at taking vacation I have a few theories of my own:

  • The days before a vacation and the days after a vacation can be so bad that it’s not worth it. In the run up to a vacation you try to squeeze everything in, and if you really disconnect while away, you come back to 20 fire-drills and an insane week that wipes out any relaxation you may have had.   Now that I work for a distributed company (love it, and we are hiring !) – I find that when I do “take a few days off”, I generally just work reduced hours, working a bit in the mornings and in the evenings, and then disconnecting during the day. Much more manageable and less chaotic, but also not a true ‘disconnect’ which would be nice from time-to-time.
  • Most US companies are pretty thinly staffed compared to European and South American ones. In the US it’s pretty common that there is no backup to a person when they are out – so the idea that work will grind to a halt may cause some people to forgo vacation.
  • And most importantly in my mind, there isn’t that accepted summer break that is common throughout the world. In parts of Europe it’s all of August, in some countries it’s the last 2 weeks of August, and I’m sure there are variations on that. In the US if we could all just agree that August 15th -> Labor day we ‘shut down’, it would make things much easier. Instead what I found in my previous jobs is that we planned launches and big projects right around September 1 — only to have most of the senior staff away those two weeks up in the Hamptons :)

9 thoughts on “Why don’t we take much vacation in the U.S ? A few theories

  1. I think worth adding – since most jobs are still “working = in office” an individual rarely can combine both business and pleasure into one trip, or do as you do – a few hours here and there, wherever you are, and be productive location-independent.

  2. Are Europeans that much happier because of their awesomely long summer vacations?

    It’s always portrayed as a negative that we have less vacation. I think that we enjoy our work more than they do.

    I think US employers offer greater flexibility for time off – rather than fixed vacation times. And Europeans have more conservative work forces – less women work, that sort of thing – which makes them have more of a need for longer periods off.

    • > I think that we enjoy our work more than they do.

      I think that’s true for many of us in tech, creative fields, etc. Not so sure for other sectors.

      Plus we all know and chat with European friends and colleagues who do amazing things over the summer, like take a 3 week biking trip. In Europe nobody thinks twice about that, while in the U.S. it would be pretty tough to get that kind of vacation approved at most companies from what I’ve seen.

      > I think US employers offer greater flexibility for time off

      I think that’s a great trend. We just did away with our vacation policy at Automattic:

      Open vacation policy (no set number of days per year). We encourage our employees to take the time they need to take vacation, develop interests, and spend time with friends and family.

  3. I think at least some of the reason for this is a cultural perception that you need to be “at the office” and putting in as much time as others around you, and so Americans spend all of their time at work “achieving”, when they’re actually not being productive a lot of the time. Too often I hear people measure “success” of some sort based on how long they spend at work (not on what they’re actually getting done). I am personally a big believer in “time off” and disconnecting from work to get some time away to do other things. If I spend all of my time plugged into my work, I lose perspective and become less and less productive. Just taking a little time away from work can give you a chance to recharge, unwind, and oh yeah — be a “real person” for a minute or 2.

    As for @Rick’s question of if Europeans are happier than Americans, it seems that in general, they are at least similarly happy to us here in the US: http://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl/hap_nat/nat_fp.php?mode=6 (click the first “map” link in the second column). The flip side of that question is “are Europeans as productive as Americans (given that they work significantly less days per year)?”. While the US is definitely right up there in the standings, it seems like Europeans are still doing quite well (note “not taking into account unemployment or hours worked per week”): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29_per_capita_per_hour

  4. Another point is that people in the US are more mobile in general, meaning they move around the country for whatever reason and are thus less likely to be around family or long-time friends. In Europe and Latin America people tend to spend more time with families/friends and less time working just because that is part of the culture. Sounds like that could be indirectly related as to why people take less vacation here. I think that if you feel like you can’t take a week off because you will be overloaded when you get back that there is something fundamentally wrong with what and how you are doing your job. Maybe, I don’t know.

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