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 🙂