Sunday, August 16, 2009



I have many European friends. We communicate all the time on a forum. During the summer, they always write about this and that journey they plan to take. They call them "summer holidays." They talk about traveling far and wide. They talk about taking four weeks off--with pay--to wander around Eastern Europe or France. Some even talk about going to China or India. In short, they talk about vacations with true relish. When they get home, they talk about how refreshed they are. They even say they do not mind going back to work after so much enjoyable time on vacation. They don't feel guilty about forcing their bosses to find replacements while they're gone, nor do they check email or phone messages while sprawled on Brazilian beaches. Put simply, Europeans know how to relax.

I can't resist contrasting these idyllic reports with horror stories about vacation time in the United States. This morning, for instance, I read about a friend who plans to take several weeks to travel through Germany and Bulgaria. He will receive pay during his trip; his boss actually encouraged him "because it's important for you to relax" and "see the world."

In response, I described the typical working American's vacation plans:

If only Americans understood the value of real vacation time. Over here, people hem and haw about taking 5 days off, compromise and wind up taking a "monumental excursion" to a water park in some god-forsaken suburb.

What's the difference, then? For starters, there's the obvious temporal difference. Europeans just get a lot more paid vacation time than Americans. Americans are lucky to get a week off with pay per year (including sick days), while most Europeans--even entry-level twentysomethings--get five paid weeks minimum. But the real difference is about power. Europeans get so much vacation time because they have relatively more power over their work lives than Americans. Over here, people feel obsequiously honored to have jobs. Like good fawns, they are prepared to sacrifice everything to keep them. It is a hopelessly servile approach; it puts full power in the employer's hands. Employers take full advantage; they dole out one week's vacation, no more. All the while, they cultivate a belief that "taking time off is bad," causing workers to feel guilty about leaving the office.

In Europe, by contrast, employers do not dominate workers as much as they do in the United States. Additionally, workers in Europe keep both government and private industry honest through spirited political engagement. When governments in Europe deliberate measures that award more power to employers, workers revolt. When Congress does the same thing in America, workers meekly stay at home and watch Monday Night Football. Given such political apathy, it's no wonder American workers have virtually nothing by comparison to their European counterparts.

Europeans do not seem guilty about taking time off, either. I think this reflects another important difference between Europeans and Americans: The mental relationship to work. In America, workers tend to revere their jobs. They want to impress their bosses, advance and succeed. To do so, they want to make the best showing they possibly can. That means doing work at all times, even on weekends and holidays. This is the attitude that resists vacations: After all, how can you impress your boss in Toledo, Ohio if you are tanning on a beach in Brazil? You're not making the company any money tanning. Americans debate with themselves about taking any time off at all. They worry about making the wrong impression. They feel guilty about foisting their job duties on some poor sot who's stuck in the office. To assuage their guilt, they simply decide not to enjoy themselves when they ultimately go on vacation. They bring laptops and BlackBerries with them to theme parks, casinos and spas. They stay in touch with work when they are supposed to be relaxing. They even try to show their loyalty by agreeing to take off fewer days than the number to which they are entitled. They travel locally, not over long distances, "just in case they need to come back in an emergency."

In short, Americans don't escape their mental relationship to work, even when they are supposed to be on vacation. It's about work, not life. And people wonder why they are unhappy.

But Europeans forget work when they go on vacation. They don't take guilt-ridden 4-day "long weekends;" they take month-long sojourns. If someone has to pick up the slack at the office, so what? That guy will get his time off sooner or later, too. They do not bring office email accounts with them. They do not return work phone calls while drinking or dancing with friends in a Warsaw discotheque. More importantly, they actually have time to unwind, "switch from work mode," reflect and experience the world. At the same time, they are not worried about their bills, nor do they worry about the boss' wrath. Their bosses actually encourage them. This is the European approach to vacations. It is about life, not work.

Americans criticize Europeans for precisely that reason: They don't care about working enough. But what has America's dedication to work really won? Americans are generally more unhappy than their European counterparts. They face more anxiety and stress because they do not have a safety net. They face more workplace guilt and obligation. True, Americans keep more of their income than Europeans. If they're lucky, they can even own more property than Europeans. But what Europeans pay in higher tax they receive in a more compassionate existence. Their high taxes finance their month-long vacations and free medical care. And in some sense, their high taxes provide them more happiness. An existence with less guilt and less obligation is a happier existence.

But America won't change its mind about vacations any time soon. Employers hold far too much power here. It is not just economic power; it is psychological power. It is deeply entrenched, too. Until Americans stop feeling guilty about abandoning their poor-paying posts for more than two days at a time, employers will continue to hold their psychological edge. That pyschological edge maintains political apathy; and political apathy keeps employers strong.

In an abstract sense, vacation time is just a proxy for the much more significant difference between Europe and America: Who really holds the power? If you feel guilty about failing to serve your economic master even though you are entitled to take time off, are you really in control of your life?

Employers in America do not just control time. They control emotions, too. That is power.

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