I am trying to go on vacation. Since I am American, even though I have an 8 p.m. flight, I told my editors I would work during the day. I diligently packed the night before and scheduled a work call for 2 p.m. I am writing this piece as I discovered my 18-year-old son — a.k.a. my traveling companion — did not pick up adapters for our electronics. I could simply declare a sabbatical, but this would present many problems, not just with communicating with my husband and younger son who are staying in the United States, but, well, with work.
See, we don’t take vacations in the United States, not really. The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.
Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn. The Trump administration, for one, wants work requirements for recipients of such programs as Medicaid and food stamps.
We internalize this attitude. Even though studies say about three-quarters of employed workers receive an average of 10 paid days off annually, a survey conducted by British firm Kimble Applications discovered almost half — 47 percent — did not use all their vacation time last year. While 20 percent say they feel pressured by employers not to take a paid break even though they are entitled to it, a greater share fear the sheer amount of work they will need to handle on their return. One result? Almost two-thirds will check email while on their break. It has become such an issue that sites now publish articles such as “How to check email on vacation and still enjoy yourself.” Then there are the jobs in the gig economy, where all “vacation” time is simply unpaid time away from a task. Companies such as Uber even use “psychological tricks” to keep their drivers working longer during peak hours. And we inculcate our children with our attitudes toward paid employment. Where summers were once thought to be time off to while away the days, now elementary school students are encouraged to attend math and computer camps, while high school and college students are urged to take unpaid internships, all the better to gain a leg up in the workforce.
Perhaps in the same way many cultures experiencing food shortages prize a buildup of weight on the human body, we idealize what many do not possess. Until quite recently, that was jobs, especially well-paying ones. The American workforce participation rate was 67 percent in 2000, a record high. It’s now just shy of 63 percent. A study once determined that between 1979 and 2002, the hours worked by the top 20 percent of male workers increased significantly, while falling for the bottom tier. That time period dovetails all but perfectly with the increase in income inequality in the United States. Perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that the typical American took three weeks off work in 2000, but by 2015, that number decreased to a little more than two weeks.
Add on top of this the many employers who penalize employees for taking time off to be at home with a sick child or to take care of their own illness. Remember, the United States is the only high-income country with no sick-leave requirement, though some cities and states have filled that void. And the United States is one of only a handful of countries that don’t require paid parental leave.
It’s all ridiculous and counterproductive for both ourselves and our employers. People who don’t take vacations are more likely to suffer heart attacks. Vacation time — even just a long weekend — improves worker productivity, so much so that a New Zealand firm recently discovered their workers accomplished as much when they worked four eight-hour days a week as when they worked five days.
But no matter. In the United States, the question “Do you work to live or live to work?” is a false choice. For many of us, the answer is both. I am filing this piece in an airport, and will likely respond to an editor’s notes while on a plane, or from the first day away. But then — I will see you on Aug. 6. I am on vacation. Or at least I will try to be.