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The Leisure Gap: Why Don’t Americans Take Vacations?

July 6, 2012

Claude S. Fischer in Boston Review:

Americans just don’t vacation like other people do. Western European laws require at least ten and usually more than twenty days. And it’s not just the slacker Mediterranean countries. The nose-to-the-grindstone Germans and Austrians require employers to grant at least twenty paid vacation days a year. In the United States, some of us don’t get any vacation at all. Most American workers do get paid vacations from their bosses, but only twelve days on average, much less than the state-guaranteed European minimum. And even when they get vacation time, Americans often don’t use it.

Perhaps Americans are Protestant-ethic work obsessives; we are likelier than Europeans to say that we want to work more hours than we do. But this leisure gap is a recent development. In the 1960s Americans and Europeans worked about the same number of hours. Leisure time then expanded everywhere—only more slowly and much less in the United States than elsewhere, leaving today’s disparity. Some argue that high taxes in Europe discourage working, but economist Alberto Alesina and his colleagues point to legislation—that is, politics. The right to a long vacation is one of the benefits that unions and the left have in recent decades delivered to Western workers—except American ones.

Which brings us to the larger question. Just about everywhere in the West except the United States, where there is no mandatory paid time off, workers not only get vacations but also short work weeks, government health care, large pensions, high minimum wages, subsidized childcare, and so forth. Why is the United States the exception?

The answer comes in two general forms: one, Americans do not want such programs and perks because we do not want the kind of government that would legislate them. Two, Americans want them but cannot get them. (…)

Working-class Americans display relatively little of the “class consciousness” that such solidarity requires. You can see it in the votes they cast and the answers they give in surveys. About one-third of those whom sociologists would consider working-class label themselves middle-class. Even though economic inequality is substantially greater in the United States than in Europe, Americans acknowledge less economic inequality in their society than Western Europeans do in theirs, and Americans are more likely to describe such inequality as fair, deserved, and necessary. [More]

One Comment leave one →
  1. jamesroom964x permalink
    July 7, 2012 2:20 PM

    Your point about the lack of class-consciousness amongst working class Americans is very interesting, and I think, well founded. I’m consistently amazed to see how working class, and even middle class Americans vote against their traditional class interests, by supporting candidates who propose cuts to social welfare programs and public services. I think it’s a testament to how strong the “individual success,” narrative still is in America. Even people who could use a little help from the system often don’t want it, or vote against it, because that type of government intervention has become taboo in American politics. Very interesting.

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