WASHINGTON — In the global rivalry of economic models and lifestyles, the United States ranks dead last among advanced countries in one category: vacations.
It's not that millions of Americans don't annually flock to beaches, climb mountains, invade national parks or just hang around the house. We do. But we seem to have a harder time than other peoples in distancing ourselves from work. The office (also, the store, factory or warehouse) is routinely an uninvited guest on our holidays.
We worry that we might be gone for "too long" — meaning that we won't be missed and that any extended absences might somehow put our job or status at risk. Unfinished tasks haunt us; they corrupt vacations' pleasures. Some of us can't even let go of work and, secretly or not, mix it with recreation. Others dread returning to the job. One way or another, the job shadows us. The spread of the Internet, email and cell phones has made separating work from leisure even more difficult. We are reachable at almost any time in almost any place.
Most of this is conjecture. What's not conjecture are our laws and institutions, which — compared with those of other wealthy societies — devalue and de-emphasize vacations. A fascinating report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a left-leaning think tank, illuminates the vast differences. Here's how the report, "No-Vacation Nation Revisited," summarizes them:
"The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirements of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries."
Counting mandated paid holidays, workers in Germany, France and Britain receive roughly six weeks of time off, reports the CEPR. There are many variations among nations as to when vacations must be taken, how much employers control vacation periods, and who qualifies and who doesn't. In Norway, workers over 60 get an extra week, says the CEPR report. By contrast, four European countries (Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland) provide extra paid leave for younger workers.
America's decisions are decentralized. Vacations and paid holidays are set by companies, union agreements, school systems, states, the federal government and all other manner of employers. In general, our vacations are shorter than those elsewhere. About 90 percent of full-time employees get vacations that average (with paid holidays) about four weeks, according to government figures cited in the CEPR report. For part-time workers, about 35 percent to 40 percent receive paid time off. Not surprisingly, low-wage workers fare the worst. Only about half of the poorest-paid 25 percent receive paid time off.
There's a cultural gap between the United States and other wealthy societies. They've chosen to take a larger share of their prosperity as extra leisure. We've skimped. Economist Timothy Taylor (whose useful website, the Conversable Economist, featured the CEPR study) points out that Americans work longer than workers in other advanced societies. In 2011, the average was 1,787 hours a year, 26 percent more than Germans (1,413 hours), 21 percent more than the French (1,476) and 3 percent more than Japanese (1,728).
It may be that Americans draw more of their self-identity from their jobs than do other peoples. Or perhaps the competitive nature of the U.S. economy and the accompanying insecurities conspire against time off. A recent New York Times story argues that Americans don't make full use of maternity/paternity leave and "flextime" arrangements (splitting work between home and office), because they're afraid of being stigmatized as slackers.
We could follow other advanced societies and legislate minimum vacations. This is a debate worth having — sometime in the future but not now. We need to remember the obvious: Paid leaves mean compensating people for doing nothing. There are consequences. The most likely are less hiring (because higher labor costs deter employers from adding workers) or eroding wages (because employers offset the extra costs by squeezing wages). It's doubtful that mandated vacations would create many, if any, extra jobs. Europe has longer vacations — and higher unemployment. One is not the solution for the other.
Generous vacations might seem a cure for an overstressed America. But with stubbornly high joblessness and stagnant wages, the U.S. economy cannot afford policies that might worsen either or both. That would be a vacation from reality.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.