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The vacation deficit
Longer hours, less time-off, more stress—what can overworked Americans do to catch a spring break?
Participants in the "Take Back Your Time" initiative run a "rat race" to protest the lack of free time in their lives
By Erik Olsen
Updated: 9:10 a.m. ET Oct. 29, 2004

John DeGraaf wants you to be free. You work too much, he says, you get too little vacation, and on this election day, you should have the day off to think about who to vote for, rather than worry about your next staff meeting. It is time for things to change, he says. You need to take back your time.

“Employers really have the upper hand in our society,” De Graaf says.

DeGraaf is part of a growing movement in America that is seeking to free us from our go-go lifestyles. We are too concerned with making money and consuming things, say these groups, and it is time to slow down a bit, if just for piece of mind.

To bring attention to their cause, De Graaf and other self-proclaimed leisure teams created Take Back Your Time Day, which took place last Sunday with events around the country orchestrated to bring attention to the notion that we are too consumed by our jobs.

Image: Rick Steves
Vacation deficit

Author Rick Steves and others on the lack of vacation time in the US. Launch the audio

Travel writer Rick Steves whose travel books on Europe are best sellers spoke at an event in Seattle about the need for people to travel more. In a telephone interview from his office in Edmonds, Washington, Mr. Steves, who has spent a third of his adult life overseas, says Europeans are astonished at how reluctant Americans are to stand up for more vacation time.

“From a European point of view it’s unbelievable how docilely we accept the shortest vacations in the rich world,” he says. More vacation and travel would literally do Americans a world of good. Steves suggests that as the world’s reigning superpower, it behooves us to know the world better.

"Regardless of your politics," Steves says, "you need to know the big picture. We’re going to be in an increasingly awkward position if we don’t try to get out there and understand the planet."

The Overworked American

Most of us are already aware of the vast disparity between American vacation time and that of other industrialized nations, but the numbers are astonishing. According to the International Labor Organization, we work 100 hours per year more than the famously industrious Japanese. We put in up to three months a year more than Europeans when you compare the hours worked and vacation time. Where actual vacation time is measured, on average Americans get four weeks less than their European counterparts. And as if that’s not enough, it seems we don’t even use the vacation we get. According to a recent survey by the Internet travel company Expedia, last year Americans handed back more than $21 billion in unused vacation days to their employers. It sure seems like something’s amiss.

Image: Take Back Your Day
Ian Paterson
Conrad Schmidt, the organizer of "Take Back Your Day" events in Vancouver, in a costume protesting the scarcity of free time available to workers in North America

While some economists challenge these numbers, most agree that Americans work significantly harder than the rest of the industrialized world.

And that’s where the Take Back Your Time initiative comes in. De Graaf’s group is advocating a six-point plan that includes a cap on mandatory overtime, making election day a national holiday, six months of paid family leave and mandatory three-weeks of paid vacation for all full-time employees. Of course, De Graaf admits this is an ambitious agenda. The chance that any of these initiatives will gain traction depends on how much Americans truly feel they are overworked. Articles on the subject abound, and several prominent scholars have written books about the overworked American. Indeed, the evidence seems to point to a problem or at the very least an issue worthy of public debate.

Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist whose book The Overworked American has made her something of a celebrity to leisure groups, argues in her book that the United States “is the world's standout workaholic nation,” and that Americans today find themselves in a “squirrel cage'” of overwork.

Travel is Good For You

So what’s all the fuss? Is it really a big deal that we don’t take vacation? John De Graaf says it is a big deal, and that our very lives could be at stake.

‘Studies show that those who don’t take vacation are considerably more likely to have heart attacks, heart problems, and other kinds of physical problems as well.’
— John De Graaf
Take Back Your Time initiative
“Studies show that those who don’t take vacation are considerably more likely to have heart attacks, heart problems, and other kinds of physical problems as well,” he says.

Robert R. Butterworth, a psychologist with International Trauma Associates in Los Angeles who counsels patients with stress-related disorders, says there is a documented link between stress and poor health, and he says it is true that more vacation can mean less stress. People who go on vacation, he says, come back and “they have a new perspective on things. [Taking vacation] makes them think clearer.”

Indeed, according to the Expedia survey, fully 80 percent of Americans report having a more positive outlook about their jobs when they take sufficient time away from the workplace.

The Leisure Movement

Another advocate of the work less lifestyle is Kristine Enea, the co-author of the book Time Off! The Unemployed Guide to San Francisco, whose company Leisure Team Productions teamed up with De Graaf’s group on the Take Back Your Time campaign, holding events in San Fransisco. “There really is a growing leisure movement in the United States,” she says, and points to organizations like the simplicity movement and the slow food movement that focus on taking time off and slowing down the pace of American life.

One thing that has helped these groups’ efforts is how much easier it is today to bring people together over a common issue. The Internet provides a forum for groups who advocate longer vacations and working less, and it allows them to easily organize and lobby Congress for change., a popular site for groups who gather to discuss everything from airplanes to witchcraft, has an entire section of its site dedicated to working less, with 68 individual groups located in major cities in the US and Europe. The groups stated objective is to “reduce annual work hours and create legislative proposals to allow for a better work/life balance.”

Of course, one question that arises when we consider changing our lifestyle and working less is cost. What is the cost of taking more vacation? How, for example, would a law mandating three weeks of leave affect the US economy? In these tough economic times, a policy that slows economic growth is going to be a tough sell. But some advocates insist that more time off can actually be of benefit to employers.

‘If we work less we’re going to produce less goods, fewer services, and as a consequence it follows GDP will fall.’
— David Autor
Professor, MIT
“Vacation is a time to recharge and be more creative and ultimately more productive,” De Graaf says.

As nice as that sounds, it turns out the link between leisure and productivity probably less positive. David Autor, an associate professor of economics at MIT says more vacation time will inevitably lead to a trade off between leisure and economic growth.

“If we work less we’re going to produce less goods, fewer services, and as a consequence it follows GDP will fall,” he says. “There’s a basic tradeoff that any individual faces between consumption and leisure.”

Historical Perspective

Historically speaking, the fact that there is even a discussion about this tradeoff is evidence how far we’ve come. In the book “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States,” author Cindy Aron points out how new the concept of vacation for the common man really is. According to Ms. Aron’s book, prior to 1865, vacations were almost exclusively taken by the wealthy. Even when leisure time became more mainstream, there was often a raw tension between labor and leisure, with religious doctrines warning against the sin of idleness. It really wasn’t until the post World War II era that the notion of middle class vacations became viable.

De Graaf concedes that we are very fortunate to live in this day and age, but the fact is, he says, as the leading economic power in the world things could improve. “We are certainly better off today than we were a hundred years ago. But we could do much better.”

Copyright © 2004 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.


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