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While Europeans Vacation, Americans Toil

Shorter vacations, longer work weeks and skimpy sick leave for Americans add up -- not to greater upward mobility, but to a burned-out workforce earning less than preceding generations.
 
 
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If you're reading this while on vacation, great for you. If you're reading this at work, having recently finished a vacation or a five-day weekend cobbled together around last week's celebration of Independence Day, I hope the time off was as spectacular as the fireworks.

If you won't get another day off work until December's holiday season, you're not alone. Americans and vacations just don't mix.

This may surprise those who have just spent hours stranded at airports or idling in a hot line for a ride at an amusement park. But a quarter of American workers get no paid vacation or paid holidays. And on average, those private-sector workers who do get paid time off are granted only nine vacation days and six paid holidays each year, according to government statistics analyzed by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The liberal-leaning think tank analyzed paid vacation and holiday leave policies among the U.S. and nations with comparably developed economies--the European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The predictable portrait is one of the United States as a nation of workaholics--a syndrome related less to the archetype of a striving executive than it is linked to government policy.

In the rest of the industrialized world, a month or more of paid vacation is typical, and often required. Many Americans know that. And there are can-you-top-this supplements to this surfeit of paid time off. Such as: In Austria, workers who labor at "heavy night work" get two or three extra days off. Also in Austria--as well as in Sweden and New Zealand--workers are actually paid at a higher rate when they're on vacation than when they're at work.

In France, workers get extra paid time off if they take some of their vacation days outside of the summer season. In Norway, those 60 and older get extra time off. And of course, your vacation could be ruined if you get sick while you're away. So Sweden guarantees that if a worker becomes sick while on leave, the days of the illness don't count against vacation time.

Stingy leave policies in the United States go hand and hand with weekly work hours that exceed those in many industrialized countries. And they parallel skimpy sick leave and family leave policies that give millions of Americans no effective safety net when illness or emergencies strike. Nearly half of private-sector workers--57 million people--have no paid sick days, according to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a chief sponsor of a measure to require at least some sick days for employees who work more than 30 hours per week. The problem is particularly acute for low-wage workers, more than three-fourths of whom get no paid leave when they are ill.

In theory, all this hard work is supposed to spark a more robust economy that is, in turn, an engine of greater upward mobility than what is found in the supposedly coddled precincts of, say, the European Union. But lately, it hasn't. An ongoing, bipartisan study of intergenerational economic mobility conducted jointly by conservative and liberal-leaning researchers for the Pew Charitable Trusts has found the myth of superior American mobility to be--a myth.

Researchers for the Economic Mobility Project studied the relationship of adult children's incomes to those of their parents and found that the United States now lags behind France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark in this measure of upward mobility. "There is little available evidence that the United States has more relative mobility than other advanced nations," the group reported in May. "If anything, the data seem to suggest the opposite."

Comparing the incomes of American men who were in their 30s in 2004 with males who were in their 30s in 1974, the researchers found that today's men actually earn about 12 percent less, after inflation, than their fathers' generation did. "There has been no progress at all for the youngest generation," the group reported. The American family stays afloat because its total income has been swelled by women's paychecks.

The sober statistics should lead toward saner economic policies. Europe, Canada and the rest of the industrialized world are doing just fine with guaranteed health insurance, pensions, maternity leave and sick time--not to mention a month at the beach. Here at home, nothing threatens the American dream so much as political disinclination to cast off old thinking and demand change for new and harsher economic times.

Marie Cocco is a prize-winning syndicated columnist on political and cultural topics for The Washington Post Writers Group. She is a frequent commentator on national TV and radio shows.

 
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