For U.S. Workers, Vacation Is Vanishing
August 31 is typically the end of Europe's holiday season, that Great Migration of the continent's leathery bourgeoisie to southern shores. For Europeans, the August vacation isn't a privilege but a secular-humanist right, a major premise for a civilized and dignified life. This assumption about the August holiday goes well beyond the EU's borders, to poorer, struggling societies in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
Not so in America. For us, August conjures up no particular feelings of anticipation or relief. If August means anything to us, it's heat. Not the European heat: the this-is-perfect-Speedo-weather type of heat; but rather the dreadfully familiar how-will-I-hide-my-sweat-stains-around-my-armpits-at-the-office heat.
The reason why August has so little meaning to American workers is because Americans don't take vacations any more. According to a Conference Board poll taken in May, 40% of Americans had no plans to take any sort of summer vacation this year -- the worst showing in the poll's 28 years.
Indeed vacation time has been slowly disappearing for American workers ever since the Reagan revolution, which ushered in a violent shift in corporate culture away from the paternalistic post-New Deal model towards the current stock-price-is-God model. According to Harvard economist Juliet Schor, in the 30 years before Reagan's presidency American workers were getting more and more vacation time; however, in the 1980s, that trend suddenly reversed. By the time Reagan left office, Americans got three-and-a-half fewer days off per year, on average.
And the trend has only worsened. By 2003, according to a Boston College study, 26% of America's workers took no vacation time at all. This year, as the Conference Board survey shows, that number looks set to continue rising. Why don't Americans take vacations? For one thing, fewer and fewer companies offer their workers paid time off. In 1998, 5% of America's companies didn't offer paid vacation; by 2003, the figure had risen to 13%. According to the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics, today a full quarter of American workers get no paid vacation time, while another 33% only get a week.
As middle America's workers continue to see their leisure time stripped away from them, guess where that time, that scarce resource, winds up? You can find the answer in a Forbes magazine article, Billionaires On Vacation, dated September 19 2002:
From the ski slopes of Aspen and Gstaad to the beaches of Mustique and the Hamptons, instead of staying at a resort many billionaires (and millionaires) prefer to own multiple homes around the world - partly because it's always nicer to sleep in your own bed and partly because, well, they can.
All of this might be infuriating, in a kind of white-collar, Wigan Pier sort of way, if it weren't for the fact that the designated victims in this drama - America's workers - are such willing collaborators in their own existential demise. According to a New York Times article, British workers get more than 50% more paid holiday per year than Americans, while the French and Italians get almost twice what the Americans get. The average American's response is neither admiration nor envy, but rather a kind of sick pride in their own wretchedness, combined with righteous contempt for their European worker counterparts, whom most Americans see as morally degenerate precisely because they have more leisure time, more job security, health benefits and other advantages.
It's like a classic case of East Bloc lumpen-spite: middle Americans would rather see the European system collapse than become beneficiaries themselves. If there is one favourite recurring propaganda fable Americans love to read about Europeans, it's the one about how Europe is decaying and its social system is on the verge of imploding; we Americans pray for that day to come, with even more fervour than we pray for the End of Days, because the very existence of these pampered workers makes us look like the suckers and slaves we really are. This is why you won't see Bono or Sir Bob Geldof rallying the bleeding-hearts anytime soon on behalf of America's workers. They're not in the least bit sympathetic. Better to stick with well-behaved victims like starving Africans.
The cultural propaganda that accompanied the Reagan revolution has been so hugely successful that America's workers internalised it too well, like those famously fanatical Soviet workers who literally worked themselves to death in order to help bring true communism that much closer. According to Expedia, American workers save their employees some $21 billion per year by not taking even the meagre vacation time they're allowed.
How can anyone possibly feel sympathy for a people this gullible and craven? The New York Times article on the vanishing vacation told one particularly grotesque story about American workers' own refusal to take vacations even when their companies offer it to them. Accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers has lately become so frustrated in its inability to force workers to take holiday time that it resorted to shutting down and locking out its 19,000 employees twice a year in order to force them to relax.
One can imagine PwC's parking lot the day after forced-vacation lockdown. It would look like the scene outside of the mall in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead: thousands of starched, dazed yuppies converging on the corporate grounds, clawing at the entrance, growling for the opportunity to just put in one more 70-hour work week.
In fact, the scene where Dawn's heroes try to explain the zombies' behaviour applies all too well to the PwC workers. Replace the Swat heroes of Dawn with a pair security cops at PwC watching the dazed yuppies from their video monitors, and their dialogue fits perfectly: "What brings them here?" one asks, zooming in on the yuppies scratching at the office entrance's tinted glass doors. The answer would be the same as that of the film's hero: "Instinct. Memory. This was an important place in their lives."
And like Romero's zombies, America's workers won't stop scratching at their office doors, starving for more work, until someone finally opens them back up. Or until they break the doors down themselves, and resume their vile orgy of slavishness.
This article is reprinted with permission from the author.