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Would more holiday be good for America?

01 September 10 10:10
Man under parasol, Germany
By Michael Goldfarb
Journalist and broadcaster

In theory, the summer is over here. We've just had August Bank Holiday, the British equivalent of Labor Day, the last official three-day weekend of the summer.

But the little development of flats I live in is still quiet. A majority of folks still seem to be on vacation.

Not me, of course. I may have lived in Britain for 25 years but I'm an American by birth, self-employed, and so after nine days away, I'm back in harness, ready for action.

And as most of my work this week involves organising a lecture tour in the US in the autumn, I am having a productive time. It may be the last week of summer in the land of my birth but almost everybody I need to be in touch with in America is at their desk sounding harassed as ever.

Month-long shutdown

When people speak of the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, what they are usually referring to is the remarkable Anglo-American coincidence that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to office at the same time and shared identical economic philosophies and policy gurus.

Those days are gone and the Anglo-Saxon model is more nostalgia than reality. But even in the headiest days of the Iron Lady and the Gipper, one place where the model didn't hold was on the issue of paid annual leave.

British workers get generous guarantees of time off, currently 20 days a year. That is one full month of paid leave. Judiciously planned around public holidays - eight in England and Wales, nine in Scotland and 10 in Northern Ireland - it means this country basically shuts down for most of August and between Christmas and New Year.

It's not just Britain where good vacation is the norm.

The figures in a 2007 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) are stark. It looked at 21 of the richest countries in the world, and found that only one, the US, does not impose a legal mandate on employers to provide time off.

Obviously, people in America do get paid annual leave, but for most wage earners it is subject to so many different calculations based on seniority and how much you earn, it can only be described as miserly.

In other words, it is a privilege to be earned rather than a normal part of compensation.

Nine days of annual leave is what the average American accrues during the course of a year. So you have to be at your job for 12 months before you begin to get even that amount.

If you figure that folks might take a day or two at Christmas, maybe Thanksgiving, and keep a day or two in the bank for a family emergency, what you're left with come the good weather is a week of vacation if you're lucky.

Raw fear

The difference between American attitudes to vacation and those of Britons and others is hard to explain.

I have worked for wages on both sides of the Atlantic and the experience is broadly comparable. Yet no British worker - nor most British employers - would accept such little vacation entitlement.

Holidays as part of compensation are one of the small, subtle things that keep a workplace happy. Happy workers are productive workers in ways that can't be measured statistically.

Whenever citing Americans' acceptance of the longer hours they work or their lack of paid leave, the cliche is to say it goes back to the country's Puritan heritage or the Protestant work ethic.

I disagree. I think it comes from raw fear.

Most Americans are not descended from Puritan stock. The people I have worked with in a variety of jobs - I wasn't always a journalist - would have liked nothing more than a guarantee of 20 days of paid holiday a year.

But since the heyday of Thatcher and Reagan, they have been increasingly afraid to ask for it directly and way too afraid to come together and demand it as a group.

It is easy enough to get fired in the US, and when people have a job they tend not to want to make waves.

Social benefit

It's a shame really. In a country where economic insecurity is resulting in a disturbingly aggressive public debate - disturbing, at least, to one American expat - it would probably be a good thing for employers to start paying their workers to take extra chill time.

The benefit to society would be immediate because the thing is, guaranteed paid vacations don't take a lot of getting used to.

For all their pride in working longer hours with no vacation than anyone else, I think Americans could adjust very quickly to having paid down time.

Take the case of a colleague who worked for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. The Trib is owned by The New York Times and like most of its minuscule staff, he was on assignment from New York.

We met for lunch while I was in Paris researching a book a couple of years ago, and as we ate he told me he was taking the following week off. It was March, not vacation season, and I asked him why he was taking it then.

He told me he worked under French employment rules and was legally obliged to take his vacation allocation. He said he couldn't use it all up in the summer, as there were too many weeks he had to take.

So he was grabbing some time out of season in England, in Cambridge. American readers won't know what the weather in that ancient university town is like in late winter, but he was not going to have to pack shorts.

Still he cackled with glee as he bragged on this situation. He seemed so relaxed and happy I let him pick up the tab for lunch.

Anyway, things aren't likely to be getting better in the US.

The CEPR statistics I mentioned above date back a few years. In the current economic climate, where people are losing their jobs in droves, if they are lucky enough to find new employment they will go to the bottom of the seniority list and have to accrue vacation days from the beginning.

My guess is that the next such analysis will show Americans having less paid holiday than ever.

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and broadcaster who has lived in London since 1985. Formerly with National Public Radio, he is now the London correspondent of

Below is a selection of your comments

As an American living in Britain for the past 3 years, I still find it strange that I get so much pain annual leave. I still have 12 days to take by December! Before moving to the UK I was a flight attendant for a large, well known US airline. My first year on the job I received 6 DAYS paid vacation. And sadly, I was over the moon about it. It was the first time in my adult life that I ever had paid vacation. I was 26. I don't know if I can ever go back now.

Shasta, Aberdeen, UK

This (and minimum wage levels) are where the 'free market' fall down. If EVERY employer offers joke salary and holiday terms then the employee cannot simply take their labour elsewhere. Its why minimum wage and holiday terms must be govt. enforced. Fear of being sacked if you request better terms of employment should be something from the 1920's not the 2020s.

Peter, Notts, UK

An interesting read. I can relate to your position having recently come to France where my paid annual leave is 44 days, up from the 25 I was entitled to in England. 44 feels excessive and I am like you in that I work some of those days anyway, but 9 days holiday after 12 months of employment looks like slave labour from a British perspective. I have to say it does put me off working in the US in future, there is much more to life than work.

Morgan Jones, Toulouse, France

A lot of Americans have much LESS than 10 days of vacation now. Many companies are rolling sick leave into vacation time as "personal days", then cutting the number of those. In addition, some people get no paid time off at all! Imagine trying to plan anything longer than a 3 day weekend when you know you're essentially taking a pay cut!

Rusty, Detroit, MI

As an American expat in Berlin, I can only agree - Germans get upwards of 30 days of paid vacation per year. In fact, as a student research assistant, I was given 36 days - and this at a part-time job (19.5 hours/week). Talking with friends back in California, they do not want to even hear about how much time I get.

Andrew Gamez, Berlin

I discussed this very subject recently with an American friend - a banker from New York. I was shocked to learn that it was rare for him and his co-workers to actually take their full entitlement of 9 days per annum away from work. In answer to my obvious question, he replied "I guess you're kinda busy..." (I couldn't help thinking to myself that if he carried on that way he'd probably soon be "kinda dead..."). Well done Michael Goldfarb for exploding the myths of loyalty and ambition as the driving forces. I have more than a suspicion however that fear of taking leave is burgeoning in the UK too. This will be as much to the detriment of employers as it is to their staff.

Ian, Bristol, UK

Though I'm not American, the situation just slightly north remains much the same. This past year, I worked nearly a full year, and after my very few sick days were pushed into vacation time as these "personal days" I was left with a single paid vacation day. Its simply easier for the company to work its employees into madness than it is to allow them an extra 10-15 days off a year to regain sanity. Capitalist America through and through.

Stew, Canada

I have worked for a multi-national and met many americans working in the UK. One point missed in this article is the fact that in nearly every instance Americans get more for a given role than they do in the UK. On average about 20%. Most people don't or won't divulge this when discussing it with their British colleagues.

Dave, Aberdeen, UK

Too much leave does have its downside. On the days when a typical French senior or middle manager is not on holiday, he or she is likely to still be in the office answering the phone at 7.00pm. It is how the country keeps its productivity high. Some people thrive on the all work then all play lifestyle, others wilt.

Brian, Bordeaux, France

The annual salary in my profession (Microelectronics) is 3 times more in the US compared with the UK and I thinks this applies to other professions. I would prefer to have fewer holidays but a US salary. Lower taxation and cost of living are other attractive factors for the US.

Mohsen, Swindon, UK

My American employer just abolished all vacation time for VP and above - Yikes you may say, but it actually worked out quite well - myself, peers and superiors were really working all the time anyway, checking our email, responding to crisis etc, even when we are on vacation. Now we work on an honor system where we take time when we need it, with approval of our manager etc - this means lazy afternoons when things are quiet, the occasional day, and, when on "family vacation", we keep up with our work as usual. The cost savings to the company were in the order of millions, and to be honest, no one is working any less or more than before. In today's age, its impossible for "information workers" to take traditional vacation - no one does our work when we don't so if you go "dark", the work just builds up waiting for you when you come back anyway..

Simon Hunt, Naples, US

This is a vicious cycle - workers take less vacation because otherwise work would pile up, because they are assigned more work to do, because the managers assume they would be working more time anyway... 50 years ago people used to work less, and were also paid much less (in terms of constant buying power); but then 50 years ago an average family could live well on the income of one breadwinner.

Amos Shapir, Kiryat Ono, Israel

Working in the Netherlands I have 32 days paid vacation each year, but two years ago when I was working in France, my annual paid leave was 52 days, some coming from the fact that I worked a 38 hour week rather than the legal 35 hours so was compensated with an extra day per month. Of course, as noted already, no-one in France in middee- or senior positions only work an 8 hour day.

Keith, Amsterdam

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