Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Making Jack a Dull Boy

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 5, 2000 --  

Acouple of years ago, I did something that is virtually unheard of in the American workplace: I decided to take a four-week vacation. In America's work-obsessed culture, such subversive ideas cannot be considered lightly. I revealed my secret only my close friends and family, and began covertly sending my resume to numerous companies, predicting that my existing employer would punish my leisure plans with immediate termination.

Lucky for me, my company was so desperate for skilled employees that they agreed to look the other way. I gave up three weeks pay to compensate for my lack of accrued vacation, and spent an enjoyable month abroad, where I met countless Europeans on vacation for six weeks, eight weeks, or more. As proud as I was of my four-weeks of leave, the other tourists universally reacted with patronizing antipathy. Americans, they said, never take off enough time.

Indeed, people in the United States spend too much time working. When Labor Day comes around, Americans are so starved for a free day that little time remains to think about their dysfunctional culture of work. Bucking trends, as usual, I decided to spend my Labor Day doing exactly that.

Why do Americans work so much compared to their European contemporaries? Part of the reason Europeans work less has to do with their governments' bad labor policies. Since the end of the Second World War, European governments have imposed extensive regulations on employers and created large-scale welfare systems that make hiring and retaining employees much more expensive than in the United States. Companies respond to this by hiring fewer employees, and joblessness in Europe has traditionally been much higher than in America. Nearly one in ten Frenchmen were out of work in July, for example, compared with only about four percent of Americans.1

Having caused a huge unemployment problem through regulation, European governments try and solve it through -- you guessed it -- more regulation. By mandating shorter workweeks and longer periods of vacation, many bureaucrats believe a finite number of jobs can be spread out among a large number of people. Of course, this doesn't really work, as the persistently high European unemployment rates prove, but the policy has the effect of granting ever-longer vacations to European citizens.

Since the U.S. government is somewhat less interventionist, the establishment of working hours and vacation time has been left largely to the free market. The last time the government intervened was sixty years ago, when the work week was set at 40 hours by the Depression-era Fair Labor Standards Act.2 The actual average number of hours worked by employed Americans has declined slightly since then, from 40.3 in 1947 to about 35 in 1985 -- a level at which it has remained.3 Since the mid-1980s, working hours have stayed the same, despite strong gains in worker productivity. Output per worker was about 26 percent higher last year than in 1985.4

So why do Americans work so much? Estimating purely on these productivity numbers, Americans could go on extra vacations for a over 11 weeks each year and still produce the same amount of wealth as they did during the mid-80s economic boom. While this may oversimplify things a bit, the point remains that Americans work far more than is necessary to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle.

Part of the reason for this has to do with American culture's strong Puritan ethic. Since many people feel a moral compulsion to work long hours for their employer, others are forced to comply due to competitive pressures as well as standardized rules of conduct. Also, American culture is intensely oriented toward consumption. Workers often believe that it is important to work overtime to afford a second sport utility vehicle to keep up with the Joneses next door.

A final factor, specific to vacation, has to do with changes in employee turnover. Americans working in larger companies start with an average of 9.6 vacation days per year, a number that increases with seniority to 20.3 days after 20 years of service to the same employer.5 This seniority-based system of awarding vacation days has existed for decades, despite revolutionary changes in the amount of time spent at each job. Thirty years ago, recent graduates chose a company for lifetime employment. Today, corporate recruiters look at high-tech workers with suspicion if they stay at the same company more than five years. This increased turnover results in American workers actually getting less vacation days than in years past.

Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is nowhere on the horizon. Americans who tire of this dysfunctional system are far more likely to save money and retire early than they are to actually do anything about it. Employers, meanwhile, are happy with the status quo -- it is far more efficient and less expensive to hire one employee and give him no vacation than to hire two employees who will only be around half the time. Short of a sudden and radical shift in American attitudes, the four-week vacation will remain an outrageous proposition for a long time to come.


  1. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Standardized Unemployment Rates, July 2000
  2. U.S. Department of Labor, Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (As Amended), September 2000
  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Average weekly hours of production or non-supervisory workers on private non-farm payrolls, 1947-1999," September 2000
  4. Ibid, "Non-farm Business Output Per Person, 1947-1999," September 2000
  5. Ibid, "Employment Benefits in Medium and Large Private Establishments, 1997," Released January 1999