Rupert Cornwell: Little free time in the land of the free

Out of America: US workers get far less time off than their European counterparts. But they don't seem at all bothered about it

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In Britain, it's the Whitsun bank holiday, but in the US this is Memorial Day weekend, when schools and colleges are finished for the year, and what economists here call the "summer driving season" begins.

No matter that petrol prices are close to $4 (£2.40) a gallon – not quite demonstration-in-the-street level, but still a painful $1 higher than a year ago. The American Automobile Association nonetheless projects, with remarkable precision, that the number of people who drive 50 or more miles from home over the four-day period will actually rise by 0.2 per cent, to 34.9 million, compared to 2010. To which one might add, let them enjoy it while they can.

The US, a new survey reminds us, is surely the most holiday-averse industrial country on earth. According to the online travel firm Expedia.com, the average worker received an average of 18 vacation days last year, compared to 37 for their counterparts in France, and the 28 days enjoyed by British workers.

More astonishing still, the toiling American didn't even take full advantage of his meagre ration, using only 14 of the 18 days, while the French and British took up virtually the full quota. Almost two out of three here admitted they had delayed or scrapped some promised vacation time.

Do the sums, and Americans between them forfeited 448 million days of holiday in 2010. On the basis of an average national wage of $39,208, that worked out at $67.5bn-worth of time off not taken. Time is money, the old saying goes. But here in the US, time is also less valuable than money.

Americans, in my experience, moan like people everywhere that they don't get enough holiday. But the deprivation doesn't appear really to upset them. The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and in those league tables of national happiness we see nowadays, Americans do pretty well – usually in the top 10 or so.

In other words, short holidays are an accepted fact of life: indeed, the US is the only country that does not guarantee its workers paid holidays by law. The issue comes up from time to time in Congress, but to no avail. On the last such occasion two years ago, a proposed Paid Vacation Act, requiring employers to give staff a minimum of one week's paid leave annually, never even made it out of committee – and that when the Democrats, supposedly the workers' party, had huge majorities in both the House and Senate. Longer holidays simply aren't a national priority. But why?

The recent recession has obviously been a short-term factor. One reason the 2009 Act died was because lawmakers didn't want to burden companies with extra costs when the economy was so weak. Meanwhile, workers themselves were far less worried about a holiday than the security of the job from which to take that holiday.

Then there's the fluidity of the labour market. People in the US change jobs more frequently than do workers in Europe, but most companies gear holidays to loyalty. You may start with just a handful of paid days off, going up to a fortnight or three, even four weeks, after 10 or 20 years' service. But when you leave or – equally likely these days – if you are "down-sized", then most people are back to square one in the vacation stakes.

History plays a part as well. America has always put the owners of capital first, and the suppliers of labour second. Unions have generally been weak and are especially so now. Few strikes here win much public sympathy, least of all one that demanded European-length paid holidays.

Which leads to the most important reason of all. Deep down, Americans don't really approve of long vacations. Call it the Puritan ethic, or maybe the attitude reflects President Calvin Coolidge's dictum of the 1920s that "the business of America is business". Maybe it's the old adage that "an idle mind is the devil's workshop". During the 1960s, indeed, some seriously argued that technology and automation would soon create a dangerous excess of leisure.

Not that there's much evidence endless hours on the job give American industry a competitive edge. If anything, the opposite is true. The Stakhanovite US has a colossal trade deficit and is up to its eyes in debt – while Germany, an exemplar of long holidays (and where until recently all shops had to close at lunchtime on Saturdays in the interests of the quiet life), has sky-high productivity, massive trade surpluses, and a standard of living akin to that of the US.

Nonetheless, long holidays are viewed here as part of the condition of "Euro-sclerosis" against which commentators, from both left and right, love to rail. The US with its innate work ethic, they maintain, is a modern Sparta, while Europe is a lazy feather-bedded Athens, quietly sinking beneath the waves of history.

Here, those month-long shutdowns when the entire urban populations of France and Italy decamp to sea and sand elicit some envy – but more contempt. The dog days in Milan, Paris and Rome are too much to bear? Well, an American might reply, try Washington DC's trademark "Triple-H" high summer weather: hazy, hot and humid.

The American version of a holiday tends to be a short burst of something different, when you do lots of things, rather than nothing at all. Hence the often mocked "If it's Tuesday, it must be Florence" whirlwind assault on Europe's ancient cities, or a round-the-clock 96-hour plunge into the attractions of Las Vegas.

And according to one survey last year, even when the toiling citizens of this land are taking some well-deserved holiday, three-quarters say they check in from time to time with the office. So this Memorial Day weekend, let them savour a few snatched days of real getaway, in the mountains or by the ocean – even in Vegas.





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