No Vacation, or Why Americans Don’t Travel

Italians get one hundred billion paid vacation days per year.

That’s not counting national holidays (which of course include those of the Catholic Church as well) nor the entire month of August, which Italians get off for a month-long “it’s too hot to work” party. At least, this is how American media outlets make it seem. Our media love to compare the easygoing vacation life Europeans seem to have with Americans puritanical work ethic. But is that the entire truth?

beach vacation

Image via Shutterstock Images

It’s reported that Italians get up to 31 guaranteed vacation days per year or at least 4 weeks off, according to European Union law. Actually, there are very few Italians who actually have all that time off, which is largely regulated to the public sector. Though in the past August was a month where the country basically shut down, nowadays most people take off just (just!) the middle two weeks in August, not the entire month.

The fact is, there’s an economic crisis for everyone, Italians included. Those four weeks of guaranteed paid vacation? Yeah that’s only for public workers, and in the crisis is seems that private workers don’t exist anymore. Instead, they’re replaced with project-based contracts or short-term contracts to be renewed every six months to a year. So vacation time? Not if you want your job.

Even so, the Italian worker, project-based contract or not, has more protections and job rights than the average American worker, and some vacation time is typical. Italians might not get one hundred billion paid vacation days per year, but their average vacation time is nevertheless in stark contrast with American’s average vacation time.

“The United States is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday,” according to USA Today.

Still, most Americans do get vacation time. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, American’s get about 10 paid work days a year plus six federal holidays on average. It seems we just don’t use them. A recent study reported in Quartz magazine said that nearly half of Americans didn’t take a single day off in the summer of 2014 and 63 percent of Americans didn’t travel at all for the entire year. I’ve fielded many questions about why Americans don’t speak other languages, why we find travel so intimidating or why we don’t do it at all. My usual response? America is enormous, it’s difficult and costly to travel, and we don’t have the time. Or, we don’t take the time.

Illustration by Nishant Choksi in the New Yorker

Illustration by Nishant Choksi in the New Yorker

In an era where the subject of busyness is raised in articles like this and this and this, it seems we feel too busy to relax. What’s more, we seem to feed on this need to be “busy.” Last year we gave up a total of 169 million paid vacation days. Maybe we gave them up to save money, maybe to save our job or, for many of us, maybe it’s because we just don’t know how to vacation anymore.

Quartz reported that a large factor is fear of finding a pile-up of work when vacationers return. I call bullshit. The income range with the highest percent of American’s who don’t take vacation days off is also, surprise surprise, the lowest income range.

So maybe they can’t afford it, that’s understandable. But if they have the accumulated vacation time, and it’s paid, why not take at least take the days and just kick it around town? Like I said, 63 percent of Americans didn’t travel at all in 2014, but during that time an entire 41 percent didn’t use even one single vacation day.

Not one day off work just to sit on the couch and catch up on T.V. No paid day off to see a child’s recital, clean the house, visit an elderly family member or simply check in with our mental health. I’m not trying to advocate laziness, just a mentality of personal health stronger than the private sector seems to allow. Or even the public sector. Case in point: 6 weeks of paid leave opposed by people who have 33 weeks of paid leave. 

vacay In a recent article, ominously titled “Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)” the author posits that this is all intentional, that corporations have instilled a lifestyle rhythm just hectic enough to get a decent production out of you while keeping you just tired enough to not be able to break the cycle of consumerism. Faster dinner? I’ll take it! Relaxing night in front of the T.V., night after night? Don’t mind if I do! Anything to make our lives a bit easier, since we’re so tired and used up from our 9 to 5. (Which seems to be more like 9 to 6:30 nowadays, at least).

“The perfect customer is dissatisfied but hopeful, uninterested in serious personal development, highly habituated to the television, working full-time, earning a fair amount, indulging during their free time, and somehow just getting by.”

The first things to go from our 9 to 5 life are the “more wholesome activities” like “walking, exercising, reading, meditating, and extra writing.” I’d add vacations to that list as well. The more things we buy, the more we want, the more our lifestyle requires money and the more we have to work. All this work means that Americans are less happy, in any income range.

A recent Gallup poll cited that vacation frequency is a better predictor of well-being than income. Insert here the usual studies about heart health, brain health, blood pressure health and a renewed surge in productivity upon return from a vacation – I don’t think we need to be brain scientists to understand that a pause in our overload of daily tasks helps our bodies recharge mentally and physically.

work stress

(via)

One of the most well-known expressions in Italy is il dolce fare niente, meaning the sweetness of doing nothing. Though perhaps even here the concept is sliding, I’d say the concept is still alive and strong compared to Americans. We’re more productive, yes, but at what cost?

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6 Responses to No Vacation, or Why Americans Don’t Travel

  1. Only 10 paid days per year??!! That is so sad….I thought that it’s been long established that relaxed worker is a better worker and you can’t realy relax without a proper holiday. Very interesting read!

    • Gina says:

      I agree! Of course it actually varies depending on the job, company, level, years working etc etc., but that’s the average. Life is short – vacations are necessary!!!

  2. I agree! Americans don’t travel for many reasons, which is really unfortunate. Heck, most haven’t seen half the country, I know I haven’t. I was at Starbucks working and a German came up to me and said, “Do you have plans tonight?” and I responded, “Yes working.” He responded, “you are so American, you all work so much and barely travel abroad.” I told him the reasons are too long, some very valid and others are just excuses.

    • Gina says:

      That is so funny! And true!! We do work a lot, and I’m proud of that! But I think there’s something fundamentally wrong if that “working a lot” means that we don’t take any breaks at all. We’re humans, not robots!

  3. Pingback: How I Came to Love The Mountains | From Italy, With Love

  4. Pingback: How I Came to Love The Mountains - From Italy, With Love

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