The American Vacation Deficit
As summer rolls around, there’s been a spike in interest in the American vacation deficit.
David Moberg, writing in the excellent progressive bi-weekly In These Times, surveys the field in “What Vacation Days?” Since we’re interested in policy, here’s the punch line,
Why do workers in other rich countries have more paid time off? Mainly because laws demand employers provide it. The European Union requires its members to set a minimum standard of four weeks paid vacation (covering part-time workers as well). Finland and France require six weeks paid vacation, plus additional paid holidays. Most countries require workers to take the time off and employers to give them vacation at convenient times. Some governments even require employers to pay bonuses so workers can afford to do more than sit at home on vacation. On top of that, unions in Europe and other rich industrialized countries—whose contracts cover up to 90 percent of the workforce—typically negotiate additional time off. Meanwhile, the standard workweek is slightly shorter in many European countries, and workers retire earlier with better public pensions.
For the heavy quantitative lifting, Moberg cites a survey of comparative vacation legislation, “No-Vacation Nation” recently published by CEPR (May 2007). The summary is here and the full report is here.
This report reviewed international vacation and holiday laws and found that the United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation or holidays. As a result, 1 in 4 U.S. workers do not receive any paid vacation or paid holidays. The lack of paid vacation and paid holidays in the U.S. is particularly acute for lower-wage and part-time workers, and for employees of small businesses.
This report also includes a comparative appendix with information on paid leave and holiday laws in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
And do vacations matter? Here is some preliminary evidence from social and health sciences.
- In one of the few U.S.-based health studies of vacations, taking a vacation every year compared to never during the five-year study period was associated with a 17-percent reduction in the probability of mortality and a 30-percent reduction in the probability of heart-attack mortality over the following nine years (“Are Vacations Good for Your Health? The 9-Year Mortality Experience After the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial” BROOKS B. GUMP and KAREN A. MATTHEWS, PHD)
- A table about German household vacation-taking (Table 14 in a longer paper on work and leisure in the U.S. and Europe by Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote) shows that more vacation is associated with more happiness without controlling for income. Everybody–at least everybody in neoclassical economics–knows that working less at the same income will make people happier. But this finding means that more vacation makes people happier even with the presumably lower income that results from vacation-taking.
- Table 15 in the same paper shows in a cross-country comparison that fewer work hours are associated with greater life satisfaction.
Both studies offer many caveats about interpreting the findings, but this is what’s out there. It’s a great area for more research.
The two findings together, that more vacation is good for us and that more vacation is possible, point the way forward.