Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2003 / 7 Elul, 5763
All work and no play
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | If you think it's just foreign policy that separates America from Europe, reflect for a moment on your summer. More than likely, you were at work for most of the past three months while most of Europe seems to have hung up a "Gone Fishing!" sign. The numbers support the perception. If you include vacations and public holidays, Europeans take off about six to seven weeks a year. Americans average about 10.2 days of vacation each year plus public holidays.
Do the Europeans, mirabile dictu, have it right? Not exactly. In Europe, leisure is a matter for law. The European Union has just mandated a minimum of four weeks vacation for all member countries. In the United States, there is no law like that. Would you like Washington to lay down the law on vacations?
It is hardly thinkable. It seems to me that our freely expressed choices have defined a pattern very different from that of Europe, one not amenable to generalized rules. Europeans tend to take longer vacations, but over 60 percent of Americans prefer shorter trips.
The average American spends only 4.3 nights of vacation away from home, down from six nights about 25 years ago. Microvacations are all the rage, ranging from a few hours at a spa to a weekend jaunt. Weekend trips compose more than half our leisure travel. Of course, there are practical reasons for the difference. More continental Europeans than Americans live in cramped flats, so they want to get out, while more Americans tend to own their own homes with backyards and are less inclined to leave. Second, we have a much higher proportion of families where both spouses work, so it's not easy to organize private time for a long family vacation beyond much more than a week or two, especially when you factor in schools, summer camps, and the like. And third, Americans tend to work longer hours because, by and large, they enjoy it while many Europeans do not. Roughly 85 percent of Americans are "broadly satisfied with their jobs," a much higher proportion than in Europe.
So it's no wonder Europeans want all the time off they can get; and European labor unions push for more time off while American unions push for more money. We value more money and more stuff; they value more leisure time.
We have become the developed world's leaders in nonstop work. It is not called the "American work ethic" for nothing. We not only work about 50 weeks a year; the average American works nearly 2,000 hours a year. Remember those hard-working Germans? They put in about 1,500 hours a year--a difference of almost three months of 40-hour workweeks. About 40 percent of Americans put in 50-hour workweeks. We even work about three weeks more a year than the Japanese.
Why do we put up with more limited vacation time than any other wealthy nation? Because we define ourselves more by our work. "Workaholic" in America is often a compliment. A "working vacation" is not an oxymoron. It is not an accident that Americans will sing a song like "I've been working on the railroad" while the French will sing, "We have joy, we have fun, we have seasons in the sun."
It all comes down to what people feel is important and how they feel about their lives. Europe has a top-down class structure where people, by and large, are expected to know their place and most believe, even now, that there simply won't be much in the way of upward mobility. Inheritance and class in Europe remain more relevant than achievement and education. The first question most people in America will ask a stranger is, "What do you do?" In much of Europe, this is considered inappropriate. We are proud of being busy--it is a virtue; being idle is perceived as a vice.
Overhauling overtime. What American law tends to set is pay, and here we are now confronted with a test of our sense of equity. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the workweek at a maximum of 40 hours a week for regular pay and established a two-tiered pay system in America, separating hourly from salaried workers. Hourly workers receive time-and-a-half when they put in more than 40 hours. Salaried workers such as executive, administrative, professional, and technical people can face limitless workweeks without overtime. Even certain lowly paid salaried workers are excluded from overtime if they earn more than $8,000 a year.
The Labor Department is now proposing to change the criteria for overtime so that the cutoff point for overtime for these workers is raised from $8,000 to $22,100 a year. This will add 1.3 million to the ranks eligible for overtime, while the new rules would exclude an estimated 640,000 white-collar workers from receiving overtime pay.
I would think that reflected a fair sense of priorities. But what do work-happy
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