I just spent five hours on a Saturday finishing up a ghostwriting project, after working a good 50 hours already this week. But I didn’t do this so I could squeak out the car payment on a new BMW or add a home theater to my sprawling McMansion. I did it so I could get some extra money while the getting is good, enabling me to take off for a few weeks of vacation time with my family whenever I feel like it. In that sense, I’m an odd man out in my country.
As most anyone has probably heard, Americans work a lot. A whole lot. According to an article in the excellent (and incredibly balanced) magazine The Week, Americans on average take just 10 days vacation per year. This compares to an average vacation time of five weeks in Britain or six weeks in Italy or Germany. Then there’s France, where work is something you try to fit in between vacation days and weekends.
I always take these stats with a huge grain of salt, because for the US they usually don’t count all the public holidays, the long breaks teachers get, or the extra long breaks all those laid off workers get—whether they like it or not. Plus some other countries like Korea and Japan have it just as bad. Nevertheless, it is indeed rare to meet an American who has gone on vacation for more than two weeks straight and you certainly don’t see them traipsing around Southeast Asia or South America on their six week holiday like the Dutch. The average American’s stay in Cancun is a mere 5.1 days.
You’re going on vacation for how long?
When my now-wife and I set off on our first round-the-world trip, most people we knew couldn’t fathom such a thought. They certainly didn’t believe you could travel around the world without being filthy rich, so the first question was how we could afford it. (Of course if I asked any of them to add up what they spent each month on just their car and apartment, it was always far more than we were spending on our trip.) The often unspoken question was, how we could just take off from work like that? How could we quit our jobs and just bum around for a year?
Then this “once in a lifetime opportunity” (in our friends’ and employers’ eyes) led to a second year-long trip, then a third. After a while, people just gave up on us and considered us freaks on the fringe of society. But along the way, we taught English for a year in Korea and saved quite a bit of cash. We returned home after trip number three with more money in the bank than most of our friends had. And they had been working their tail off non-stop that whole time.
I got a job, found myself back in a cubicle, and it was like I had never left. Good luck explaining that value proposition to people though. The career treadmill must be kept turning and stepping off will lead to calamity!
What’s the payoff?
So the big question is, what do we get out of all this work? A couple of things. First, high productivity. That’s better for employers (and shareholders) than workers it seems: each eBay employee contributes $9.4 million to their company’s worth. At Amgen and Microsoft it is over $5 million per employee. Something tells me only a few people at the top are seeing that kind of money come back to them. But high productivity is one reason the majority of great global companies and brands are in the US, so there’s probably some good that comes out of that for us in terms of opportunities. If you get a good education and are good at managing your career, you can do almost anything you want in America.
Apparently, we also get pretty rich from all this work. A study called, “The EU vs. USA,” conducted by a pair of Swedish economists, found that even in the poorest US states, residents enjoyed a GDP per capita that rivaled most of Europe. Only tiny Luxembourg enjoyed a wealth on par with that in the richest US states. Falling below the US average were Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy—the latter two about even with Arkansas and Montana. The report noted that if US growth had stopped in the year 2000 and the European continent had kept going, it would still take years more to catch up—as in another 10 or 15 years in most countries.
Apparently that’s why we are able to buy so much crap. A Wall Street Journal article about the European study said, “Higher GDP per capita allows the average American to spend about $9,700 more on consumption each year than the average European. Most Americans have a standard of living which the majority of Europeans will never come anywhere near.” It noted that if Sweden used the same poverty line figure as the US, 40 percent of its citizens would not make the cut.
Living to work, or working to live?
But are we better off because we have bigger houses, newer cars, and more shoes? Ahhh, there’s the rub. I suspect that most of my fellow countrymen and women buy more stuff because they can, not because they need it. One of the most interesting things I noticed on my first trip around the globe was that I really didn’t think about money very much and I wasn’t all that bothered that all my possessions were on my back. (Well, the ones not in storage at home anyway.) Of course we did a little souvenir shopping now and then and replenished our wardrobe when we felt like it, but I certainly didn’t miss the mall or the used car lot. I was blissfully unaware of what fashionable people were wearing that year, or what hot new kitchen gadget was the must-have of the season.
I also distinctly remember a conversation I had with a local guy who was hanging around our guest house doing nothing on the island of Lombok, Indonesia. Eventually we started talking about jobs and he said he only worked about six months a year as a farm laborer, when it was some particular picking season. “Could you do something else for work those other six months if you wanted to?” I asked. “Yes, I think so” he said with a sly smile, “but then I wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy life.”
Most of the people I know here would think that young Indonesian man was a certified candidate for the insane asylum. But something tells me he won’t ever need a spa treatment to relieve his stress, or drugs to lower his blood pressure, or appointments with a therapist to work out his anxieties.
There are a lot of historical reasons Americans work so much: our puritanical background, “the land of opportunity” mindset, and just plain peer pressure. Now the ability to make a phone call and check e-mail from anywhere has made it even worse.
But it just might be killing us. A study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that men who went on annual vacations were 32 percent less likely to die of heart disease. Maybe if we took that average $9,700 we spend on extra crap and bought some time with it instead, we could all finally get some decent vacation time.
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