"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 5, 2014

Why Don’t Americans Take Vacations?

According to a new study by the US Travel Association, four in ten Americans do not use all their vacation time – quite amazing since the US is notoriously stingy when it comes to paid leave. 

The usual explanations are familiar.   We are a nation of workaholics, social and corporate climbers.  We live in a culture which overvalues work, looks at leisure as sybaritic and self-indulgent, and defines people more for what they do than what they are.

A friend of mine recounted his recent experience at a Georgetown cocktail party.  He was unemployed at the time and hoping to parlay his long experience in a lucrative but unimaginative field into something more satisfying and demanding.  He wasn’t sure in which industry he would land, but was confident that he would find himself and a new job.

The women of Georgetown are known for their finely-tuned sense of success, promise, and failure; and whenever my friend tried to answer the inevitable question, “So what do you do?”, he saw beautiful lavender, blue, and lustrous brown eyes turn deftly away.  Anyone at his age who was still grappling for meaning was not worth their time.  Not in a room filled with hot young comers, top Congressional aides, by-line journalists, IT entrepreneurs, and real estate developers.  Not anywhere.

Washington has always been known as a workaholic town; but it is hard to imagine it any more so than New York or Los Angeles.  The tales of Wall Street ingénues who lose their virginity to the corporate markets are legion. No one works less than an eighty-hour week.  Weekends are for the slackers, ne’er-do-wells, and trust fund babies.  Making partner at Burling, Rappel, & Duckworth requires years in the galley of the trireme, pulling the oars, and rowing the corporate ship to profitability.

I have a young friend who, after Harvard Law School and three years at Plunkett, Whapley, & Cobb actually took a job with the Justice Department because he was seeing spiders on the wall of his bedroom. Nobody in their right mind quits Plunkett, Whapley; and only the most delusional work for the United States Government.  I asked him why he made such a move.  Wasn’t the Government a sinkhole of inefficiency, and political sinecures?

“Yes”, he replied, “but I can sail on weekends”.  Shortly after switching jobs, he got his boat out of mothballs, and sailed from St. Michaels to the tip of the Eastern Shore every Sunday.  His government job required more and harder work than he expected, but he had no trouble completing it in five working days.  Out of professional courtesy he returned the occasional intrusive call from his supervisor when he was in irons on a windless stretch of the Bay; but the Government – God bless it – was still a routine civil service operation no matter how high the GS ranking of its employees.

“My blood pressure is down, I drink less, and I screw more”, he said, happy as a clam with his new life.

I worked for the World Bank when it was still a very European institution.  To be an International Civil Servant meant First Class air travel, all expenses paid stopovers in London or Paris on the way to the developing world, five-star hotels, and best of all – five-week vacations.

There has always been something sacrosanct about the European summer holidays, especially in France where labor unions have fought successfully to preserve the liberal leave policy set by government. During my tenure at the Bank, the French sortie on the first of August was an anointed ritual.  French workers left Paris for Nice, St. Tropez, the Pyrenees, or the beaches of Spain en masse. On August 31st the Angelus was sounded, and la rentrée began.  Back to the factory floor at Michelin, the guichets at the Crédit Agricole, hundreds of hair salons, patisseries, boulangeries, and épiceries. France went back to work rested, restored, rejuvenated, and in good spirits.

During my five years at the Bank, I and my family took five-week vacations in Tuscany.  We rented a farmhouse near the Val de Chiana, ate civilized lunches overlooking the sunflowers and vineyards of the Chianti region, swam in Lake Trasimeno, ate gelato in the small towns on the road to Siena after dinner, and had coffee and biscotti under the cherry tree behind the house.  We never gave a second thought to work or the Bank.  It emptied out just like Paris, and there were no comers to worry about, no subterfuges or plots to anticipate. Just five weeks of uninterrupted relaxation, sun, and Italian dolce vita.

In the few corporate jobs I had after leaving the Bank, I was always in arrears.  I used far more vacation time than I was allotted, and had to pay up when I resigned; but the extra vacation time was worth it.  I took winter vacations in Jacmel or St. Bart’s, continued the family tradition of long summer holidays in Italy, and managed a ski trip to Aspen over one of the winter holidays.

To be honest, I was never on a professional fast track. I had more of a dalliance with International Development than a career, and my American corporate supervisors most certainly looked critically at my leave-heavy timesheets; but the extra days tacked on to trips to Senegal, Haiti, or Ukraine were worth the side glances and black marks.  I spent languorous days on the black-sand tropical beaches on the Costa del Sol in El Salvador; ate grilled capitaine and lobster at French restaurants on the Corniche in Dakar; swam in the coral reefs of southern Sri Lanka; and shvitzed at the old Soviet-era spas in the Carpathians.

So, what happened? Who corralled us, tamed us, saddled us, and rode us hard onto the prairies to round up cattle? Are we responsible for being willingly harnessed in traces and pulled wherever corporate asks?

A former colleague of mine who had an executive position at a well-known firm in Washington died recently.  I went to her retirement party, a rather lackluster affair given her many years of service, and I was a bit disappointed by the farewells and eulogies which were perfunctory and lamely predictable – “She was a whiz at proposal-writing…No one could redo a budget like Lisa…USAID loved her…” No one mentioned her wit, humor, sexual allure, and pervasive charm.  She was remembered as no more than a mail clerk. I left the service early.

Another friend retired a number of years ago after a long career in the same field, International Development.  He had been an ideal corporate employee.  He worked sixty-hour weeks and on weekends.  He never took vacations and was always on call.  Family, love, and personal pursuits took a seat in the back of the bus. He debated his future and how he would spend his time.  His wife looked forward to spending more time with him in places more exotic than Arlington, Virginia; and his children living in Napa and Newburyport eagerly invited them to spend time with them.

Yet Brad could not resist the pull of profession, skill, and routine; and accepted the offer of his firm to be Technical Advisor Emeritus, have a corner office on the tenth floor, and to have no other responsibilities other than to write white papers on economic issues related to agricultural development in West Africa. He wrote paper after paper to little feedback; but undiscouraged and undaunted he kept writing until one day the janitor found him slumped over the keyboard of his computer dead as a doornail.

It is hard to believe that legions of young Americans are still subscribing to this work-is-everything ethos. After all, the Puritan ethic of our Mayflower ancestors surely has faded some over 250 years.

The minions of a firm I worked for before retirement constantly complained of a poor work-life balance.  In fact, they said, there was no balance whatsoever, and they were working long hours in slave conditions for burger-flipper wages.  Where was there time for self-improvement?  These modest demands of course were ignored by management which said, ‘Love it or leave it”.  There are hundreds of eager, idealistic young graduates ready to take your place.

There was no national strike as there would have been in France.  No demands for more vacation time, a shorter work week, or more congenial working conditions.  These American young professionals accepted the low bar and demanded only that it be raised by a few inches.  In essence they said that they were happy laboring in the vineyard because it would give them the experience and technical expertise to manage vineyards. Considerations of a better, happier, and easier life never even crossed their minds.

Close friends have suggested that I was lucky.  I have been inoculated against Type A stress thanks to my southern Italian genes.  No self-respecting Italian American could possibly work 80-hour weeks.  They were off-base, of course.  Look at John Gotti, for example, goomba par excellence who worked like a dog to become the capo di capi, the undisputed head of the New York Mafia families; or the legendary Lee Iacocca who busted his chops in overtime rebuilding Ford to an automotive power.  Or Mario Cuomo, or Francis Ford Coppola.  No, we were all infected by the same American disease.  I had somehow built up an immunity that they never acquired.  OK, I don’t have a fortune to lie back on; but I certainly have had as good, productive, and enjoyable life as any paisan.

My advice to my younger colleagues to use up all their vacation time falls largely on deaf ears.  That is so EU, they say. A relic of European socialism, southern Italian nonchalance and bella figura. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky worked hard, they remind me, referring to my current obsession with Russian writers. They did not take vacations. La cultura de la hamaca so prevalent in the mañana culture is SO passé.

Whether inspired by conservative virtues of individual enterprise or progressive values of giving back to the community, one’s commitment requires full time with no vacations.

I have no idea whether the current work-your-ass-off mentality will persist.  Or whether virtual reality will finally free us from our 19th century traces and propel us into an open-shop world of ideas and sybaritic pleasure.  But I am sure that I will continue to take vacations – long ones in fact – not so much for restoration but for pure, unadulterated, Mediterranean-style pleasure.

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