How the United States Became the No-Vacation Nation
When we think of workaholics it’s usually the Japanese that first come to mind. We conjure up images of short men and women in black suits scurrying from one mundane office building to another, 12+ hour workdays, and late night beer and karaoke to drown it all away.
However, despite the stereotype of all work and no play, Japanese law guarantees all employees 10 paid days off each year.
Americans, on the other hand, are guaranteed a big fat 0.
And in fact, data from the OECD, a group of mostly rich countries, show that the Japanese actually fewer hours per year, on average, than Americans.
So how is it that employees in America, a country famous for freedom and innovation, do not have a right to paid time off and work longer hours overall than employees in Japan, a nation famous for its rigid work ethic?
Well, as always, let’s start by cracking open that history textbook… (I know, not riveting, but bear with me here)
Before the industrial revolution, most of America's population worked in agriculture, laboring in the fields from sunrise to sunset. If you were lucky you would have one day off a week for religious purposes; otherwise, it was seven days a week.
During the industrial age cities began to grow rapidly and America's first factories appeared. Despite the innovations in technology though, both adults and children would often spend 14-16 hours in the factories working in extremely dangerous conditions.
In the late 1800s working conditions started to improve and factory employees started to push for less working hours, with some success. This continued into the early 1900s among various companies, most noticeably at Ford, when Henry Ford introduced the 40-hour workweek to all of his employees (though some argue it was so his employees would have more time to spend their money on cars…).
In 1938 the US government passed the Fair Labor and Standards Act, which put limits on the number of working hours, introduced a minimum wage, and required overtime pay for the first time in US history. However, the notion of paid vacation was, as it is still today, kept to the discretion of the individual companies.
The 50s and 60s were a period of unprecedented economic expansion in the US and Americans started to take more time off to recharge and be with their "babyboomer" families. Even as the economy started to take a turn in the 1970s, American employees, on average, were taking 20 days of time off a year.
My parents have plenty of stories from this era. Each summer their families would load everyone up into the car and drive around the country for a two-week family vacation to places like Florida, or Yellowstone, or along the famous Route 66.
By the mid 90s the tech boom was in full swing and the number of days that Americans took off each year began to dwindle, as they were encouraged to give 110% to the job. Around this time is when it seems the two-week summer vacation, a standard for decades, turned into a one-weeker.
Now fast-forward to 2016 and the one-weeker has morphed into a long weekend, if you are lucky. Many of my friends, in fact, would never take a two-week summer vacation. It would be considered too extravagant by their employers.
This anecdotal evidence is corroborated by data from Oxford Economics which shows that Americans today take, on average, one week less of vacation than they did from the period 1976-2000. In addition, the US Travel Association has found that 41% of Americans did not take a single day off in 2015.
Other countries, however, particularly the EU, and even Japan, continued to reform their labor laws throughout the 20th century and mandate that all workers were guaranteed at least a minimum number of vacation days. And after the Japanese government picked up on the negative consequences of overwork (common in the 80s and 90s in Japan) they have started introducing reforms to require employees to take time off, whether they want to or not. The US, on the other hand, does not have similar safeguards in place.
So despite 150 years of labor rights activism, statistics show that the US is sliding backwards into longer days and more time away from friends and family, especially in white collar jobs.
So next time someone cracks a joke about those Tokyo robots toiling away at their computers until they die, let’s just remember it’s not them that work more, it’s us >_<