David Cogswell | March 10, 2015 2:30 PM ET
The American Work Ethic: Enough Already
Of course I believe in a strong work ethic. I grew up in America and that’s the way Americans think. But there is a limit to how constructive work is when it is not balanced by some time for leisure; for dreaming and thinking creatively.
This is an especially important issue from the standpoint of tourism. It is well known that Americans have less vacation time than people in other developed countries. And it’s a real problem for the tourism industry. It’s hard to get Americans to go anywhere for any length of time at all.
Even major bucket-list experiences like safaris in Africa have to be offered in little one-week packets for the American markets.
Most industrialized countries, (you know, modern countries with cars and roads and factories and so forth) have legal minimums of vacation time that each employee must be given by each employer.
Glancing at a list of statutory minimum employment leave by country gives a rough sketch of the problem. (I know this is Wikipedia, but there are plenty of sources that back it up, generally speaking).
In Germany, for example, the legal minimum of paid vacation time is 20 days. Broken into five-day weeks, that’s four weeks. In the U.K. the minimum is 28 days; more than five weeks. In France it’s 25 days. In Russia it’s 28. In Australia it’s 20. In New Zealand it’s 20. Et cetera.
This is one area in which the U.S. just can’t be beat. The number of legally mandated paid vacation days for employees in the U.S. ? Zero. Can’t beat zero.
That puts us in company with great free market paradises like Liberia, Sri Lanka and Tonga.
Even Somalia has 13 days, and it’s known as a “failed state.” Of course I doubt that the law holds any weight in Somalia, but still, we are aiming awfully low here.
Even if there are discrepancies in the Wikipedia list, you get the idea. The United States, the world’s richest country, the most advanced in some ways, is, according to USA Today, “the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday.”
Whew! That’s a tough pill to swallow. American exceptionalism? Well, OK, but is this the kind of exception we want to be?
What is wrong with a little vacation time? Don’t employers realize that their employees will be more productive, more creative and have higher morale when they have some vacation time?
There is plenty of scientific information linking stress to health problems. People under stress have lower resistance to cancer.
According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
According to the data, more than 75 percent of doctor’s office visits are stress related. Chronic stress affects the brain, suppresses thyroid function, causes imbalances in blood sugar, decreases bone density, reduces muscle tissue, raises blood pressure, compromises immune system function and hampers the ability to heal. The list could be endless.
On the other hand, laughter strengthens the immune system.
There are innumerable studies with varying results, but the underlying facts are consistent.
Americans need more vacation time. They need to reduce stress. Maybe enjoy life a bit.
For those in the travel industry — hoteliers, leisure destinations and attractions, tour operators, travel agents, etc. — a little more vacation time for Americans would be a great boost for business. It might reduce their stress levels a bit, too.
I don’t know who it was that dropped the pearl of wisdom: “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’” These truths are self-evident, and yet ignored.
Back in 1932, Bertrand Russell, a utilitarian philosopher, wrote an essay called “In Praise of Idleness.”
Russell claims he was brought up believing in the virtue of work, but in his mature years, he said, “my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.”
It was one thing to promote the virtue of work in an agricultural society, said Russell. In an industrial society, you could make a case for the proposition that most of the work that is done is actually harmful to humanity.
In the pre-industrial world, Russell argues, it was impossible for a man, no matter how hard he worked, to produce much more than that required to feed his family. Whatever surpluses there were beyond necessities were appropriated by warriors and priests.
Modern technology, according to Russell, “has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community.”
Possible, yes, but not an actualized truth.
“The morality of work is the morality of slaves,” said Russell, “and the modern world has no need of slavery.”
Writing in 1933, Russell said that the Great War had proved that modern technology “has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone.”
"During the war,” said Russell, “all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since.”
Buckminster Fuller argued that if every citizen were given a stipend to just do whatever they wanted, one in 30,000 would be a Jobs, or a Tesla, or a Turing, who would come up with an idea so revolutionary that it would pay for the other 29,999 who perhaps didn’t come up with anything earth-shattering.
Okay, I know that idea will not sell in America for another century or so, though something akin to it functions in some of the more advanced social democracies of Europe and Scandinavia. But still, bottom line: Americans need more leisure time, more vacation time. And they need to broaden their horizons with travel.
Spending eight, 10, 12, 14 hours at work and then vegetating in front of the television. That’s no life at all.
So get that leisure time! Take it. Steal it if you have to! Your life is at stake.
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