To vacation, or to work

My definition of seasons is closer to the meteorological definition than the calendar definition. But not completely.

I have determined that, in Wisconsin at least, summer runs from the Memorial Day weekend to the Labor Day weekend, fall runs from after Labor Day to the Thanksgiving weekend, winter runs from Thanksgiving to Easter, and spring runs from Easter to Memorial Day weekend. (Which means that we had a really, really, really long winter this year, but you knew that already.)

That means that summer is beginning at the end of this week. School is a couple of weeks away from ending for the school year, depending on how many snow days you’ve had.

That brings thoughts of vacation for kids. And for the news media, that brings stories asking why Americans have so little vacation compared with other countries. CNN.com frowns:

Besides a handful of national holidays, the typical American worker bee gets two or three precious weeks off out of a whole year to relax and see the world — much less than what people in many other countries receive.

And even that amount of vacation often comes with strings attached.

Some U.S. companies don’t like employees taking off more than one week at a time. Others expect them to be on call or check their e-mail even when they’re lounging on the beach or taking a hike in the mountains.

(One wonders what CNN’s vacation policy is for its employees.)

This question has economic impact in Wisconsin. The license plates may say “America’s Dairyland,” but tourism is one of the state’s top three employers, and most of that tourism spending is coming up. (For proof, watch Illinois travelers try to navigate around the U.S. 41 construction in Oshkosh this weekend.)

This kind of story presents enormous opportunities for America-bashing among Americans. Someone named Nomadic Matt, writing about why Americans don’t vacation overseas, managed to bash government, the media and ourselves in just two paragraphs:

Americans are just scared of the world. I mean really scared. Maybe even petrified. In this post-9/11 world, Americans have been taught the world is a big scary place. There are terrorists outside every hotel waiting to kidnap you. People don’t like you because you are American. The world is violent. It’s poor. It’s dirty. It’s savage. Canada and Europe are O.K. but, if you go there, they will still be rude to you because you are American. No one likes us.

Even before 9/11, the media created an environment of fear. If it bleeds, it leads right? Prior to 9/11, the media played up violence at home and abroad. Pictures of riots in the foreign streets, threats against Americans, and general violence were all played up to portray a violent and unsafe world. After, 9/11, it only got worse. Politicians now tell us “they hate you” as former NYC mayor, Rudy Giuliani, did during his campaign. It’s US vs. THEM!!!

Those two paragraphs border on parody, but they’re not without some validity. It is true that Americans are much less multilingual than other countries. (Our French foreign exchange student, who leaves today, speaks at least four languages.) Government’s efforts to protect us from the next 9/11 — the Patriot Act, color-coded terrorism warnings, the fourth-degree sexual assault gang known as the Transportation Security Administration — have not made Americans feel safer,  have they? For whatever reason(s), the adventurous spirit that propelled our ancestors to leave their homes for an uncertain future in the New World has been replaced by a desire for familiarity and security, financial and otherwise. (Of course, the prevalent attitude in Europe seems to be that every American has shot at least one other American in the past 12 months, so fear based on ignorance is not unique to this country.)

Americans are accused of believing the world revolves around this country. That’s because … the world does revolve around this country, like it or don’t. Combine military, economic and political power, and the U.S. is still number one, like it or don’t. The number of people trying to move to the U.S. far outweighs the number planning on permanently leaving.

Nomadic Matt refrains from America-bashing long enough to point out:

Most family vacations in America are to other parts of America. Why? Because the U.S.A. takes up a whole continent and we have all the world’s environments in our states. Need beaches? Head to Florida. The tropics? Hawaii. Desert? Arizona. The cold Tundra? Alaska. Temperate forests? Washington. This attitude is best summed up by a response I got from a friend in Iowa: “Why would you want to go to Thailand? It’s far and scary. If you want beaches, just go to Florida.” Americans simply don’t see the need to go anywhere else when they can do it all in their country …

One difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world is the latter’s dependence on mass transit. In this country, the largest percentage of vacations are by family car. As much fun as, say, buying a Porsche and opting for European delivery would be, the number of Americans who drive on an overseas vacation is quite low. (Probably due to the stories others will tell you about the quality, or lack thereof, of other countries’ drivers.) So if you travel outside the U.S., you are dependent on the train or bus travel schedule, in addition to the airlines’ travel schedule. (And those who fly on business will tell you the more you fly in the post-9/11 world, the less you like the experience.) A lot of Americans prefer transportation independence.

More generally, part of the reason Americans vacation less, I believe, is genetic, believe it or not. Our ancestors came to this country to better themselves. Those Europeans then and Latin Americans,  Asians and other minorities now who come here believe they will have better lives here than where they came from. What that does equal? Work, including more than one job in many cases. Those not interested in improving their lives (perhaps because they felt their lives were pretty good anyway) never came here.

Related is the concept that Americans like to work. One reason to go into business is to make more money (you hope); another is to be more in charge of your own destiny. Another is to be able to do what businesses do in the places where they have facilities — serve their customers, employ people, and contribute to their communities. As the CNN story admits:

Working more makes Americans happier than Europeans, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies. That may be because Americans believe more than Europeans do that hard work is associated with success, wrote Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, the study’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Americans maximize their… [happiness] by working, and Europeans maximize their [happiness] through leisure,” he found.

I assume that part of the harrumphing about us not-enough-time-off Americans has to do with your attitude toward not just work, but your current work situation. (I came to the conclusion that most journalists are anti-business because, well, as a work environment journalism puts the “fun” in “dysfunction,” and journalists probably assume that most workplaces are like theirs.) If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, or if you’re in an undesirable work environment (however you define that), or if you feel undercompensated (however you define that) for your work, then you’d probably prefer to be anywhere else other than work.

One reason I have not been sympathetic to public employee unions in their attempted coup d’etat to reverse the Nov. 2 election results is because of the number of business owners I know. Most businesses don’t have many employees, and making a profit (the most important thing, the thing without which nothing else happens, for any business) is hard. Unlike public-sector employees, business owners’ work hours vastly exceed 40 per week. They work nights and weekends and holidays. Their employees get vacation time; they often don’t, or if they do, they are the ones emailing and calling back to the office.

Another reason for lack of vacationing that parents figure out is the cost, in numerous ways, of vacations. Much, but not all of it, is financial. On the one hand, for parents to go off on their own vacation and leave the kids with someone else seems irresponsible. But given the bickering that takes place among our children on a typical day, to be blunt the idea of listening to their arguing for several days with no alternative outlet for the adults — you can’t tell the kids to go outside when you’re in a van between destinations — doesn’t sound very appealing. (How my parents put up with that with my brother and me is beyond my ability to comprehend.) Even if the kids get along, based our experience from a three-day wedding trip to Indiana last year, American military units have an easier time deploying than our family does going anywhere overnight. Vacations are really for the kids, not the parents; put another way, parents never get real vacations until the kids leave home.

In the current economy, the tourism industry has promoted the concept of a “staycation.” Even before today, I’ve taken weeks of vacation without planning on a major trip. And other than not having to get up to go to work, I can’t endorse the concept, seeing as how that kind of “staycation” inevitably involves doing things you haven’t previously had time to do (usually some kind of house project), or taking the kids someplace you wouldn’t otherwise choose to go.

The stereotypical school summer vacation — days where nothing other than lunch and dinner is on your schedule — is disappearing for kids, too. Those who believe Americans don’t get enough vacation time are countered by those who believe that American students aren’t in school enough. Chinese students are in school about a month longer than Americans, and the Japanese school year runs from April to March (with breaks between trimesters). Throw in where American students’ test scores compare to other countries’ students, and the conclusion is that more time in school would equal better test scores. (That is an assertion not necessarily proven by evidence, similar to the assertion that more money spent on schools is supposed to lead to better results.)

Our kids’ summer schedules include summer school, baseball, Scouting summer camps and trips to grandparents. (All except the first by their choice, I point out.) Wisconsin summers are so short that if I were to travel outside the U.S., I would (1) want it to be during a period of usually crappy weather here (2) in a place that has better weather than here. And that runs smack into school for the kids.

Economists will tell you that there are always trade-offs. Having children is the largest trade-off, a trade-off the scope of which no parent-to-be realizes. That trip where you and your significant other jet-set yourselves through Europe? Not happening in your lifetime, mom and dad. Home ownership is much more valued in this country than in other countries; the trade-off is that frighteningly large number that represents the sum of 360 house payments. And many trade-offs are trade-offs you don’t even realize you’re making at the time. While I would never argue against the value of going to college, there is that matter of post-graduation student debt, which encourages graduates into the work world as soon as possible.

And what if you actually like your work? (I wrote three years ago that you should never love your job, because your job doesn’t love you.) Supposedly on our deathbeds we won’t regret not having working more. But many business owners I’ve met over the years don’t believe they’ve worked a day in their lives; that’s how much they enjoy doing what they do — serving customers, seeing the people they’ve hired grow in their skills and accomplishments, being able to make a positive difference in their communities, and so on. Employment is a two-way street — no one is entitled to a job, and certainly not a particular job; but no employer is entitled to a specific employee either.  Each has to agree to meet the needs of the other; when that doesn’t happen, either an employer excuses an employee from further work, or an employee leaves for a better opportunity.

If you think you get too little vacation time, maybe the problem isn’t in your vacation time, but in your work.

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