The Agenda

On Vacation vs. Leisure

Ezra Klein — back from vacation, no less! — writes in re: the fact that Americans take less vacation than workers in other OECD countries:

I’d say it’s more closely related to the fact that it’s hard to pass social welfare legislation in the American political system, and thus America is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee its workers some amount of paid-vacation leave. …

That isn’t to say no one in the country gets vacation, of course. More affluent workers are able to demand paid vacation as part of their compensation package. But lots of workers aren’t, and so they really can’t afford to take vacation days, even if they’re offered. 

As UCLA historian Peter Baldwin recently observed in The New York Times indispensable Room for Debate section, however:


The number of public holidays in the U.S. falls at the center of the west European spectrum. In terms of the number of hours actually worked annually, the U.S. ranks only a smidgen above the O.E.C.D. average (2008 figures) and in any case below the Islanders, the Israelis, the Italians, the Greeks, not to mention most Eastern Europeans, the Japanese and the drones of the world, the South Koreans.

Americans may work longer at the job, but the corollary is they also work less at home. The contrast is most notable for women. Figures from time diary studies in the 1990s reveal that European women worked almost 10 hours more doing housework than their American counterparts, who spent most of that time in formal work. American families relied instead on paid labor and services to accomplish the domestic tasks that wives still perform in Europe. Add formal and domestic work together, and the differences in total work are much less stark than usually presented.

It’s true that American have fewer paid vacations and paid holidays. But the top 80 to 90 percent of U.S. households have more disposable income than their counterparts in the vast majority of OECD economies. Paid vacation is best understood as a form of non-cash compensation. It’s not obvious that we should collectively choose more paid vacation over more pay, and the lack of mandatory paid-vacation gives employers and employees more flexibility to choose an arrangement that works for them.

To be sure, paid-vacation requirements create a network effect that can spur the development of the tourism and hospitality industry. Given that many European economies rely heavily on this industry, particularly countries in the Mediterranean rim, perhaps we can view mandatory paid-vacation as a kind of industrial policy. I don’t personally see the logic in transferring wealth to the budget travel and hotel and car rental sectors, though I can see why Ryanair executives might feel differently. 

We also have good reason to believe that lower marginal tax rates are a big part of the reason that U.S. workers work longer hours, particularly more affluent workers. And U.S. workers tend to less housework because our lightly regulated labor markets facilitate the outsourcing of household labor to less-skilled workers, many of whom are foreign-born.

Overall, I’d say it’s at the very least a fair trade. 


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