Do Americans Even Want Time Off?

Do Americans Even Want Time Off

A new Gallup survey finds that about half of Americans who hold second jobs say they don’t do it out of financial necessity. Why, then, do they put in the extra hours? Do they just like working?

Europeans, in stark contrast, relish their free time. Workers in Denmark actually went on a general strike because they were entitled to only five weeks of vacation. They wanted six.

Many American workers get a lousy one or two weeks off, if that much. Yet 55 percent of Americans with paid vacation said they didn’t even use all the time off, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

John de Graaf, who writes on free time and consumption, has a theory on why Americans don’t pound the table for more paid vacation. “Until you actually get a block of time off,” he said, “you don’t really appreciate it.”

He cites an interesting case in Amador County, California. After the 2007-09 financial crisis, California trimmed its contribution to every county by 10 percent. County officials in Amador decided that rather than lay off public workers, they would cut their working hours by 10 percent.

The Service Employees International Union cried foul. It preferred layoffs of low-seniority people over a shorter workweek for other public employees. The county stood firm but said that it would honor the union’s preference in two years if money remained tight.

Two years later, the budget still needed cutting. The union leadership predictably chose layoffs and restoring the five-day week for the others. But the workers said, “Wait a minute.” They weren’t asked. The union put the matter before the rank and file, which voted 71 percent to 29 percent to stay on four days with less pay.

What happened? As de Graaf observed, “Workers were now saying things like, ‘Now I go fishing on Fridays.'” (Only a few, mainly men, used the freed-up day to take on outside work.)

The female employees tended to like the four-day week more than the men, according to de Graaf. They would tell him, “Well, now what I do is the kids are in school on Fridays, so I do various chores on Friday, and then I have the whole weekend off.”

Amador County workers enjoyed the added advantage of all having the same day off, so they had friends to go fishing with. That’s the thinking in Europe, where nearly everyone gets vacation time during the same weeks of August. Europeans realized that people want time off when friends and family do.

During the Great Depression, a number of big American companies moved to 30-hour weeks. One of them, Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, adopted a kind of compromise. The workweek was reduced to 30 hours, but the company paid the employees for 35 hours. Interestingly, Kellogg’s found that these workers had become more productive during the hours worked.

Those holding multiple jobs — now about a quarter of U.S. workers — are far rarer in Canada and France, according to Gallup. Why would that be?

Perhaps the stronger social safety nets in those countries make ordinary people feel more economically secure. Perhaps a consumer culture flashing luxury in our faces makes Americans see some expenditures not as extravagances but as basic necessities. Work is how they can afford them.

“Other things being equal,” de Graaf adds, “when Americans are given the choice of time or money, most will choose the money.”

But looking at the experience in Amador County, it’s possible that we just don’t understand the value of time off because we’ve had so little experience with it. If so, what a sad commentary on the American way of life.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

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