Miércoles 8 de Agosto de 2007, Ip nº 202

Out of America: Holidays are for wimps (and the President)
Por Rupert Cornwell

Who says the Iraqi parliament does nothing? Last week it defied the displeasure of America's President, generals, diplomats, Republicans, Democrats and average Joe in the street to go on holiday for all of August.

The decision was seen as a betrayal, a slap in the face from an ungrateful client state (even though the lawmakers of Baghdad did agree to reduce the originally intended two months off to just one, as a concession to the US).

In a sense, the tide of criticism (complete with a stern "Do not go on vacation" instruction from George W Bush in person) is part of the new orthodoxy about Iraq here. This holds that the mess is all Iraq's fault. The US has done its part, selflessly kicking out Saddam Hussein and sacrificing blood and treasure to give Iraqis the chance to fashion a lasting democracy, but they haven't taken it. Instead the parliament squabbles and feuds, unwilling to pass vital legislation to reduce sectarian discrimination, share oil revenues and so on.

But indignation about those lazy do-nothings in Baghdad also reflected a different and ancient American reality. Something in the culture, the character or maybe the water makes the country deem a decent holiday an offence against God and all his works. As a recent study has it, the US is "the No-Vacation Nation".

These are the doggest of dog days here in Washington. As I write – mercifully shielded by air conditioning – the outside temperature is forecast to hit 97F (36C) by mid afternoon. If ever there's a time for everyone to clear off to the beach for a month, this, surely, is it.

Yet, though the traffic is a bit lighter, there are as many people about as ever. Even Congress has been in session, frantically passing legislation before it disappears – for a month. The hisses of "hypocrisy" from the direction of Baghdad will be deafening. But America's lawmakers retort that they will spend much of their hard-earned break getting an earful from constituents and raising money for the election campaign, now barely a year away. Some vacation.

The real point, however, is that Congress, with its month off, is an aberration by American standards. This is the only rich country that does not legally guarantee its workers any paid holiday time. In Europe, the minimum is 20 working days, and 25 or 30 days are often the norm. The result, according to the study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, is that one in four private sector workers – 28 million people – receive no paid holiday whatsoever.

French, Germans, Italians and Brits revel in their five or six weeks off, and that's not including public holidays. The average American in the private sector gets 15 paid days off per year, nine of them as vacation and six as public holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas Day (though on 26 December the country is back at work as if nothing had happened).

When you join an American company, you usually start with a week or two's vacation a year. Only after five years or more will the entitlement rise to four weeks.

Astonishingly though, many workers don't even take what they are entitled to. Earlier this year the authoritative Hudson Employment Index reported that 56 per cent of workers do not use their full entitlement, and that 20 per cent, one in five, plan on grabbing no more than the odd long weekend.

But why this shunning, even scorn, for leisure here? Economic trends have something to do with it. Job insecurity has grown. People need more money to meet ever-rising healthcare bills and college fees. Yet for middle and lower wage-earners, pay has stagnated. For the average worker, paid vacations are going the way of guaranteed pensions and of healthcare coverage that once came with the job. But none of this explains why the rich – who have more than enough money to take long holidays – are so reluctant to do so.

Part of it is the puritan strand in the American make-up, which holds that doing nothing much is wrong. Then there is the increasingly macho element of contemporary work culture, with its glorification of "masters of the universe", the "go-to guys" who deserve nothing but the best.

The only way to become indispensable is to be ever-present, this theory dictates, whatever the price in terms of personal and family life.

"I'm making so much money I can afford to kill myself" is the extreme distillation of this philosophy (uttered by someone who obviously had never heard De Gaulle's dictum of how the graveyards are full of indispensable men).

And the long hours/short holidays ethos has paid material dividends. Europeans work to live, it has been said, while Americans live to work. That explains in part why the Germans put in 25 per cent fewer hours per year than the Americans, and the French, with their 35-hour week, fully 28 per cent less. It also explains why US economic performance – at least until very recently – regularly surpassed that of Europe, and why unemployment in Europe is so much higher than in the US.

But maybe the two sides of the Atlantic are coming together. Every summer Mr Bush takes a holiday at his ranch in Texas whose length would make a European or an Iraqi parliamentarian proud, and even Hurricane Katrina could not make him break the habit. More astonishing still, France's current incarnation of De Gaulle is adopting the American way. President Nicolas Sarkozy will holiday for a fortnight this month – not in Provence but at a lakefront estate in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, USA. The leader of the most leisure-addicted country will be spending time in the land of the workaholic. That really is something.

  05/08/2007. The Independent.


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