Let's work on reversing the incredible shrinking vacation

CASCO BAY, MAINE — CASCO BAY, Maine - Back in the days when Hector was a pup and the word "e-mail" was a typo, the "working vacation" was nothing more than an oxymoron. After all, you were either vacationing or working. On the job or off.

Now it's become an emblem of the American economy and President Bush, its current CEO, is spending this month as a role model on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.


This has raised the ire of the likes of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who thundered, "Who's watching the White House?" But it's also raised the dismay of others who watch the vacationer-in-chief conducting business and attending fund raisers and ask, "Is he having any fun yet?"

Well, are we?


Do you remember those wonderful yesteryears when an earlier Republican president under the spell of the Maine ocean breezes came out in favor of two or three months of vacation? William Howard Taft said it was "necessary in order to enable one to continue his work the next year with that energy and effectiveness which it ought to have." Admittedly, the rotund Taft was a bit of a hedonist in the food department, but it shows how far we've drifted on a summer tide from real vacation.

Americans have always been a touch suspicious of leisure. Our Puritan patriarchs not only famously regarded idle hands as the devil's workshop, they also believed the grindstone cleared the path to salvation. We've long been wary of both the idle rich and the idle poor as threats to our democracy.

In the early 20th century, a few hard-working researchers declared that a little time off was a good thing. Not surprisingly, they decided that "brain workers" needed a rest from days spent laboring in the minds, while physical workers could do without it. The idea of vacations finally caught on in the middle and working classes, but it was never codified into the law.

Now we arrive at the summer of the incredible shrinking American vacation. It's predicted that we'll take 10 percent less time off than last year, and last year was no week at the beach.

Americans have notoriously fewer vacation days than workers in any other industrialized country. While Europeans get four or five weeks paid leave by law and even the Chinese get three weeks, we average about eight days after a year with one company and 10 days after three years. Thirteen percent of American companies offer no paid vacation at all.

Even more remarkable than how few days we get is how few we take. We essentially give back $21 million in time owed but not taken. And in an Expedia poll, one out of five workers said they feel guilty taking vacations.

So which came first in the great vacation deprivation: the economy or the culture? Insecurity or guilt? The work ethic or the whip?

There's no doubt that a shaky economy breeds fear that any vacation could be permanent. Labor economist Barry Bluestone at Northeastern University points to a changing and insecure economy as the biggest factor. After all, he says, "we always had the Protestant work ethic. Are we more Protestant than last year? I don't think so." But then the tenured Mr. Bluestone confessed to being on a working vacation himself.


Joe Robinson, founder of a grass-roots campaign ( to get a minimum three weeks of paid leave, also acknowledges the role of cultural attitudes that teach "our esteem and self-worth can only come from producing and doing tasks all day."

Americans do have a stunning capacity for turning everything into work. If you don't believe that, think about the waiters everywhere who approach your table with the inevitable question: "Are you still working on that?" They make it sound as if chewing pasta is an onerous job to complete.

We not only work out, we play hard, instead of playfully. It's the spirit that turns vacations into work. The irony is that "working vacation" came into the lingo with a wink and a nod. Now the ruse has become a reality. Fully equipped with the toys of e-mail, voice mail and cell phones, labor trumps leisure. It's the reason why 83 percent of vacationers, tethered by technology and anxiety and expectations, check in at the office.

So here we are. A working vacation means wearing boots while you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. It means standing on the beach talking to your clients. And it means - trust me on this - sitting at a laptop looking at words on a screen instead of an ocean view.

The blessing is that we can now have a vacation without the guilt. And of course without the vacation.

As for rest, recreation, and time off? Well, fellow Americans, we're still working on that.


Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at