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“No Vacation Nation:” Americans are Working More and Getting Paid Less

America. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. The Greatest Country in the World, right? These days many Americans are facing an identity crisis, fueled by the contrast between the fabled tale of
Jessica Beeli is a second year student at San Diego State University from Manhattan Beach, California.
Jessica Beeli is a second year student at San Diego State University from Manhattan Beach, California.

America. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. The Greatest Country in the World, right?

These days many Americans are facing an identity crisis, fueled by the contrast between the fabled tale of American greatness and reality.

United States is the world’s single largest national economy, with the largest Gross Domestic Product worldwide. The majority of top companies in both innovation and revenue are American.

It’s undeniable that America has and will continue to do great things. But does it matter how well our economy does if we don’t take into consideration our quality of life? So what if we’re the biggest economy in the world, if being a citizen of the biggest economy in the world sucks?

Despite America’s standing as the world’s number one economic powerhouse, it’s lacking in other many other regards. What used to be one of the happiest countries on earth and the home of a thriving middle class has fallen substantially.

The US failed to rank in the top 10 of the happiest countries in the world, dropping even further from a disappointing 11th place last year. Instead, the US was ranked 17th in happiness, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

So why is the US, the wealthiest, most-powerful nation on the planet, so unhappy?

National GDP Doesn’t Translate to Happiness

Not surprisingly, a nation’s GDP is not a good measure of happiness. Instead, GDP per Capita, longevity, generosity, social support, and freedom to make life choices play a much more important role in happiness, according to the OECD. These happiness factors go hand-and-hand with time spent with family, time spent with the community, time spent exercising, and leisure time. But many Americans simply don’t have time for these things.

Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world. Americans also take fewer vacations, work longer, and retire later too. And that’s a fact that Americans take great pride in, using it as a testimony to American greatness. American corporate profits are going strong. American companies dominate markets worldwide. And American workers also clock in the most productive hours. But who exactly does being number one in GDP and productivity benefit? Not the majority of Americans. 

Advanced Economies Legally Mandate Paid Vacation Days, Except the US

In the United States workers do not have the legal right to any paid vacation days. When compared to the majority of developed countries, which average 20 government mandated vacation days annually, you start to wonder if the US missed the boat.   

High wage employees in the United States are usually lucky enough to have vacation days given to them by their employer. But 51% of low wage employees get no paid vacation time at all. And the government hasn’t done anything to change that.

“The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation days and paid holidays,” John Schmitt, senior economist and co-author of the report No Vacation Nation Revisited, said in a statement. “Relying on businesses to voluntarily provide paid leave just hasn’t worked.”

The “American Work Ethic” is Overrated

Americans are working harder, but they aren’t working smarter. Clocking in more hours usually does not benefit output and is not a testament to American industriousness, but rather stupidity. This American work ethnic may have us working more than most developed, rich countries, but not necessarily better.

Almost every developed country has a right to weekends off, paid vacation time and paid maternity leave. Except for the USA, whose government mandated vacation policies are more on par with countries such as Liberia, Swaziland, Oman, and Sierra Leone.

The European Union guarantees by law in 1993 at least 20 paid vacation days per year, which many countries even exceed, with 25 to 30+ days off. Both Canada and Japan mandated at least 10 days. Several countries even offer time off for those engaged in community service, jury duty, union duties, or even getting married or moving.

American workers average 122 more hours per year than their British equivalents and an astonishing 378 hours more than the Germans, particularly when Germans have almost tied us in terms of productivity. And when you take into consideration the amount of vacation days Norway takes, Norwegian workers are substantially more productive in terms of GDP produced per hour with less time worked.

Overworking Does More Harm Than Good

The US’s number one spot in terms of GDP doesn’t appear to be because we work longer hours, and it also doesn’t necessarily translate to happiness.Working too much can not only be counterproductive, it can be downright harmful.

Living in a state of overwork can prove detrimental to our mental, physical and emotional health. Americans live to be “busy” and feel productive (even if we aren’t actually being productive) mistakenly believing that more hours will always benefit the output.

"Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy," notes a recent article in McKinsey Quarterly, the research publication of the global consulting firm.

August is a common time to take a vacation in the US. It’s usually viewed as a slow month, with decreased productivity and lost work hours. But just like short breaks on a day-to-day basis, vacations more than make up for lost time. Workers who don’t or can’t take vacations make more mistakes and tend to hate their jobs more.  In the long term, vacations actually serve as a productivity booster. 

"The impact that taking a vacation has on one's mental health is profound," said Francine Lederer, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles specializing told ABC News. "Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation”.

If Americans Are Working More, Shouldn’t They Get Paid More?

The tremendous wealth accumulated due to our nation’s productivity doesn’t appear to have created a broad sense of happiness, but maybe it would if it was better distributed.

While some argue that long hours with little vacation is exactly why we are the most productive nation in the world, who exactly benefits if they’re right? The average American’s wage has decreased over the last couple decades, despite the lack of vacation time, as the wealth in the country has been increasingly gravitating toward the top 10%.

Income inequality in the United States has reached an astronomical high.The bottom 50% of Americans has just 1.1 % of the nation’s wealth, when the top 1% of America has almost 40%. This inequality is staggering, considering how much the average American works.

If the American worker is going to continue to be expected to fill corporate coffers with profits by toiling away without a vacation, maybe it makes sense that they at least get a bigger piece of the pie.

Working Shouldn’t Trump Living

Much of American society has subscribed to the idea that we go to school to get a job, and we get a job to get to retirement. Yet this motivational path often gets construed in such a way that we fit our lives into our work, rather than fitting our work into our lives. This can quickly turn into an unsatisfying lifestyle, living so focused on the future that we forget to enjoy ourselves in the here and now.

So don’t be afraid to go ahead and take that vacation. Do it to increase your productivity and focus, but, more importantly, do it for yourself. Just be careful if you go to Europe. With all those vacation days they’re offering, you might not want to come back.


The Fed model compares the return profile of stocks and US government bonds.