Americans take fewer days off than the Japanese, Chinese, British and all continental Europeans. Journalist Joe Robinson, founder of the group Work to Live, which advocates more generous vacations and a U.S. minimum paid leave law, is trying to change that.
Are work hours in the United States getting longer or shorter?
Longer. Almost 40 percent of Americans are working 50 hours a week. And as for vacations, people may have two weeks or a week on paper, but many don't take it. There's too much pressure to stay on the job. Some companies have eliminated vacations completely.
But can't hard work be a source of pride?
I hear that all the time: "That's what makes this country great." It is a myth we have tricked ourselves into believing. The Dutch, the French, the Norwegians, the Belgians and the Irish are more productive per hour than we are, even with their four- and five-week vacations. We are number one in terms of productivity per person only because of all the overtime we do. And that's the number we count.
But isn't that the most important number?
It depends on your values. What is a gross national product when you don't have a life? A few years ago, the Norwegians found that they were 14 percent more productive than we are. So they elected to take more time off.
Are we really so different from the rest of the world?
Within the past year England added a week to its annual vacation policy. New Zealand added a week the year before. The Chinese have three weeks—Golden Weeks. Americans have a suspicion of leisure that goes back to the Puritan work ethic: idle hands are the devil's hands.
Wouldn't a minimum paid leave law suppress wages and make things more expensive?
No, if anything, it would raise the bar on the treatment of employees. You would have healthier employees who would lower costs for employers. People made the same argument in the 1930s about Social Security and the minimum wage.
What are you working on right now?
Through the group Take Back Your Time, we put together an agenda calling for three-week paid minimum leave and family-leave. We would also like to make Election Day a holiday. We've had a great reception from staff of congresspeople. Political consultants think that the issue of time and how we don't have it anymore to spend with our families is going to be a big issue in the upcoming election. It's really a family values issue.
Your book, Work To Live, is dedicated to your parents and the vacations you took together.
We got in this old Ford station wagon and drove around the American West and went to campgrounds and saw the great national parks and bought tacky souvenirs. Those are the times from childhood that I remember most.