Obama’s Extravagant Summer Break? More Like, America’s Vacation-Deficit Disorder

It’s not just that we don’t take enough time off—4.1 days on average—it’s that we do such a poor job of using it.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

The president is setting a personal record. At 15 days, Barack Obama’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard will be the longest summer break of his presidency. The world is on fire almost everywhere, come the protests. How dare he do that?

Give the guy a break – literally. It’s not that he’s exactly out of the loop. He can only go someplace where there are secure communications, a huge security presence and an easily ring-fenced site – like a small island within an hour’s flying time to the White House. Wherever he goes the crises will follow, 24/7. (And the commander in chief will hop back to Washington for a couple of days in mid-vacation.)

In any other civilized nation this effort at some kind of summer escape would barely raise an eyebrow. But among all the world’s advanced economies the United States stands out for what should be called a serious case of vacation deficit disorder. We are the only country that does not have mandatory paid vacations for its workers. Not one day. Zilch.

Remarkably, Americans have not risen in revolt against this gaping inequality. Indeed, our acceptance of it reveals a great deal of confusion about that part of the Declaration of Independence that involves the pursuit of happiness. We’ll fight for the life and liberty bits, but happiness…? Surely happiness is most readily delivered by a decent vacation?

Those avatars of hedonism, The Europeans, are aghast at discovering that the average American vacation lasts for just 4.1 days. They see this as further evidence of cultural collapse.

But I fear that this is the way that national stereotypes can lead to international conflicts of attitude. Invariably the example of France comes up. To begin with, this is the country that introduced a 35-hour workweek. Then there is the fact that officially every French worker is entitled to 31 days of paid vacation. But by exploiting other allowances, smart people – both government employees and company employees -- can extend that to five and a half weeks.

Five and a half weeks?

Just think, they’re already in France. This is a country that more or less invented the basic ground rules for the pursuit of happiness. Let there be wine, food, music, and ravishing summer landscapes from Alpine meadows to Riviera beaches. (Forget Paris in August. Leave that for the Americans to discover that everything is ferme.)

Before you invoke images of a nation enjoying more indolence than industry, there is an uncomfortable statistic to digest. Specifically, comparing the output per worker in the U.S. and France. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development expressing the Gross National Product in terms of value per hour worked, the U.S. comes out on top at $60.2, and France a close second, $57.7.

Of course, GDP is an economist’s yardstick, not a hedonist’s. These numbers may be a measure of efficiency, but they’re not a measure of the quality of life. Almost a quarter of Americans have no paid vacation time at all, and many of them are in the lowest-paid jobs. For those who do get paid vacation time, the lack of any regulatory framework creates wide variations in what employers grant. The total is often geared to years served – for example, 14 days after five years. But it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the brevity of the average American vacation betrays a high degree of angst about absence from the workplace. Those 4.1 days of vacation often include a weekend, minimizing the risk of finding somebody else in your seat when you return.

As a result, Americans are burning through leisure time without getting real leisure. At this point it’s necessary to invoke the warning delivered by a British social historian, E. P. Thompson, that “time is currency. It is not passed but spent.”

The best return on that perpetually diminishing currency in terms of leisure is – or should be – travel. Not just going somewhere, but coming back the better for having gone, while noting that although travel can broaden the mind it can do so only if the mind is prepared to be broadened.

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I’ve heard people boast of “doing ten cities in seven days,” which amounts to mindless consumption, not travel at all – not travel of the kind that gives something back of lasting value, purchases of the mind rather than the purchases that are stuffed into the suitcase.

Travel with lofty purpose really began when it was accessible only to a small and privileged class with unlimited time to travel. Most notably, the English nobility who initiated the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century on the principle that their cultural sensibility could be greatly advanced by exposure to rediscovered classical sites in Italy like Herculaneum and Pompeii, together with the works and worlds of artists like Raphael and Michelangelo.

But these wandering toffs were forerunners of today’s most egregious believers in personal entitlement. They wanted to keep the uplifting moments to themselves. By 1729 one of them was already complaining that “Rome is much changed to the worse … entirely owing to the British.”

This particular wave of culture vultures was terminated by the Napoleonic wars, but by the end of the 19th century a new and more familiar engine of travel was spreading the word — elitist literary journeys: among them Flaubert’s roaming eye in Egypt, Elizabeth Wharton’s languid pensees on Italian villas, and later a more robust compulsion: Hemingway’s adoration of matadors.

Ironically, these classic literary experiences no longer travel well. We may yearn for them but they are unreachable now, left in a past that seems almost to belong to a distant planet. How different it is for us today, when travel has been enabled by two forces: a newly affluent global middle class of which the Chinese are the latest wave, and the efficiency and economy of air travel.

In one sense this is democracy at work – a tour of the Uffizi in Florence is now a commonplace to a manager from Tokyo whereas in the 19th century it was still attainable by very few. But in another sense this democratization has led to commoditized travel – pre-cooked, packaged and marketed for groups rather than individuals at every level from the budget tour of Tuscany to the trophy African safari replete with luxury lodges in what is left of the wild.

Often sold as “bespoke luxury travel” these trips require the advice of specialist consultants who frequently get paid commissions by the hotels they recommend. The more luxurious the trip, the more it seems that personal choice is delegated by the client to the planner.

At a price, such trips deliver such treats as private access to the Louvre when it’s closed to the public. This is a strange way of getting acquainted with other places and other cultures – unless you really feel more comfortable remaining inside a portable bubble of your own well pampered culture, which I suspect is often the case.

These developments illustrate another point: that one of the most insidious ways to misspend the precious currency of time is use of the timetable. Organized travel demands the scheduling of every waking hour. Breakfast at 7:30; assemble with guide at 8:30; 15 minutes at Buckingham Palace at 9:30; half an hour at the British Museum at 10.30; an hour of shopping at Harrods at noon…and so it goes, a disciplined progression allowing no digressions or risks of surprise.

To me this is the antithesis of what travel should be about. The essence of real travel is spontaneity. Plan as little possible – ideally just a beginning and an end, plus some advance reading. Then let things happen. Get off the beaten track. There will be completely unforeseen magic moments – settling at just the perfect table outside a harbor-side café at twilight and lingering there, even going back the next evening. Technology has actually made this kind of unplanned traveling easier. A cell phone can now tell you which hotels nearby have last-minute vacancies, and deliver user reviews.

To be sure, there will be mistakes, some surprises you would rather have avoided – the elevator redolent of some flaw in the municipal sewage system, or a promising road that leads to a pig farm. But accidents, both good and bad, are part of a real traveler’s education.

Those aristos who could spend a year or more on the Grand Tour returned believing that they were without doubt the world’s best travelers. Who could fairly be called the world’s best travelers today?

I would vote for the Australians. For many of them, it’s partly to do with living on an island continent distant from their European roots. In the days when they could travel to Europe only be sea, Australian families planned and saved up for long absences abroad in the manner of the Grand Tour and they were – and still are – enthusiastic imbibers of other cultures and ideas.

But now their country has an enlightened policy about paid leave. After 10 years working for the same employer they are entitled to more than eight weeks of paid vacation on top of the basic annual allowance of 20 to 25 days. As a result, Australians can spend months in Europe, Asia, and the Americas without any time pressures.

That’s a state of bliss that most Americans, locked in the grip of vacation deficit disorder, can only dream of. Hard-wired into the psyche of many is the idea that somehow time off is akin to sloth. Yet when it comes to sloth we have surely produced the world’s current best in class – members of Congress. By the end of its current year the House of Representatives will have been in session for fewer than 135 days, turning up for an average of 28 hours a week (with very little to show for it.) Not even the French have got their working week down to that level.