Why Don’t Americans Take More Vacations? Blame It on Independence Day

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Yves here. This summer rerun seems particularly relevant this year. Mose Americans are not aware that Independence Day was promoted by businessmen who wanted to counter the resistance of citizens to immigrants. Needless to say, the motives were not charitable.

This post was first published on June 27, 2012

An article in the Boston Review by professor of sociology Claude Fischer falls prey to a pattern that is all too common: attributing social/political outcomes to American attitudes without bothering to examine why those attitudes came to be.

Let me give you a bit of useful background before I turn to the Fischer article as an illustration of a lack of curiosity, or worse, among soi disant intellectuals in America, and how it keeps Americans ignorant as to how many of our supposed cultural values have been cultivated to inhibit disruptive thought and action.

Since I have managed to come in on the last act of Gotterdammerung and am still trying to find the libretto, I’ve been in what little spare time I have reading history, particularly on propaganda. One must read book is by Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy. Carey taught psychology in Australia, and he depicts the US as the breeding ground for the modern art of what is sometimes more politely called the engineering of consent. The first large scale campaigns took place before World War I, when the National Association of Manufacturers began its decades-long campaign against organized labor. Carey stresses that propaganda depends on cultivating Manichean perspectives, the sacred versus the Satanic, and identifying the cause to be promoted with symbols that have emotional power. For many people, Americans in particular, patriotism is a rallying point.

Carey demonstrates how, again and again, big business has managed to wrap itself in the flag, and inculcate hostility to unions. One of the early struggles was over immigrants. A wave of migration from 1890 to 1910 left many citizens concerned that they were a threat to the American way of life. Needless to say, corporations were opposed to restrictions on immigration, since these migrants were willing to accept pretty much any work. Thus the initial alignment of interests was that whole swathes of American society were allied with the nascent labor movement in opposing immigration. And this occurred when even conservatives saw concentrated corporate power as a threat to American values (witness the trust busting movement, the success of the Progressives).

Big business split these fair weather friends by promoting an Americanization movement. These foreigners simply needed to be socialized: taught to speak English, inculcated in American values. In addition, the radical Industrial Workers of the World had become a force to be reckoned with, culminating in its success in the Lawrence textile mill strike in 1912. So even though labor unions were particularly hostile to immigrants, the IWW’s leadership role made it possible to cast unions as subversive, a symbol of foreign influence.

The counterweight, the Americanization movement, was born in 1907 with the establishment of the North American Civic League for Immigrants, headed by conservative businessmen. Aligned groups. such as the New England Industrial Committee, were created as NACLI promoted its program.

The success of the Lawrence strike, which garnered national outrage due to police beatings of women who had volunteered to transport and harbor children of strikers, increased the urgency of countering the union threat. The message was that chambers of commerce, as “conservators of the ‘best interests’ of their communities” needed to educate (as in domesticate) adult alien workers. This Americanization movement had business backers in every sizable city with an immigrant population doing outreach to business organizations, church leaders, and other community groups. In 1914, NACLI decided to extend its program nation-wide, and changed its name to the Committee for Citizens in America. The CIA paid and provided staff to the Department of Education [correction: Federal Bureau of Education] to sponsor Americanization programs (private interests’ ability operate directly through the Federal government ended in 1919).

The outbreak of World War I was a Godsend to the Americanization movement. The war stoked nationalist sentiment and with it, suspicion of obvious aliens as at best “un American” and at worst, subversive. President Wilson spoke at a highly staged “patriotic” event for 5000 recently naturalized citizens in spring 1915. This event was so successful that the movement leaders succeeded in forming local Americanization committees all over the US. Quoting Carey:

The CIA also produced a brilliant propaganda strategy to involve every American in an annual ritual of national identification. This ritual would embed the cultural intolerance of the Americanization movement with an identification that was formally and officially sanctified. The CIA thereby launched its campaign for the fourth of July 1915 to be made a national Americanization Day, a day for a ‘great nationalistic expression of unity and faith in America’.

Carey describes and quotes a pamphlet promoting the event written by one of the executive committee members:

….the ultimate success of the policy would depend on how effectively the ‘average American citizen’ could be induced to bring the influence of his conservative views to bear on the immigrant….’such a citizen is the natural foe of the IWW and of the destructive forces that seek to direct unwisely the expressions of the immigrant in his nwe country and upon him rest the hope and defense of the country’s ideals and institutions.’ Here we have a blatant industrial and partisan view fused with an intolerance of the immigrant and values of national security, in a submission that would cement these interests and intolerances within the paraphernalia of the annual ritual of what would become Independence Day.

This hidden history of our national celebration is only a small portion of Carey’s account of the extent and reach of the Americanization campaign. It shows how big business has led a long standing, persistent, and well financed campaign to turn the public against fighting for one’s rights if those rights are workplace rights.

Now let’s look at the Fischer article in light of this. He does, usefully, describe how Americans toil far more than their advanced economy peers:

Americans just don’t vacation like other people do. Western European laws require at least ten and usually more than twenty days. And it’s not just the slacker Mediterranean countries. The nose-to-the-grindstone Germans and Austrians require employers to grant at least twenty paid vacation days a year. In the United States, some of us don’t get any vacation at all. Most American workers do get paid vacations from their bosses, but only twelve days on average, much less than the state-guaranteed European minimum. And even when they get vacation time, Americans often don’t use it.

Perhaps Americans are Protestant-ethic work obsessives; we are likelier than Europeans to say that we want to work more hours than we do. But this leisure gap is a recent development. In the 1960s Americans and Europeans worked about the same number of hours. Leisure time then expanded everywhere—only more slowly and much less in the United States than elsewhere, leaving today’s disparity. Some argue that high taxes in Europe discourage working, but economist Alberto Alesina and his colleagues point to legislation—that is, politics. The right to a long vacation is one of the benefits that unions and the left have in recent decades delivered to Western workers—except American ones.

This sets up the key question:

Just about everywhere in the West except the United States, where there is no mandatory paid time off, workers not only get vacations but also short work weeks, government health care, large pensions, high minimum wages, subsidized childcare, and so forth. Why is the United States the exception?

The answer comes in two general forms: one, Americans do not want such programs and perks because we do not want the kind of government that would legislate them. Two, Americans want them but cannot get them.

Fischer’s teasing out of the first “answer” (he offers only two options and later points out that they are not mutually exclusive) is an embarrassment. He claims Americans have little “class consciousness” and in passing contends well financed propaganda efforts have no effect:

Even though economic inequality is substantially greater in the United States than in Europe, Americans acknowledge less economic inequality in their society than Western Europeans do in theirs, and Americans are more likely to describe such inequality as fair, deserved, and necessary. Americans typically dismiss calls for the government to narrow economic differences or intrude in the market by, say, providing housing. Working-class voters in the United States are less likely than comparable voters elsewhere to vote for the left or even to vote at all.

Anyone who has studied the history of public relations in the US will not only tell you it works, but also will be able to provide numerous examples, starting with the Creel Committee in World War I, which turned a pacifist US into rabid German-haters in a mere 18 months. But Fischer would rather appeal to Americans’ vanity and exceptionalism. Carey, by contrast, documents the intensity of messaging efforts, the channels used, and tracks how polls and headlines changed. And contra Fischer, he finds Americans to be particularly susceptible to propaganda (by contrast, Australians’ native skepticism of authority, keen sense of irony, and strong community orientation gives them a wee bit of resistance, although Carey described how they were being worn down too).

Mark Ames wrote on the same topic in 2006, and his article is more on point:

According to a New York Times article, British workers get more than 50% more paid holiday per year than Americans, while the French and Italians get almost twice what the Americans get. The average American’s response is neither admiration nor envy, but rather a kind of sick pride in their own wretchedness, combined with righteous contempt for their European worker counterparts, whom most Americans see as morally degenerate precisely because they have more leisure time, more job security, health benefits and other advantages.

It’s like a classic case of East Bloc lumpen-spite: middle Americans would rather see the European system collapse than become beneficiaries themselves. If there is one favourite recurring propaganda fable Americans love to read about Europeans, it’s the one about how Europe is decaying and its social system is on the verge of imploding; we Americans pray for that day to come, with even more fervour than we pray for the End of Days, because the very existence of these pampered workers makes us look like the suckers and slaves we really are. This is why you won’t see Bono or Sir Bob Geldof rallying the bleeding-hearts anytime soon on behalf of America’s workers. They’re not in the least bit sympathetic. Better to stick with well-behaved victims like starving Africans.

The cultural propaganda that accompanied the Reagan Revolution has been so hugely successful that America’s workers internalised it too well, like those famously fanatical Soviet workers who literally worked themselves to death in order to help bring true communism that much closer. According to Expedia, American workers save their employees some $21 billion per year by not taking even the meagre vacation time they’re allowed.

Now in fairness to those office slaves, while Americans buy into the “always on duty” attitude (I noticed how little smart phones and IPads were visibly in use, even in the toniest parts of London, compared to New York City), some of it is rational. Even before the bust, it was hard for anyone over 35 who loses a job to land another, much the less at the same level of pay, job tenures are short, and companies keep squeezing workers. Everyone I know who is still on the corporate meal ticket is doing what would have been one and one half or two jobs ten years ago.

So while there is no easy way to turn to regain control of a cultural commons so throughly under the sway of well heeled corporate interests, perhaps we can start to engage in small acts of reprogramming. While I am not telling you to skip Fourth of July fireworks, it might be time to recognize key events that help us look at our history with fresh eyes. Perhaps we should quietly celebrate what we still have of the America our founders envisaged, say on the anniversary of the signing of the articles of Confederation (a protracted affair, with the last signature affixed on March 1, 1781) or their replacement with the Constitution on March 4, 1789. But regardless of how individuals go about it, the more we recognize how cultural memes are created and propagated, the more hope we have of freeing ourselves from them.

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  1. cripes

    Quite so.

    “Negotiating” employment terms with employers, voting for “your” representatives, “choosing” high priced housing and health care–or not–and my personal favorite, labeling people wasting away from the treadmill of “jawbs” into old age, as lacking work/life “balance;” must be because of their attitudes.

    As if we enter and play upon this stage, a Tabula Rasa of our own making, instead of the carefully constructed cage around our thoughts and deeds, full of “consequences” if ever we stray too far from the reservation.

    Awash in billboard, video and internet popup targeted ads, with no memory of a time before we were consumers, Americans always choose the wrong thing; crappy merch, overpriced matchbox condos, unpayable debt, vacuous jawbs, unwinnable wars, ugly preznits, obesity and no vacations.

    By design.

    Without a coherent text or doctrine, late stage american klepto capitalism is as much a religion, a belief system as were Soviet Communism or the Catholic church before it.

  2. Expat

    Years ago I was on the phone with a former colleague from NY. She had just finished five years with the company where we had worked together. I had just finished a few years of grad school, some extended vacation, and was just starting my first real job in Europe. She excitedly told me about her five year anniversary and then asked, “So, how much vacation do YOU get in your new job?” I replied, “Five weeks, like everyone.” She was crushed. After five years, she had gotten her third week of paid vacation.

    Since that first job in France, I have worked in London and Asia for a variety of companies including American companies. I always got at least five weeks vacation. Americans abroad loved it. Those at home, as the article says, expressed the opinion that it was too much and explained why the rest of the world was so inferior to America. “Lazy French smoking cigarettes in cafés and shutting down for the summer.” “Lazy Spanish stop work at eleven and sleep until three in the afternoon.” And so on.

    Funny. Over here in Europe we have amazing public transportation, broadband, integrated cell phone service across the EU, EU-wide banking and cash distributors, and amazing roads, bridges and tunnels. Think of what we could achieve if we had eight weeks vacation!

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you and, especially with regard to your final paragraph, well said.

      Having spent much time in the US and Saudi Arabia, I noticed how the government wants / wanted to keep the locals in ignorance with regard to what goes on overseas. In Saudi Arabia, outside of work, fraternisation is discouraged by keeping Saudis and foreigners apart at school, residences and leisure. In the US, it’s by means of education and media.

      In the UK, the media and education system have done their best over decades to keep the public ignorant, but it appears to have got worse under May. Coverage of what goes on overseas is superficial, if not wrong (vide last Saturday’s Guardian (Lawrence Brignull) saying the French pay as you go motorway network is expensive and, therefore, empty and the BBC’s Jenny Hill a few years ago, when reporting about the growth of tuition in English at continental universities and numbers of UK nationals studying at EU27 universities, concluding that EU27 universities are not as good as UK ones). European experts are kept off the air waves, even when leading their fields in the UK, as the idea is what have the Europeans ever done for us. Experts from certain backgrounds, mainly Asian, are preferred.

      1. Expat

        Britain has never gotten over their royal family being aken over by the French and the Germans, losing their empire, and being kicked off the Continent. They never liked the EU, distrusted the French and Germans, and thought they were a first world country that would forever be coddled and saved by the US.

        If you have ever lived in the UK and examined their plumbing and wiring, you would understand all you need to know about England! OF course they don’t want their people knowing the reality across the Channel.

        I have spent several weeks with young Saudi execs, but they had mostly studied in the US anyway. I never got a chance to talk with true locals.

        1. Grebo

          British wiring (post 1970) is excellent. Wire nuts are not allowed. No aluminium (or even aluminum) wires. No separate wires, they are all double insulated. Everything properly earthed, fused, RCDed and breakered.
          Plumbing could be better but at least you won’t find any leaky toilet flaps.

          You must have been looking at, and talking to, ancient monuments. At least half the British populace don’t give a toss about the royal family and are barely aware there was once an empire. Distrusting the French and Germans is simply common sense. Tricky buggers.

          1. Clive

            I have to agree. US wiring is a joke — I’m still mystified by how you foisted it on the Japanese. It still takes me aback when I visit the US or Japan that you can’t simply plug in any appliance into any socket. Or that every switched outlet is not necessarily earthed. Or there’s no mandatory RCDs, breakers are not necessarily sized to loads and running a microwave and a hairdryer can trip out a breaker. Plus you can’t easily buy and use a 3kW electric kettle in a kitchen.

            Do not even get me started on what’s been grandfathered in in older building and code enforcement (or lack of) that allows pre-war vintage circuits and distribution panels to remain in place.

          2. Expat

            Actually, I am referring to high-end flats in places like Kensington, Chelsea and Knightsbridge. Granted, this was waaaay back in the 90’s so perhaps they have torn out all the old pipes, fittings and wiring since then…but I doubt it.

            When did UK retailers start selling appliances with plugs attached? Late 90’s?

    2. Detlef

      I experienced the same a few years ago. Met a nice American couple here in Germany. And they told me that they had saved two years of vacation time to spend four weeks in Europe. With a few vacation days left over for family and emergencies.
      They didn´t want to take the “see Europe in two weeks” tour and therefore had planed their own (slower) “see some of Europe in four weeks” tour.

      It was amazing in a way. I mean I knew theoretically that Americans had less vacation days than Europeans. But to hear it personally was still incredible. And somewhat sad.

      Just to add some information:
      In Germany the minimum vacation time is four weeks for a full-time job.
      20 days for a 5-day week full time job, 24 days for a 6-day week.
      Sunday is thankfully still considered to be somewhat sacrosanct except of course for emergency services. And hospitality services like hotels and restaurants.

      And the law says that you are entitled to one 2-week vacation per year. Because medical research had shown that it takes a few days (of vacation time) before you really start to relax and rest. And if the vacation was shorter than 2-weeks you wouldn´t have enough time to relax and recharge the batteries. :)

      In reality you normally get between 25-30 days.
      In 2016 the average vacation days for all full time jobs in Germany was 27 days.
      Plus of course the 9-12 public holidays depending on the state you live in.
      Germans always check for “Brueckentage” (bridge days?). :)
      A Thursday or Tuesday public holiday. Just use one vacation day to get a 4-day weekend.

      It´s one (easy) thing the tax office checks on your tax declaration in Germany.
      You can deduct a lump sum (per kilometer) per day for travel between your home and your workplace.
      If you (working a 5-day week) deduct more than 230 days the tax office might take a closer look at your tax declaration….
      If you work a 5-day week

      1. jrs

        in the u.s. we get long vacations sometimes, we call them “periods of unemployment”, and spend them stressing out about whether there will be future paychecks. It’s really true though, it’s often the only real “break” anyone gets and because it’s stressful and demeaning not much of one.

        1. Ford Prefect

          And if you do take a 2-week vacation at once, you come back to the office and find somebody else sitting at your desk doing the work you were supposed to be doing, but are no longer needed to do.

  3. AbateMagicThinking but Not Money


    I’ve always been doubtful of brainwashing, but ooo-eee. No way Joe and Jane Doe are going to vote for their interests. Fascinating!


    1. notabanker

      That is awesome. Those lazy bums that have to drive their diesel guzzling Beamers out to the European countryside for a month every year. They’ll never know the good life of taking the Caddy through rush hour everyday.

  4. ocop

    This is a semantic issue, but I think “CIA” has been swapped in place of “CCA” (I assume in the original article) as in:

    NACLI decided to extend its program nation-wide, and changed its name to the Committee for Citizens in America.

    The CIA thereby launched its campaign for the fourth of July 1915…

    Still a shady organization promoting capitalist interests at the expense of regular people, just not the one created post-WW2.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Please see our comment to Synoia. If you have read the piece closely, you would see CIA = “Citizens in America”. That is the abbreviation Carey used, and I suspect because he was working from archival materials and that’s how it was abbreviated then.

  5. Norb

    Vacations in America have been turned into another mechanism to fleece the population. I am old enough to remember that family travel was once affordable in that every location was not turned into a finely tuned money extraction machine- free parking at most locations being just one example of things that don’t exist any more. Reasonable rates at museums another.

    Vacations should be for rest and relaxation. More often than not, American vacations resemble just another mode of mass consumption. An argument can be made that many people don’t press for more vacation time because the social pressure to “do something important” with their vacation time is very great.

    Instead of viewing vacations as important for human health by doing nothing- to truly having down time from responsibilities and social pressures- Americans are relentlessly conditioned to always be consuming.

    To participate in mainstream American culture, if you are not working or consuming, you are working out ways to fleece your fellow citizens in order to live an outsized life. Is it any wonder why American culture is being rejected around the world.

    Manufactured intellectual consent leads to manufactured social experience. Regaining an authentic life and social experience seem outside American experience. Where it can be found is outside the mainstream.

    The best thing for the health of American culture and life would for be for people to learn how to productively spend more time doing nothing. Not being able to do this is a flaw in the American character.

    1. Lord Koos

      Let’s not forget that you now need to pay to enter national and state parks in most places. Even with wilderness trailheads here in WA state you now need to a buy a pass, even on national forest land. All of these things were free when I grew up.

      Having said that, if it’s one thing I’m good at, it’s doing nothing. :^D

  6. Synoia

    The CIA thereby launched its campaign for the fourth of July 1915

    It was the feds, it was not the CIA. which was “established” after WW II. Dept of Justice perhaps?

  7. Anon

    The best thing for the health of American culture and life would for be for people to learn how to productively spend more time doing nothing. Not being able to do this is a flaw in the American character.

    Actually, the best thing is to be doing something that you enjoy (and allows you to grow as a person). It is the lack of joy in Americans eyes that is most disheartening.

    1. Lord Koos

      I sometimes think about how much of human knowledge has resulted from time spent simply observing the natural world. I read somewhere that so-called primitive peoples had far more free time than modern humans.

      Americans overall seem depressed and/or angry, many with good reason. While living in Thailand for seven months, I noticed that I generally heard more laughter more often, than I do in the USA.

  8. Wukchumni

    The 50% more weekend holidays here in the National Park tend to be ridiculous, in that everybody and their mother shows up, long lines to get in the NP, scant parking, and lotsa uptight folks as a result.

    They could easily take a Friday or Monday off the weekend before Memorial Day or Labor Day, and enjoy themselves, but noooooo.

    1. jrs

      Are you sure they could easily take the Friday or Monday off the weekend before Memorial Day or Labor Day? I wouldn’t be. I’ve seen enough people work without *ANY* ability to take vacation days, to know that the national holidays may be all they get.

      1. Wukchumni

        I was thinking of the week before or the week after those holidays…

        And being shit scared to ask your employer for a day off, is par for the course in these United States. We’re so terrified of taking time off, or even asking for it, that we seldom do.

    2. EoH

      The long lines and other problems you note might be a consequence of decades of underinvestment by Congress and presidents, of overcrowding and overpricing elsewhere, of too few staff and facilities to accommodate the growth in interest in the parks, outdoor recreation, and what they mean for the United States.

      The dramatic increase in costs to enter and purchase items at parks is a routine regressive, neoliberal approach to legislative miserliness – and to neoliberal insistence that every resource generating free cash, notwithstanding, as here, that taxpayers might think they’ve already paid for the maintenance and staffing of their national parks.

      Neoliberals have defined public goods out of existence, so a national park is just another under-utilized asset, ripe for the plucking.

      I agree with the idea that many more people than a few decades ago cannot afford to take vacation, if they have it, even a day here and there, either because it is unpaid time or because their job might not be there when they return. That’s another expression of the resource extraction mentality of the NTC.

      1. Wukchumni

        Certainly our National Parks are in need of a major revamp, and all it would take is the will to do it, which doesn’t exist.

        I don’t know about dramatic increases in price, as the proposed entrance fee increase was shot down, and the concessionaires aren’t allowed to gouge visitors even though they have a captured audience and could go the movie theater route, charging $5 for a coke, if they were allowed free reign.

  9. L.M. Dorsey

    Wendy L. Wall’s Inventing the “American Way” is worth a look: “By defining the values on which ‘all Americans’ supposedly agreed — and by promoting those values using an array of cultural forums — diverse elites sought to shape the nation’s political culture in ways that furthered their own political and social agendas. They sought to define the nation’s ‘circle of we’ in ways that excluded those with whom they ideologically disagreed,”

    The impossible trick is to be able, under the immense weight of (mass) culture, not to imagine that one stands apart from it, hasn’t been shaped by it, and isn’t constrained by it. To understand that it is all artifice, down to and into the dirt. And that is where we start from.

    There’s the example of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Rejection of the Trilogy of Life” in Lutheran Letters:

    The nights are safe and quiet, marvelously Mediterranean, the kidnappings, the robberies, the capital executions, the millions of frauds and thefts are a matter for the news columns, etc. Everyone has adapted to this situation either by not wishing to notice anything or by an inert process which takes the drama out of the situation.

    But I have to admit that even if one had noticed or dramatized the situation that by no means saves one from adaptation or acceptance. So I am adapting to degradation and accepting the unacceptable. I manoeuvre to rearrange my life. I am beginning to forget how things were before. The loved faces of yesterday are beginning to turn yellow. Little by little and without any more alternatives I am confronted by the present. I readjust my commitment to greater legibility (Salò?). [9 Nov. 75]

  10. SocraticGadfly

    You lost me at celebrating the ratification of the Constitution, Yves. A conservative second revolution was enshrined then.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, if you don’t read a post, it’s awfully easy to completely fabricate what it says, as you have.

      Commenting without reading a post is a violation of our written site Policies.

  11. Altandmain

    This may be one the most important reasons why the US, along with, to a lesser extent Canada don’t take as much vacation as they should:

    Now in fairness to those office slaves, while Americans buy into the “always on duty” attitude (I noticed how little smart phones and IPads were visibly in use, even in the toniest parts of London, compared to New York City), some of it is rational. Even before the bust, it was hard for anyone over 35 who loses a job to land another, much the less at the same level of pay, job tenures are short, and companies keep squeezing workers. Everyone I know who is still on the corporate meal ticket is doing what would have been one and one half or two jobs ten years ago.

    Fear is what motivates people. Fear of job loss, fear of looking lazy resulting in being the first person to be laid off, and fear of ending up on the street due to the weaker social safety net.

    It is not some masochistic desire to constantly work, but fear and as the article notes, decades of propaganda.

    Most studies of course show that vacations boost productivity, so they may very well help businesses boost the bottom line.


    I doubt the research will motivate American corporations though. They are more about dominance than about raw profits. They would rather make less money if they could dominate their workers more in my opinion.

  12. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Biologically, we used to toil everyday.

    Would it be better to work everyday, for, say 5 hours a day, instead of 8 hours a day for 5 days with 2 days from the week*off?

    *the 7-day week was a fairly recent invention or progress (or not, depending on the answer to the question above).

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