Vacation for Me, Not for Thee: European Workers’ Hard-Won Summer Vacation Tradition Is Slowly Being Taken Away

August is the time of year that the majority of Europeans head off on vacation, and Americans reading the news are reminded of how crappy the paid time off policy is in the US.

That is no doubt true. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), American workers put in more hours than every other “developed” country in the ILO’s report – France, Belgium, Germany, Australia, the UK, and Sweden. That averages out to roughly 400 more hours on the job every year compared to Germany.

The legal right to paid vacation and total number of mandated paid holidays. Source: Center for Economic and Policy Research

In theory the Europeans’ vacation policies are a comparatively sane balance between capital and workers. But if you start to peel back some class layers in Europe, what you’ll find isn’t pretty. The vacation “privilege” has for some time been quietly eroding for the working poor.

While 75 percent of Europeans planned to travel this summer, the number one reason for those staying home was economic challenges. Forty-seven percent said they were too short on cash to go on vacation, which was up six points over last year. More from The European Trade Union Confederation:

The share of the total population who could not afford a holiday has increased in over half of EU member states since 2019 and even the share of working people who can’t afford one has increased in 11 countries.

Romania, Greece and Lithuania have the highest share of workers unable to get away for a week. Italy (8m) , Spain (4.6m) and France (4.1m) have the highest number of workers missing out on a break for financial reasons.

This coincides with a rise in the profit share of European companies, meaning executives and shareholders hoarded more money among themselves to the detriment of workers.

The cost of living crisis in Europe, largely due to the collective West’s ill-fated war against Russia, is only making matters worse. Inflation is sapping enthusiasm for vacation. Nearly one in three of Europeans say that price increases have increased their anxiety about summer vacation travel, and 48 percent were concerned about running out of money while traveling this summer. And that’s if they can get away from both of their jobs at the same time. From Euronews:

As inflation soars across Europe and beyond, an increasing number of workers are taking on additional jobs to combat the cost of living crisis.

New research from software company Qualtrics shows that nearly half of UK employees have either already looked for or are planning to look for a second stream of income, and 77 per cent are considering picking up overtime or extra shifts to pay their bills.

Other European countries are seeing similar trends: 30 per cent of workers surveyed in Germany and 22 per cent of those in France are considering taking on a second job.

Additionally, the professional managerial class might still spend their August at their beach homes, but they are increasingly working while there. According to Ipsos:

“Workation” is gaining in popularity among European actives: almost three out of 10 intend to work from their holiday location this summer, a four point increase compared to 2022 (28% vs. 24%). It remains significantly below Americans, 36% of US actives planning a workation next summer.

These trends are a continuation of the deterioration of the European summer holiday for the working class, poor, and retired. While the percentage unable to afford vacation varies from year to year depending on the economic situation ( e.g., it was 40 percent in 2013 and 28 percent in 2018), the key is that the ability to go on vacation is no longer universal, which was integral to the original labor efforts to win paid time off.

It wasn’t long ago that European countries offered free vacation destinations through the church, unions, or government. Those options are now mostly gone and those unable to afford a summer holiday either stay home or continue working because they need the money. On Europe’s current economic trajectory, how long until vacation is exclusively for the rich?

So what we have is a crumbling of one of European socialists’ crowning achievements, which started when the universality began to be chipped away. And unfortunately European policy is becoming more like the US rather than the other way around. The French labor movement fought for and gained guaranteed paid vacation time back in the 1920s and 1930s, and such policies soon became rivalries between the fascist and socialist states of Europe, as well as an opportunity for the latter to build support for the universality of the program and patriotism. David Broder writes at Jacobin:

Key here was the focus on leisure’s ability to bridge class divides — [undersecretary of state for sports and leisure Léo] Lagrange not only sponsored the “People’s Olympiad” in Barcelona, alternative to Hitler’s Olympics, but himself provided tours of Paris to agricultural laborers from other regions. Government support for member-run associations was aimed at fostering a collective management of leisure time, free of the patronage associated with church or charitable initiatives: for Lagrange, this would allow the “miner, the artisan, the peasant, the mason, the clerk and the teacher [to] gradually understand the unity of human labor.”

Without that unity, the hard-fought vacation time victories are being whittled away. I’ll use Italy as an example for this process since that is the country I am most familiar with, but data shows it is increasingly a bloc-wide assault on working class vacation. Rome used to be a complete ghost town in August. If you were a tourist who showed up at that time, you would have thought a fast-moving plague ripped through while you were en route at 35,000 feet.

Some bodegas might have been open in the city center around the tourist attractions, but that was about it. Everyone was on vacation. It did not matter if you were a manager or a janitor; you didn’t work in August, and nearly everyone fled the city for the beaches or mountain lakes.

Even for the poorest there were le colonie (“the colonies”). These were free retreats managed by the public or the church in post-World War Two Italy where children could go if their parents didn’t have the money for a family vacation. The colonies first began towards the end of the 19th century to house children with tuberculosis. More colonies were constructed during the 1920s and 30s and they began to host even healthy children, largely with a propaganda function under the fascist government.

After the war, as Italy built up its welfare state, it expanded the colonies and provided low-cost or free options for the entire family to vacation, as did France and other countries in Europe. As Italy’s economic boom progressed, however, the colonies and other cheap vacation options emptied out as most Italians had more money to spend and/or didn’t want to be seen as too poor to pay for their holiday.

The 1990s dealt the final death blow to the colonies. As Italy prepared to enter the eurozone, Rome was required to scale back its social spending, which meant less money for municipalities, and funding for the colonies dried up. Many have now become high-end resorts, and previously free areas for families have also been overtaken by development catering to wealthy Italians and international travelers.

Maybe at no time is this trend more evident than in Italian cities in August. Take Rome, which as stated above, used to be a ghost town during the month. By the 1990s the city center was no longer going quiet during August as service employees were required to remain and tend to the tourists. It’s only been in the past 10 years that the trend has moved outwards into Rome’s working class suburbs. More and more grocery stores, restaurants, and shops now remain open. Many workers say they would prefer to work because they need the money. While it’s great that European workers have 20 to 30 days of paid time off, it loses its luster if you’re not able to actually if you can’t actually afford to go anywhere or instead spend that time working your second job.

This also reinforces the idea of the summer vacation for some and not for all. An obvious solution would be better pay and bringing back free vacation destinations for the poor.

Without a summer vacation that all classes can enjoy, the hard-won tradition will likely continue to be slowly taken away (one can already hear the arguments that sacrifices on the number of vacation days must be made by workers to keep European businesses competitive) by capitalists who have never liked the August tradition for workers but will continue to enjoy it themselves.

Europeans don’t need to look far for what such a future looks like. Just ask the Americans.

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    Many thanks. Adding to the Italian situation, I had just read this article in Fatto Quotidiano that indicates that up to 41 percent of Italians can’t take a summer vacation. About half of the group, some 20 percent of the Italian population, can’t afford to take a vacation.

    The difference from years ago, too, is that tourism is now a major driver of the Italian economy in a way that was not so even twenty years ago. I was in Roma for the last week of July, and I have never seen so many tourists–who have spawned dozens of restaurants around the Piazza Navona and neighboring streets. These new restaurants will require staff during July and August…

    Fatto Quotidiano, with some graphs and figures:

    Un puntiglio, if I may, to Conor: As you know, in Italy, there aren’t bodegas. That’s a Spanish usage and is a New York term. A bottega is the shop that an artisan sets up to sell goods: There are still bottegas (I can think of a leather-goods store, kids’ clothing shop, and several custom-shirt shops). You are thinking of edicole (the news stands that often sell all kinds of things) or tabaccai (tobacconists, who also sell all kinds of things).

    But I quibble: The point of the article is that the goal of Anglo-American economics and the UE bureaucracy is to grind down those dangerous socialist gains in favor of “controlling labor costs” and the Ukraine Project.

  2. ddt

    Sometimes you had to take vacation in August because the business shut down for 2 weeks anyway. So even if you wanted to work you couldn’t. Think this went away after the 90s (Greek experience that).

    1. DJG, Reality Czar

      ddt: Yep. Two food stores that I frequent are closing for the second half of August. When the locals are away, the tourists do not make up the difference. As the owner of the natural-foods shop said to me: It’s too expensive for her to turn on the lights, considering the daily receipts.

    2. ChrisFromGA

      Shutting down for weeks in August means transaction volumes must slow, a no-no for a global debt Ponzi. Once charming, quaint little villages in Europe got sucked into the global economy, their fate was sealed.

      It’s a shame that Europe is being turned into Disney World for foreign tourists. Personally, I am not taking any vacation this summer due to life circumstances. Mental images of throngs of Americans clogging up airports and Italian villages make staying home more bearable. Lots of nice day trips here in GA.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Because of the blowback of the Russians sanctions and the ever worsening future economic conditions in the EU, I think that there will be a concerted effort to start to reduce workers wages and conditions as more and more money will be devoted to the military establishments instead of social underpinning. And that this will include such things as holidays. Denmark has already eliminated a centuries old public holiday on the grounds that the money saved will be able to go to the military budget. The Danish PM said ‘I don’t think it’s a problem to have to work an extra day’ but workers don’t get his pay-packet and all the goodies that come with it like free international air travel. So expect there to be more attacks on EU public holidays as time goes on-

    1. JonnyJames

      Thanks for the link, I’m a bit surprised the BBC covered that story. I seldom visit their site nowadays.

    2. Irrational

      Rev, you beat me to it on your general point and your story about the country that issues my passport (Denmark).
      Rather than all European employees feeling the pain, I surmise that we are already starting to see how it will work: companies in certain sectors (e.g. BASF, Lanxess, car manufacturers) decide to take their investment in new capacity elsewhere and then cutting domestic production, thereby increasing the number of those on unemployment benefit and, after that runs out, social benefits. For now, plenty of well-paid “spin” jobs (marketing, sales and such) will remain for the PMC. Expect the PMC to start calls for cutting benefits, repeating Hartz IV in Germany, for all the lazy quitters. Effect: worsening inequality. It could get very ugly.

  4. Cesar Jeopardy

    How is it the U.S. is listed as having 0 paid holidays and paid vacations? I always had paid holidays and vacations.

    1. Conor Gallagher Post author

      The chart displays the legal right to paid vacation and mandated paid holidays. While your job may have offered such “perks,” many do not.

    2. Pat

      The US does not guarantee paid holidays or vacations. It is at the discretion of the employer. More advanced nations have minimum requirements for paid sick days, holidays and vacations. But then they also have guaranteed health care not just insurance…

    3. Altandmain

      Poor labor rights in the US. There are no paid holidays assured by labor law in the US. It’s even worse in many of the right to work states where workers are often afraid of taking time off.

      Anecdotally it seems that the upper-middle class is the only class with reliable paid holidays in the US.

      Fewer Americans can afford to travel and with the gig economy taking over, even fewer have the salaries and benefits to do so.

  5. digi_owl

    Maybe i’m getting old, but back when i was a kid here in Norway a summer holiday trip meant loading into a car with a camper attached and go visit another part of the nation. Grabbing a plane to another part of the world at the first sign of a holiday is a more recent thing, as airline tickets had become crazy cheap.

  6. curlydan

    Here is a link to the chart shown above (from 2019):
    “The United States continues to be the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation and holidays…. Workers in the European Union are legally guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with some countries mandating up to at least 30 days.”

  7. JonnyJames

    US attitude: “I got my seven-figure salary, six weeks of paid vacation, golden parachute retirement, so everyone else can f-off. You don’t deserve a vacation, health care or a pension, so you will die at least a decade sooner than the upper-income groups. Too f-in bad, whaddya gonna do about it.?”: (see declining average life expectancy in the US)

    The UK (former senior partner, now jr. partner in crime) is fast becoming the mini-me of the USA. Once they take away paid holidays (vacations) and fully privatise the NHS, there will be no difference.

    The EU countries are slowly losing their hard-won gains, but it will take a little longer to privatise everything, take away paid vacations, etc. They still have an increasing average life expectancy, for now at least. At least the French fight back. The folks who brought you the guillotine don’t take kindly to getting stolen from by the kleptocratic oligarchy.

    In the US, folks are too ignorant, misinformed\, dumbed down and brainwashed to understand what is going on.

  8. El Slobbo

    I wonder how one can reconcile these sad stories of people not being able to take a few days off, against the undeniable vast increase in global tourism over the last 30 years.
    And further, among the clueless looking hordes wandering around my area staring at their iPhones, the large majority of them seem to have American accents.

    1. Bawb the Revelator


    2. Polar Socialist

      I think the operative word here is paid. Whenever my daughter and her American husband visit us here in the Socialistan, my son-in-law takes one week paid and one week unpaid vacation.

      He makes more money than I do, but I have 7 weeks of paid vacation, free healthcare, strong union and a job I love to go to – so he would change places in a heartbeat.

    3. PCM

      I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that these globetrotting Americans aren’t among the ~37% of American households that don’t have $400 cash on hand.

      Similarly (and, apparently, as in Italy), ~40% of French workers are currently forced to either “take their paid vacations” at home or continue to do gig work. When I lived in France in the 1970s, I earned barely above minimum wage and I was able to use my then-only-four-week (20-day) annual paid vacation every year. My vacations consisted of bicycle touring plus camping inside France and were thus not particularly expensive, but they were a welcome respite from the rest of the year.

      There are multiple factors behind the decline, but best I can figure out, they all pretty much stem from EU- and WTO-enabled offshoring of high-value-added manufacturing jobs, coupled with a deliberate change in French employment policy and law from termination-for-cause-only to short-term, untenured positions and gig work without benefits. As in the US, the order of the day is now flexibility and low costs for employers and precarity and low wages for workers. As I believe was mentioned in the article, inflation stemming from sanctions on Russian energy has exacerbated the problem.

      Incidentally, French mainstream media didn’t become monolithically right-of-center neolib/neocon until starting in around 2010, so there are still a couple generations of French workers who haven’t been completely anesthetized, unlike their Australian, British, American, and Swedish counterparts. They may still be demonstrating and striking now, but I’m not sure the putative rebellious spirit of the French will survive another 20 or 30 years of propaganda and indoctrination, particularly as the French government has taken yet another page from the US playbook and has begun leaning on social-media companies to squelch dissent there as well.

  9. Wukchumni

    Walked 40 miles in the back of beyond the past week and only saw a bear (5th of the year) at Crescent Meadow in Sequoia NP upon our return to the trailhead. About a dozen European tourists were watching with us, in the NP’s where English is really a secondary language in the summer.

    I don’t see any slackening in their visitations, here.

  10. DennyOR

    In the U.S. almost all workers withe the exception of the self-employed get a nice paid vacation. Only socialists care whether it’s government mandated vacation time or free market vacation time.

    1. Yves Smith

      I don’t know what planet you live on. Go talk to hourly workers and get back to me.

      And even among those who do get paid vacations, many don’t take much or all of them due to various workplace demands and competitive concerns (if you aren’t willing to compromise your vacation, you aren’t team player and that means you are on a losing promotion and bonus path). Oh, and how many white collar workers wind up working on nominal vacations? Raise your hand please.

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