US President George W. Bush (R front) wa
Luke Frazza  /  AFP/Getty Images file
President Bush waves as he fishes with his father and brother while on vacation in Kennebunkport. How many vacation days do you get?
updated 8/23/2005 12:16:41 PM ET 2005-08-23T16:16:41

Few have ever accused George W. Bush of acting like a Frenchman. But in terms of his holiday habits Mr. Bush has much in common with the laid back French. On Thursday he passed an unusual landmark, becoming the best-rested president in U.S. history, with 336 days spent at his ranch in Texas since he came to office.

As he reclines with a good book or builds up a sweat cutting wood in the Texas sun, he may spare a thought for his less fortunate compatriots. Americans workers take less holiday than almost any other employees in the industrialized world. After five years of service at a company the period Mr. Bush has spent in the White House an American worker typically gets about 13 days of paid leave a year.

The U.S. is almost unique among industrialized countries in refusing to set a legal minimum for paid holiday time. Even developing countries often force companies to allow employees some time to recharge their batteries. El Salvador, Indonesia and Mongolia have all established a minimum of 10 to 15 days paid leave a year.

More remarkably, about a third of Americans do not take the modest amount of holiday companies allow them. "George Bush is one of the few Americans who has time for family values," says Phineas Baxandall, an economist at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In 1996, Americans surpassed even the notoriously diligent Japanese, working 1,858 hours a year to Japan's 1,821. (For comparison, the average Dutch worker put in 1,363 hours last year; assuming a 40 hour work week, this is about 12 weeks less than an American.) Only the South Koreans put America to shame in terms of their work ethic, working about 2,400 hours.

So why do Americans take so little holiday and is their sacrifice worthwhile?

Many have argued that differences in working conditions reflect cultural variances. Americans may occasionally long for more holiday as they gaze out of their office window on a sunny day. But offer them more money or more spare time and many will opt for the cash, surveys suggest. Europeans, by contrast, seem to opt for the time.

"There is often a sense of guilt when people are not working in the U.S.," says Jon Messenger, a working time expert for the International Labor Organization in Geneva. "This helps explain why many don't take their full holiday or make themselves available to work during their vacations." America's consumer culture may also force people to work harder.

Not all experts, however, are convinced by such explanations. Americans have not always stood out for their hard work. As recently as the 1960, the Italians and Germans could look down at American laziness. So what changed? A favorite argument of the right is that in the 1970s and 1980s the U.S. cut taxes providing a powerful incentive for Americans to work hard by allowing them to keep more of the money they earned. While Europeans endure an average marginal tax rate of 52.7 percent, Americans get away lightly with about 34 percent.

This is only part of the story, argues Bruce Sacerdote, an economist at Dartmouth College. "In the 1970s as the political power of the European trade union movement grew, they managed to win ever greater paid holidays," he says. In the U.S., with little countervailing force from trade unions, it has often made economic sense for companies to extract longer hours from a smaller workforce.

"If companies are providing workers in the U.S. with health insurance and pensions services that are often provided by governments in Europe then you have a high overhead per person," says Paul Swaim, a labor expert at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

"It makes more sense to have fewer workers doing a lot of hours rather than a large workforce putting in fewer hours."

What does America get for the additional sweat of its workers' brows? The simple answer, economists say, is more stuff. The U.S. has higher output per worker producing about a third more than the average French employee.

According to Mr. Sacerdote, people on each side of the Atlantic get what they want. "The Americans get more stuff and the Europeans more time," he says. "As long as everyone is happy, what does it matter?"

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.


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