Steven E.F. Brown
May 7, 2014
San Francisco Business Times

The French are not like you and me. As Tolstoy aptly observed in War and Peace, a Frenchman believes “he is mentally and physically irresistibly fascinating to both men and women.”

They’re proud, and rightly so, of their contributions to history and democracy. After all, they gave us libertéégalité,fraternité, the Rights of Man, all that stuff.

If you’ve ever been to France, you can’t help but know this. Every French person is a philosopher, and they tend to smoke while thinking about philosophy, usually those nasty Gauloises or Gitanes. And they tend to do all these things while on vacation (or on strike).

Liberté, égalité, fraternité, holiday

France has lovely beaches, and the French smoke their nasty dark cigarettes while putting their irresistibly fascinating mental and physical selves on display on the beach for more than a month a year. The average French worker gets 30 paid vacation days, says travel company Expedia, and — surprise! — they use every one of those days. The company sums up the French mindset aptly — “vacation is a right rather than a privilege.”

And yet, somehow, the French remain the “world champion of misery” as the Gallic press put it after a World Health Organization report earlier this year ranked France as the most depressed nation.

Meanwhile, Americans, who get an average of 14 paid vacation days, are overworked and concerned about money, so they are giving up an average of two vacation days each this year, which works out to about 226 million wasted days — about two days per worker — some $34 billion in unused time. Americans eat lunch at their desks, where they arrived early and will stay late. Maybe they have no time to be depressed.

In California, which also has pretty nice beaches, that vacation sacrifice works out to about 36 million unused vacation days, worth about $5.4 billion, and in the Bay Area, where beaches are sometimes chilly and windy, that is about 6.3 million vacation days not taken, worth some $950 million, based on Bureau of Labor employment and wage statistics.

The facts of life

“Americans treat vacation as a luxury rather than a fact of life,” Expedia said in its report on Wednesday, with the gloomy title of “Vacation Deprivation Study.”

Why do Americans forfeit so many vacation days of the paltry few they receive? Perhaps it is that damn Puritan work ethic. Or money fears in these dark economic times.

“Money and planning are the most commonly-cited reasons for not taking vacation,” Expedia said. “The US leads the world in money worries.”

And it ain’t grouchy bosses keeping American workers in the office, either — 73 percent of Americans said their bosses are supportive of vacation.

The grumpiest bosses were in South Korea (52 percent negative) — which also is not a surprise, if you’ve been there as I have and seen how hard they work, taking just seven of their 10 annual vacation days — and in Italy (56 percent negative), which is a bit of surprise. Italy is an odd exception in this report — Italians left seven vacation days unused this year, but they got 28 of them, meaning they still took more than Americans, by far.

Nordic nations, which seem to have worked everything out pretty well, reported the most supportive bosses around holiday taking, with Norway at 88 percent and Sweden at 82 percent.

Life’s a beach

Overall, Expedia said, Americans are most like Asians, who work hard and take few vacation days. Japanese take just five out of 11 available. “Asians take the fewest days of vacation and spend them secretly checking emails,” the report said.

At the other extreme are the French and the Brazilians, who also get 30 days, also take every one, and also have excellent beaches.

Why do I keep talking about beaches? Because, according to Expedia’s report, that’s where the French go when they take a vacation and the Americans go if they take one. “Globally, beach vacations are king.”

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