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The richest countries in the world guarantee paid vacation — except the U.S.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

All but one of the 21 richest countries in the world require paid vacation for every worker - bakers, doctors, train operators, everyone. The U.S. is the only one of these countries that doesn't. It does not guarantee a single day of paid vacation. Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast tried to understand why.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Half of the people in the U.S. who are lucky to get paid vacation from their employers don't even take it all. And there's a theory that Americans work so much because of the Protestant work ethic that idleness is ungodly.

DANIEL HAMERMESH: Yeah, but come on now, Protestant ethic. I get that all the time. And yet, where'd the Protestant ethic originate?

GONZALEZ: This is Daniel Hamermesh.

HAMERMESH: In Switzerland with the Calvinists, OK? And yet the Swiss get a lot of public holidays. They get four or five weeks of paid vacation. So the ultimate Protestant ethic people are taking a lot of time off also.

GONZALEZ: Daniel is a labor economist at the University of Texas at Austin. And he feels very strongly about how we spend time. For him, this is the ultimate economic choice we make.

HAMERMESH: Because in our lives, we combine time with money. Money and time go together, and one of them is always scarce for you.

GONZALEZ: Daniel says the model economic person maximizes utility - or, you know, happiness - not just by having money to spend, but also having time to spend that money. And for Daniel, the Protestant work ethic argument doesn't fly because in 1979, the U.S. worked about the same amount on average as other rich countries - Canada, Australia, France. It's just, after 1979, all of those rich countries started sharply cutting their work hours, but not the U.S. If you do the math, Daniel says, people in Europe work about an hour and a half less every day.

HAMERMESH: That's a huge amount in economic terms. It's the equivalent of one day off a week.

GONZALEZ: Right, that's Friday.

And Daniel says the only reason the U.S. works more is the U.S. takes less vacation. And to try to understand why, I went to Tom Kochan at MIT, who left a lake house during vacation to do this interview.

So you're a workaholic also, like the rest of us?

TOM KOCHAN: Guilty as charged.

GONZALEZ: Tom studies work and unions. And he says there was a time when the U.S. could have gotten something like guaranteed paid vacation in the 1930s, when we got the minimum wage and overtime and Social Security. But Tom says some unions actually kind of drew a line at vacation.

KOCHAN: There is also a view among unions that we don't necessarily have to push for all of these things through legislation, because then if we did, then people might say, well, why do I need a union?

GONZALEZ: Oh, so this is, like, a known thing, that unions...

KOCHAN: Absolutely.

GONZALEZ: This is one of the interpretations for how things went down back then. The big benefits - vacation, pension, health care - were left off the table. And Tom says that's the culprit, because we have to negotiate with our employers for these benefits and for wages.

KOCHAN: So you have to trade off wages for another day of vacation, wages for improvement in pension.

GONZALEZ: And so when you do have to negotiate for health insurance, pension, asking for vacation kind of falls to the bottom of the list?

KOCHAN: Yeah, it's much lower priority.

GONZALEZ: In Europe, you get vacation, pension and health care from the government, not employers. So maybe the U.S. prioritizes work over vacation because we need money to pay for health care and pensions.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAY")

MADONNA: (Singing) We need a holiday. If we took a holiday, took some time to celebrate... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.

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