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Only In America: From Working Vacations To Nano-vactions To Staycations

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In my last op-ed, I brought up America's Vacation Deficit Disorder, a national crisis of sorts that has profound effects on both our nation's well-being and collective productivity, as well as our own individual health.

We received some great comments from around the world: Thank you all!

The consensus was that it may be time for that proverbial wakeup call and pressing the reset button in regard to our nation's incredible shrinking vacation time. But to get from crisis prognosis to cure, we have to understand how we got into this predicament. And for that, context is important, and as always, the past is prologue...

Here's a little bit of vacation history I uncovered during the research for my next book (America's Vacation Deficit Disorder):

Around 1840, Horace Mann, an American educational reformer, successfully lobbies the U.S. Congress to alter school calendars -- out of dual concerns that rural schooling was insufficient and that the over-stimulating of city kids might lead to nervous disorders and insanity -- invents what is today known as summer vacation. American families have never been the same. You couldn't say that family road trips began occurring yet however, because station wagons and SUV's hadn't been invented yet!

Also in 1840, President Van Buren sought legislation to reduce the official workday from 12 to 10 hours a day. (Boston ship carpenters achieved the first eight-hour day in 1842.)

In England, the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 passes that creates a set of official annual secular holidays that banks would be closed on. And if the banks were closed, it was a given of the day that no money would be available to circulate through society, and thus other businesses would inevitably be forced to close as well.

The term "busman's holiday" was first coined in 1893 when workers found themselves unable to find a good work-leisure balance. What the term refers to ironically is really taking no holiday at all. It arrives on the scene when the drivers of horse-driven omnibuses of 19th century England often grew so attached to their particular team of horses (aka workaholics), that even during their days off, many drivers would disguise themselves as regular passengers in order to keep a watchful eye on their relief drivers and the state of their horses. (In some respects this is the first version of what employees in Corporate America know today as a working vacation!)

Literally following in the footsteps of John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt pushes the idea of Americans everywhere enjoying the great outdoors and becomes responsible for 14 national parks and 21 national monuments that today comprise our amazing and vast National Park system that includes 384 special areas. People everywhere grab onto that Victorian-era tradition of admiringly gazing-upon the landscape -- the American version of getting away from it all was born. But workers needed time off work to truly enjoy themselves.

Two years into his presidency in 1910, President Taft is reported to have actually said that "The American people have found out that there is such a thing as exhausting the capital of one's health and constitution." He later goes on to remarkably suggest that "two to three months" vacation "after the hard and nervous strain in which workers are subjected to during the autumn and spring seasons are necessary in order to continue work with energy and effectiveness." It hasn't happened yet!

By this time the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveys indicate that just over 10% of all salaried employees in the United States were receiving some type of vacation pay. And in 1912, a revealing book by Josephine Goldmark entitled "Fatigue and Efficiency: A Study in Industry" suggested among other juicy medical findings that tired and fatigued workers were less productive. (This leads to the Federal Public Works Act of 1912 that required a 40-hour workweek for all government employees along with two weeks of paid vacation.)

It was not until 1919 that President Wilson created the USA version of English Bank Holidays Act of 1871 -- it seems that we're always a tad slow on these social reform things! -- that includes: Veterans Day (aka Armistice Day) and the traditional floating holidays of New Year's Day (January 1), Independence Day (July 4), Memorial Day (last Monday of May) and Christmas Day (December 25); Thanksgiving Day (the fourth Thursday of November was added in 1939), thus creating America's so-called Big Six!

In 1936, following a wave of worker protests and strikes in France, the French government mandates vacations for all workers for the first time. Two years later the British Parliament also passes the Holidays with Pay Act that mandates at least one week a year of paid vacations for all full-time workers. The passage of this act legitimizes workers fundamental leisure needs among nations.

In time, 138 other nations would mandate vacation time for their citizens by 2011. Yet, one nation stubbornly has still not acknowledged the legitimate need for workers to recharge, refresh and get revitalized by taking time off work.

With the continued growth of unions and their "united we stand, divided we fall" philosophy, paid vacations grew in the USA too, with an estimated 57% of workers securing one or two-week paid vacation periods by the 1960s during America's Golden Age. (The key difference was that these were vacations were negotiated not mandated!)

In 1966, Japanese sociologist, Ikutaro Shimizu heralds "the coming of the leisure-age." Many others have also commented on the coming new age when revolutionary time-saving, labor-saving technologies were going to free man from the mundane realities of work. One problem: it hasn't happened yet!

The so-called mental health day that an employee takes off from work in order to relieve stress or renew vitality versus going postal, arrives on the scene in 1971.

Starting in 1973, either causally or coincidentally as unions began to decline in America with the changes brought on by globalization, aggressive right-to-work union-busting and the decline of the manufacturing base, American vacations began to shrink precipitously.

In 1992, a California statewide ballot-initiative called The Such Effective Worker Scheme, that would have offered California-based employers incentives to give their workers longer vacations of up to six weeks, fails to qualify for the ballot. They could not get enough signatures from qualified voters!

In 2004, a company called Vocation Vacations begins offering clients the opportunity to "test-drive" different jobs while on vacation to help people regain their passion for life -- with a new job!

By 2005, the sad facts and figures speak for themselves as vacation time in the United States continues to dwindle to an average of 4.1 days (aka nano-vacations) down from six days before the Reagan era began. Which begs the question "Are you better off today?"

Another one of those only in America cultural evolutions occurs in 2008, when due to the down turn in the economy and the rising cost of gas, the term "staycation" begins appearing in nightly TV news broadcasts showing middleclass Americans deciding (being forced?) to spend their allotted vacation time staying at home instead of actually going on vacation. (Some claim that we are now officially too poor to travel!)

Around this time, Take Back Your Time, a Seattle-based organization, starts a PR campaign advocating three-week annual paid vacations, which they claim 69% of Americans agreed to in a 2008 poll. Despite the ground swell of citizen support, it hasn't happened yet!

A Don Quixote-like push was made in 2009 -- by single-term serving Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida -- with the introduction of the so-called Paid Vacation Act (H.R. 2564) that called for "companies with more than 100 employees to offer a week of paid vacation for both full-time and part-time employees after they've put in a year on the job. Three years after the effective date of the law, those same companies would be required to provide two weeks of paid vacation, and companies with 50 or more employees would have to provide one week." Needless to say, it died a less than heroic and quick death.

Currently, there are still no federal laws mandating vacation time for non-government workers anywhere on the books in the United States. In fact, the United States does not even have any federal regulations regarding the taking of sick leave either! (Connecticut was the first state to formalize sick leave pay in 2011.)

Today the U.S. remains a wholly laissez-faire capitalist nation, where time is money and you are on your own in negotiating whatever you can get from whomever you can get it from. Indeed, our Protestant Work Ethic, now so deeply engraved in our workplace culture, has us working longer than ever before with many of us tied 24/7 to the office on a digital leash.

On a lighter note, travel experts predict that next year -- when Xbox360 3-D comes out with their Virtual Vacation game system that can take staycation armchair travelers anywhere -- taking actual vacations will no longer be necessary.

What say you?

Next up: Our Incredible Shrinking Vacation Time compared with a few other industrial nations!