Every day, my son spends a few minutes crying, because we’re not on vacation yet. “I don’t want to go to day care,” he wails. “I want to go to the beach!”
At least he snaps out of it quick. All it takes is a toss in the air or a jelly sandwich and he thinks life is pretty good again. Everyday life doesn’t offer such easy compensation for disappointment when you’re all grown up. Or maybe grown-ups just aren’t so quick to see it when it’s there.
The problem with vacations — which even a 3-year-old can sense — is that they make everything else look bleak by comparison. They make you say things like, “I really needed to get away.” But get away from what? Your life.
That doesn’t seem healthy.
In the United States, the average workweek is 47 hours long. Last year, the average employee who works full time and gets paid vacation took 17 days. However you look at it, that’s too little time off.
But here’s a thought experiment: Would you rather work more than 50 hours a week but have five weeks of vacation a year, or would you rather work 30 hours a week and never go on vacation again?
I would give up vacations, every time. Maybe that’s because I have young children now and I don’t want to feel that I’m giving them the attention they need only in July and around major holidays. Maybe it’s because travelling with them is so logistically complicated, I may as well be planning a land invasion (except half of my army is incontinent).
Or maybe I’m just one of those people who find that vacations rarely live up to expectations anyway.
I once travelled to a wedding and spent much of the trip in a funk because I wasn’t married yet and wasn’t sure yet if I wanted to be. I once caught a stomach bug while camping at the foot of Kanchenjunga, the third-tallest mountain in the world. I once went to Acadia National Park to see the trees change colour, but met only a bank of impenetrable fog, like a case of cataracts.
What if I had taken all the money and enthusiasm I’d put into the past 10 years of vacations and devoted it, instead, to making my own life, the real one, a little bit better? What would that look like?
David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, has written a new book about the soul-sucking nature of modern work called [Expletive] Jobs: A Theory. He argues that more and more people are employed in jobs that they think are “pointless.” They’re labouring over PowerPoint clip art for presentations that no one reads and trying to make five minutes of data entry last all morning long.
The fact that much of the book is based on testimonials that people sent to him suggests that it might be a bit biased by people who hate their jobs enough to write testimonials about them. But I can’t argue with his general conclusion. The point isn’t that people are working too hard; it’s that they’re working too hard on things that they feel don’t matter. No wonder they want to get away.
The other problem with vacations is that once they’re over, you have to go home again. And you have to bring your dirty laundry back with you.
Obviously, people need vacation days, just as they need parental leave and paid sick days, and I’m lucky to have them. (Though wouldn’t it be great if we all lived in France and had 35-hour workweeks and such generous vacations that August was basically one long boozy brunch?) And obviously travel is fun, and interesting, and unless you’re a brain-dead boor, you’re going to get something out of it.
But the fact that vacations serve as a release valve means that we — and our employers — can let that pressure mount the 49 other weeks of the year. Knowing I’ll finally be at the beach next week makes it that little bit easier to put in an extra hour of email each night. It makes me think, as I face down a sink full of dishes, “I just have to get through tomorrow, and then the next day, and then...”
When I was growing up, my dad — whom I adore — worked all the time. He was one of the first people I knew to have a cellphone, and the only one who used it to check in with the office while riding the chairlift on ski vacations. But I have this one memory of him that I can’t shake. I was about 7. We were playing whiffle ball, thwacking it across the backyard. I remember it because it was an ordinary weeknight, not a holiday or vacation. I don’t know why he was home so early, except that he wanted to be and because it was a perfect summer night in New England — where every now and then there is a day when the air is such a perfect temperature that it feels like no temperature at all, when it’s impossible to imagine that anywhere could be better than right where you are.
This summer, I want more days like that.
–New York Times News Service