This is the time of year when most Americans take their vacations, with two weeks per year being fairly standard. In Europe, by contrast, one month of vacation is pretty much the minimum, with some countries mandating six weeks or more. For this reason, many people believe that Americans are overworked and that the federal government should mandate a reduction in work hours. Europe's experience with shorter work hours, however, shows that there is a very high economic cost to be paid for such policies.
There is now a growing industry of advocates for longer vacations and shorter workweeks. One of the most vigorous is Joe Robinson, editor of Escape magazine, who is on a crusade to get Americans to work less and vacation more. He has even established the Work to Live Committee to campaign for longer vacations, and instituted a petition to Congress for legislative action. Another group is the Shorter Work Time Network, which is pressing for a 32-hour workweek. U.S. News and World Report has even joined the effort, sponsoring a conference on overwork in America on June 26.
The big problem for these crusaders, however, is that by and large Americans don't really want more time off. Instead of working less, they prefer to be paid more. Two new surveys confirm this fact.
The first was released June 5 and was conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide. It asked people whether, if given a choice, they would prefer more time off or more money. Fifty-seven percent of Americans said they would prefer the money; only 37 percent wanted more time off. Interestingly, the poll asked the same question of people in 29 other countries as well. In only 7 did a majority of workers say they preferred more time off to more money. At the opposite end of the spectrum, only 13 percent of Russians said they wanted more time off; 71 percent wanted more money.
The second poll was done by Wirthlin Worldwide and released June 26. It asked 1,038 Americans whether they would rather have an extra vacation day or $100. Again, 57 percent said they preferred the money. A key reason is that 44 percent said they would not be able to rest on an extra vacation day anyway, because they would have to use it to catch up on housework, yard work or run errands.
The fact that Americans generally do not want longer vacations or shorter workweeks will not deter the advocates of laws forcing people to work less. For many, it is an ideological issue divorced from economics or even the actual preferences of workers. In Europe, the left has been very successful in legislating longer vacations and shorter work hours, despite the fact that the vast majority of workers actually prefer longer hours and higher pay. According to the Roper poll, 57 percent of all workers in Western Europe prefer higher wages to increased time off.
Since at least the 1930s, European unions have pushed for longer vacations and more paid holidays in large part because they believe that withdrawing labor from the market will create jobs. In recent years, they have also been pushing for a reduction in the length of the work week. France, for example, cut its standard work week from 40 hours to 39 hours in 1982, and to 35 hours 2 years ago. Employers were required to keep weekly pay unchanged.
Despite the fact that 63 percent of French workers would prefer more money to fewer hours, the shrinkage of the work week was rammed through by the Socialist Party soon after it took power in 1997. The goal was to reduce France's double-digit unemployment rate by spreading the available work around to more workers. Government inspectors were sent around to workplaces to make sure the law was enforced.
A recent study of the 1982 work hour reduction by the Center for Economic Policy Research in London found that it actually led to a rise in unemployment, with most of the burden falling on low-wage workers. A study of the latest reduction by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that while the work hour reduction did boost employment slightly, it came at a heavy cost. It led to a decline in productivity, higher inflation and a deterioration in the competitiveness of French industry. This led German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to say, "The 35-hour week in France is a good thing for employment in Germany."
Lately, many French workers have decided that a forced reduction in the workweek wasn't such a good idea after all. Earlier this year there were extensive strikes in France as workers protested the shorter workweek. A key complaint is that to avoid layoffs resulting from the work hour reduction, the government had to give businesses considerable flexibility in implementing the program that has in many cases led to a curtailment of wages and benefits.
Any effort to legislate longer vacations in the U.S. will have similar results. Ultimately, it is up to workers to decide whether they prefer more money or less work. At least for now, it is clear that American workers prefer the money. If the government forces them to take time off instead, most workers will be worse off for it.