The National Catholic Review
Terry Golway
If adults were required to compose essays chronicling what they did on their summer vacation, some of us would have no choice but to hand in a blank piece of paper. A recent article in The New York Times reported that about one in four private-sector workers in the U.S. receive no paid vacation time. Another 33 percent, the paper reported, take only a week’s vacation. In other words, more than half of America’s private-sector workers take no more than a week off during summer. That’s more than shocking. That’s sad.

Workers’ rights advocates and labor union leaders might instinctively point an accusatory finger at management. That is understandableU.S. corporations have been hacking away at benefits and so-called perks for years, arguing that American workers (but not American C.E.O.’s) must lower their expectations in the new global marketplace.

It turns out, however, that bosses aren’t entirely to blame for the slow disappearance of the great American summer vacation. The Times quoted Michael Pina, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association, offering this telling explanation: The idea of somebody going away for two weeks is really becoming a thing of the past, Pina said. It’s kind of sad, really, that people can’t seem to leave their jobs anymore.

A couple of generations ago, American men and women walked picket lines to demand a more humane social contract between labor and management. In their view, work was an important part of life, but it was not life itself. Thanks to their efforts, American workers were able to take a couple of weeks off every year to reconnect with family and friends.

Now, decades removed from the days when most American workers labored in factories and mills, many of us have decided not to take advantage of these hard-won gains. The situation is so serious that some companies are actually forcing employees to stay homeat company expense. One of the nation’s leading accounting firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers, shuts down twice a year to make sure that employees get a paid break. A spokeswoman explained that the company wanted to create an environment where people could walk away and not worry about missing a meeting, a conference call or 300 e-mails.

What would past generationsthe men and women who had to go on strike to get a paid vacationmake of today’s workforce, which has willingly given up the chance to get away from it all for a couple of weeks during the summer?

No doubt they would conclude that something has gone terribly wrong. But what, exactly, is to blame for the shrinking American vacation? Corporate frugality? Global competition? Temporary insanity? Or all three?

Personally, I favor the insanity defense, and I only hope it is, indeed, temporary. I know of far too many peers, baby boomers all of them, who literally cannot get away from the office. It’s not that they fear for their jobs. It’s not that their supervisors are mean, callous and cruel. It’s not that they are working extra hours to put food on the table.

They are simply living with the consequences of a decision, made years ago, to blur the boundaries between their professional lives and their personal lives. And so the two became one, withI believedisastrous consequences for themselves and their (often estranged) loved ones.

It is probably unfair to generalize, but it is also hard not to notice that this increasingly obsessive relationship with work tracks neatly with the mileposts of the baby boomer generation. From their large-scale entry into the workforce as the original yuppies to their rise to power and influence, boomers have embraced the notion of a boundary-free workplace. They eagerly adopted successive technologies, from fax machines to cell phones to wireless laptop computers, which allowed work to encroach on private lives and space.

No doubt many would regard all of this as a 21st-century version of the mythical Protestant work ethic. The colonists who built America’s first European settlements, the pioneers who settled the Midwest and the West, and the captains of industry who made the United States an industrial powerhouse spent their lives in ceaseless labor. Their energy and work made America what it is today. Or so goes the argument.

Around Labor Day, however, another argument would seem worthy of mention: that the men and women who challenged their bosses and the ethic of all work, all the time, remade America into a more humane, civilized society. They demanded to be recognized not as mere cogs in the industrial machine, but as human beings, endowed by their Creator with the right to pursue happiness.

Today, workers who seek to make time for life as well as work are dismissed as slackers. Their unwillingness to turn over their lives to the dictates of the workplace is seen as evidence of a character flaw. In today’s workplace, there seems to be no worse epithet than to be called a nine-to-fiver.

And yet, the joke may well be on those who pride themselves on the long hours they spend at work. A recent study showed that all this increased productivity has not resulted in increased financial rewards. Wages are stagnant, even as American workers work harder and sacrifice their summer vacations in the name of a work ethic on steroids.

Here is a Labor Day thought for all hard-driving, plugged-in baby boomers: What if the so-called slackers actually have it right?

Terry Golway is the curator of the John Kean Center for American History at Kean University in Union, N.J.

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