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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Margaret Wente

All work and no play … Add to ...

I have a dreadful confession to make. I took the entire month of August off. It was the longest vacation I have had since I was 16, and it was great. At first I felt guilty, but that went away. I spent part of my vacation on a boat cruising the fjords of Norway. The Internet doesn't work so well in the fjords, and so, when I eventually picked up an e-mail message from the office asking me to come in for an urgent meeting, I wondered if I should bother to reply at all. "Ha ha," I wrote, before I prudently pushed the "delete" key. "No way. I'm in a fjord."

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The Norwegians, it must be said, do not share our habit of working all year long, even through the most pleasant days of summer. Like all Scandinavians, they take tons of time off. In August, they take their boats up the fjords and tie up in flotillas to watch the sun go down at 10:30 p.m. as they toss back the aquavit. Or they head off for the coastal islands and go fishing. Winter is long and summer's short, and they're not going to waste it working.

Here in Canada, we have retained our Protestant work ethic (except, of course, for B.C., where even corporate lawyers are entitled to knock off at noon on Friday and go kayaking.) Our statutory vacation time is relatively stingy, and a lot of us don't even bother to use it up. In most professions (including mine), no one with the least shred of ambition would dream of clocking a mere eight-hour day. When I was in management, I hardly ever left the office before 7. I can't remember what it was I did for all that time, but it must have been incredibly important.

In fact, I didn't plan to take a whole month off. The accountants made me do it. A while back, the accountants discovered that The Globe and Mail's workaholic, super-dedicated journalists had built up a mountain of what's known as "time owing." We had to use it up, or else. You probably haven't noticed, but recently the entire paper has been produced by 23-year-old summer interns, who work 18 hours a day and are terrifyingly competent.

Is there anywhere else in the world where people must be ordered to take their fully paid vacations? I doubt it. Visit Paris in August, and try to find Parisians. The remotest corners of the planet are overrun by jolly holidaying guilt-free Germans. In all of the developed world, only the Americans, the Japanese and the South Koreans are more vacation-deprived than we are.

Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labour lawyer, argues that things have been getting worse, not better. "If you did a survey of people who are in their late 50s or 60s, they will tell you that they take fewer vacations than their parents did," he told the online magazine Salon. Mr. Geoghehan wrote a book called Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, which argues that our culture of overwork is terribly misguided. He thinks we'd be a lot better off if we lived more like Europeans.

If you think his message is mistimed (because the lazy Europeans can't afford their social democracies any more), he has a one-word answer for you: Germany. Germany is currently the most successful and productive nation in the world. It has the highest rate of exports. It also has high wage rates and six weeks (!) of federally mandated vacation. Germans work only 1,436 hours a year, while Americans work 1,804 hours - the equivalent of nine extra 40-hour work weeks a year. Canadians work 1,727 hours a year. The Dutch and the Norwegians, whose quality of life is not too shabby either, work even fewer hours than the Germans. (The world's worst workaholics are the South Koreans, who put in a wretched 2,390 hours a year.)

Until agriculture came along, and then the Industrial Revolution, much of humankind didn't work very hard. A little hunting, a bit of gathering and a lot of leisure pretty well summed it up. Early cultures had plenty of free time to dance, throw parties, draw animals on cave walls and braid each others' hair. The !Kung Bushmen, a modern hunter-gatherer culture, work only a few hours a week. Even a 13th-century English peasant didn't work as many hours as a modern Canadian does (although, to be sure, pulling a 13th-century plow behind you might have made the work day seem longer).

There's another leisure gap as well. A generation ago, according to the authors of a study called The Increase in Leisure Inequality, leisure time in North America was fairly equally distributed across all classes. That's all changed. Today, investment bankers, lawyers, doctors and managing editors work much longer hours than firemen, plumbers and X-ray technicians. The higher you are up the ladder, the longer hours you put in. Income inequality has shot up too, but that doesn't fully explain the gap. The simple fact is that if you want to be the kind of affluent professional who lives in a nice neighbourhood and sends the kids to university, you and/or your spouse are probably going to have to work like dogs for years.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. The Norwegians tax themselves heavily and pay $12 for a beer, but take unbelievable amounts of time off. Hardly anyone is very rich or very poor; almost everyone is middle-class. It's a fine life. It's just not a life that's available to us, on account of our proximity to the hardworking, tax-averse Americans. I'm not sure I'd even choose it if I could. Now that I am back at work, I realize how very, very important it is to put in long hours, earn the respect of my colleagues and maintain my competitive edge. Honestly, I can't believe I took a whole month off! I promise I'll never do it again.

 

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