Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Comeback Kids

On Monday morning I awoke early, walked the dog, and got myself ready for the first day back to work. I grabbed a jacket on my way out the door and reluctantly covered my rapidly-fading tan.

In the subway it struck me with unwelcome force that summer was fully over. SLAM!

On my left I spied leather boots and tweed. On my right: scarves as far as the eye could see. The billboards were peddling their back-to-school wares and I had a strange hankering for root vegetables.

La rentrée, dear friends, is in full effect. And the effect is substantial, as are the vacations from which the French are returning.


The brows of my American readers are pinched. Let me explain:

Vacation [vey-key-shuhn] - noun
A period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel.


I know: it’s a difficult concept. French workers (those with a real contract, anyway) are entitled annually to five weeks paid vacation. In practice, however, the French take closer to seven paid weeks every year.

“But that’s almost two months!”

This figure is almost impossible to understand for Americans who, at all levels of employment, have a very different orientation to time off.

Nearly a quarter of American workers, particularly those in part-time or temporary jobs, are not offered any paid vacation. I spent many years waiting tables, during which time I was obliged to locate a replacement for every day of (uncompensated) “missed” work. If I couldn’t find a replacement, I couldn’t go. Vacations, as a result, entailed economic hardship and were limited to summer weddings and a few days around Christmas.

When paid vacation is offered, it’s usually a pittance and dependent on the number of years employed by a company. Because American workers change jobs more often than their European counterparts, their vacation eligibility is kept relatively low. Nine days per year is the average for workers with one year at a company. What’s more: these precious days are often “spent” by workers with health problems or care-giving responsibilities after their small allotment of “personal” and “sick” days has been used up.

Finally, there is a class of American worker who, despite a more generous benefits package, chooses not to take vacation. A recent survey showed that among workers who are entitled to paid vacation, 36% were not planning to use all of it. These are the people who “do not have the time” for a vacation, who feel their whole professional universe will crumble when they leave their desk. Often these unspent vacation days are translated into a monetary pay-out at the end of the year or when the worker changes jobs.

French workers and their families leave town for three weeks minimum in late July and August. The obvious result is that businesses are closed or operating with minimal staffing during this time. The workers may be traveling or spending time at the family country home - the important thing is that they are not working.

As a result (or perhaps cause?) of this time away, the French tend to be much less work-oriented than Americans. At a French dinner party you will not be asked about your profession. At least not until after the more-interesting topics (including your last vacation) have been exhausted. By contrast, I often found myself in Boston wishing I’d brought a stack of resumes to hand out at social events. “Where do you work? What degrees to you have? From where?...”

My Boston salary, it should be said, was more than double what I now earn. And thus we stumble upon the main argument against French vacation: that it just costs too much.

But is that true? And moreover, so what?

My salary, while low by American standards, is sufficient for my life in Paris. This is helped by the fact that I don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars every month for health insurance, car insurance, car loan, and gas. If I didn’t have student loans, which the French don’t, I’d be living even higher on the chestnut-fed hog. Same goes for “if I owned my own apartment,” which many Parisians do.

To experience serious salary increase, the French would have to barter away the things that make their lives better. And the overwhelming majority of them are unwilling to trade this for the contestable glory of consumer living.

So they sit, well-tanned and talkative, on the first-Monday Métro. Smiling contentedly that they still have something from which to return.


Peggy said...

The lack of vacation time is one of the reasons I may never return to the US.

Lovely blog!

JChevais said...

Vacation in Canada is the same. 5-7 weeks vacation (because RTT days as well) as well 35 hour weeks is not something that you could lose gracefully. Vive la France!

Anonymous said...

Let's put it this way...I have spent the last six days working fourteen to sixteen hours per day on a show in NYC. I've come to the point where my body isn't just tired, it's exhausted. But fear (which many Americans are driven by) prevents me from acting in my own best interest. I want to change...but it is hard say no when culturally we are bred to believe that our worth is only equal to how much further we're willing to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Anonymous said...

I'm working for the same company in France as I was in Canada -- three weeks a year there is fairly progressive.

Here, it's more like... well... I can't even say it without being slightly embarrassed. (*whisper* 28 days paid vacation, 12 days RTT)

Now I'm going to have to post this anonymously. My north american work ethic is so ashamed. On the other hand, my french work ethic is ready to go for an espresso -- and at the end of the day, they both get the job done.

Tin Foiled said...

Just to explain RTT (Réduction du Temps de Travail) is just another sort of paid vacation. France has a 35 hour work week, but many businesses have working hours longer than seven hours a day, five days a week. RTT is something like time off in lieu of overtime.

LA Frog said...

Anonymous pointed to something very true and often forgotten: "at the end of the day, they both get the things done." Despite the clichés, it's been proven statistically, and repeatedly, that productivity in France is no less but rather more than in America.

Productivity is not the number of hours you spend at your desk, or the number of vacation days you don't take -- but what you actually produce. When you have a balanced life, you produce more -- more effectively.

Achenbach wrote a stereotypical but funny column on the French "Art of Doing Nothing" in the Washington Post:

Observing a Frenchman enjoying a moment of idleness in a bistro, he remarked: "Why did he not try to achieve something?" Why would he? There's a time for work, and a time for fun. No need to be ADD about it -- pretending to do several things at once, yet doing none properly.

In the end, it's all about perception -- and the French/European "art de vivre" somehow doesn't quite fit with the puritanistic work ethic.

sybariter said...

Very enlightened - for an American - just kidding :-) There are a lot of Americans here in Paris because they value a balanced, cultivated life with a sense of communal rather than dog-eat-dog values. Some have come to appreciate the culture while here.

Re your 36% of Americans have no plans to take a vacaation - it's worse, see this correction in the NYT:

"Correction: Aug. 22, 2006

An article on Sunday about the decline of the traditional summer vacation misstated a finding by the Conference Board, a private research group, on Americans’ vacation plans. At the start of the summer, the board found that 60 percent of consumers — not 40 percent — had no plans to take a vacation over the next six months. Forty percent planned to take a vacation, the lowest percentage in 28 years."

See the whole article at:

and my blog at:

Le Meg said...

Comments comments as far as the eye can see! Oh, I feel like a Homecoming Queen. A very control-freaky queen who can't help but saying:

Welcome, Sybariter! I already linked that corrected NYT article in my post. And that 36% refers to a different statistic entirely. I am perfect, understand, PERFECT!

Once again, welcome. Come back and see me sometime. Comment again, if you DARE...


LA Frog said...

"All Work & No Play? No Way" in today's L.A. Times:

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I've been reading your blog for a short while and feel like I should finally make my presence known :)

There are a couple other things keeping the wages low in France too. The biggest one is that an employer is forced to pay an extra 50% of your salary to the government, which goes towards sécurité sociale.

Another thing is that people just can't get into a crippling amount of debt here. You're not allowed to take out a loan or mortgage where the repayments will come to more than 30% of your net income. Not only does this keep people out of outrageous personal debt, it also puts a lid on things like credit cards, and it keeps the housing market sane. When the things you buy are cheaper, you have less need for huge salaries.

Many American critics of France miss the point about what holiday time actually does for you, and so ignore the fact that while the French work fewer total hours in a year, they still end up achieving a similar amount. Not only does All Work And No Play Make Jack A Dull Boy, it also makes him less efficient at his job.

I'm about to move from Paris to Canada and I'm going to have a shock, from my 5 weeks vacation + 10 days RTT, straight down to 10 days vacation, total. It's the one thing that I'm definitely not looking forward to.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece le Meg. Another thing to mention here is the effect of the vacation squeeze on vacation itself in the US. I worked for years as a chef in an American vacation destination, and I was always dismayed and distressed by the anxieties and pressures that would surface as vacationers attempted to get the most out of their preciously little vacation time: arguments at the dinner table, parents snapping at kids, desperate faces, etc. By contrast, the French always seem so much more relaxed on vacation. These are very real concerns that are very difficult to translate into political programs.