While Europeans are off enjoying leisure time on the beaches of the French Riviera or islands off of Spain and Italy each summer, Americans are stuck inside working unless they are teachers. Most Americans average 2 weeks a year of vacation, but most people don’t even take advantage of their ability to take time off. Even in companies that supposedly award “unlimited vacation time,” most employees are looked at poorly for taking off. Sadly, we live in a workaholic culture that looks down upon taking a break.
The American Dream is to graduate from college, get a job you can advance within, and work until you retire with a nice savings. Then and only then, do you get to take that much needed break and travel. Retirement becomes the dangling carrot that all Americans work towards. It is that light at the end of the tunnel that provides one a chance to enjoy the last bit of life they have before they die. A lot of Americans barely make it a few years past retirement, before they are dealing with health concerns. So that time they’ve yearned after for all those years of working, becomes useless. So why do we torture ourselves working ourselves to death, only for that promise of freedom at the very end? The truth is that nothing is promised, and especially the time at the end.
I think the Europeans are on to something. They enjoy their lives while they have the energy to live them. They don’t wait until the end of their careers to get out there and enjoy life. When I’m out traveling the world, I meet people from all over. There are tons of Germans ages 18-25, who take a gap year after college or before college in order to just travel and enjoy what the world has to offer. There are Australians, who are willing to quit their jobs or are allowed to take extended sabbaticals from work in order to travel for a year or more. They get jobs on the ski slopes of Canada, work in summer camps in the U.S., or backpack SE Asia. I meet Canadians, French, Israelis, Swedish, Danish, Irish, English, and rarely Americans. Most foreigners are shocked to see me out there. They ask me constantly, “why do we never see Americans on the travel beat?” And it is true there are no Americans, unless they are studying abroad for a semester.
My response is always the same, “Americans value work over leisure. Americans don’t take time off. Americans are in debt from college loans.” Simply put, Americans don’t take the time to travel. Americans don’t take time off. This is not to say that most Americans wouldn’t prefer more time off. I have many friends who saw me traveling the world and said they wished they could be out there like me. It is the system that prevents them from it. Our country was founded on a “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” mentality. Protestants, the religion that values hard work, founded the U.S. with a strong work ethic. Thus, we were handed down a culture that values work over leisure. Those who take more time to travel are seen as lazy or breaking from the norm.
Employers chastise you for wanting to take more time off. A lot of people are just burdened with so much work that the thought of taking off is more stressful than just working year after year without a break. My own supervisor sits at her desk daydreaming about travel, but hasn’t taken a vacation in over two years. She takes a day here and there, but she never has the time to take a week off even with all of her overtime. My best friend came to visit me for a long weekend in April, and said that was her first vacation in several years and that was only three work days off. I, on the other hand, though I work hard, need a break for my own mental health or I’m not able to work well.
I am lucky that my job allows me to request time off outside of busy times of the year, as long as I have the PTO time saved up. I am taking two separate weeks off this summer and a week for Christmas. To be honest though, this still isn’t enough for me. Those weeks off feel like just enough time for me to crave more time off. Don’t get me wrong though, I value working hard, but I also value playing hard as well. I just don’t see the point in working myself to the bone only to reach retirement and be too worn out and exhausted to enjoy my life. Also, I know that nothing is guaranteed in life. So, if I put living off until I’m retired and then I get sick or injured or god-forbid die early, I will regret not living my life sooner. This is why, I think the Europeans are on to something.
Everyone deserves a break. What are we working so hard for anyway? Is it to make lots of money? Is it so we can use that money to buy bigger houses, nicer cars, and more things? When do you get to enjoy those things, if you are always working so hard to make more money to buy more things you don’t have the time to enjoy? Those fathers who work so hard that they can’t make it to their kid’s baseball games or dance recitals, all for the purpose of being able to buy their kid’s things, have it all wrong. Your kids don’t need the latest toys, they need your support and love. At the end of the day, if all they remember about you is the things you bought them and not the time you spent with them, is it really worth it?
At the end of life, are those things really worth any value to you? The only thing that is of value at the end are your memories. For me, more things means more stress. I’d rather use my money to take a break from working and enjoy life. Instead of saving for a bigger house, I’d rather save for a longer vacation. I wish employers would realize that people would be more productive and dedicated, if they had more time off. I wish people would start living their lives today rather than pushing it off until retirement. Spend your money and time building memories rather than possessions.
My partner and I have been talking about taking a long trip next year and both quitting our jobs. Unfortunately, most employers won’t give you 6-9 months off to travel. I’ve met Australians who’s employers were more willing. Anyways, I’m used to leaving jobs behind in order to take a break and enjoy my life, because I value living more than I value working. My partner, on the other hand, is hesitant. He loves the idea of traveling, but he is worried about quitting his job so late in life and having to start all over again when we get back. He believes that by his age (36), he should be well established and not take any more breaks.
I disagree. I believe it is never too late to take time for yourself. I never want to work at one job for more than 5 years. I don’t know how people work at the same job from the day they graduate college until the day they retire. I understand teachers, doctors, or lawyers staying in their professions, but even just switching schools, hospitals, or law firms is important. There is only so much growth you can make at one job. If you want to diversify your experience and challenge yourself, switching jobs is important or you will start to feel stagnant at one place. I personally have done something new every 1-2 years thus far, but I do plan to settle into something I really like for a while after we travel. The only way I’ve been able to take so many long term trips, is because I’ve either taken a gap year in between undergrad and graduate school, or quit my job. I don’t regret it at all.
Yes, it was hard getting a job after I returned the last time. It took me 10 months to get the job I have now. But I wasn’t sitting idle while applying for work. I wrote a book. I helped another woman write a book. I interned for free at a nonprofit and I worked two part time jobs. I think it took so long to find work, because employers tend to not value travel as an experience on your resume, but they should. Travel is enriching, educational, and should build your career, not subtract from it. I am looking at this upcoming trip as a resume builder. It is not a break from life, it is a break from work in order to live my life. I also plan to learn Spanish, volunteer at schools, and learn different skills while working at hostels, farms, and ecovillages. All of these things should be a great asset to the next job that hires me.
A lot of people argue that they don’t have enough money to take a break, but that isn’t true. They just aren’t saving their money for it. Instead of spending money on electronics, going out to eat all the time or get drinks, or a new car, put that money towards travel. You will find that if you eliminate all those things from your budget, you can afford to take a month off and travel. Traveling really isn’t as expensive as you would think, if you aren’t so focused on vacationing in the fanciest resorts with all-inclusive deals. That kind of vacationing isn’t truly travel. Unfortunately, because Americans only get off two weeks a year, they value those vacations where you lay on the beach with an umbrella in your drink and relax for two weeks. That is all fine and dandy, but you are missing out. If Americans were able to take an extra two weeks a year minimum, they could enjoy a full month exploring a new country. This will enrich your life so much more than sitting behind the walls of a resort.
Let’s stop making excuses, Americans, and let’s start taking more breaks! Being a workaholic shouldn’t be something that is revered. We should look down upon the person who would prefer to work year after year without a break. Breaks are healthy. They keep you happy and refreshed and ultimately make you a better worker. So, stop skipping the one break you do have, and go enjoy your time off. Fight for more time off, even. Or god-forbid, take a leave of absence to truly enjoy your life. Jobs will be there when you get back, but your life might not be there when you retire. It is now or never!!