Are summer vacations an endangered species?

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Published: June 19,2000

Whatever happened to that old rite of summer vacation with the family? The lengthening work week, the increasingly frantic pace of modern life, and even kids’ obligations to their soccer and baseball teams means that summer vacations aren’t as common in the past.

Some critics of the vanishing vacation say that in our 24/7 economy, Americans are plowing their increased productivity into accumulating more stuff, rather than stepping back from the work-and-spend grind.

Are we making a huge mistake?

Jay Keehley, who has a dual career as a philosophy professor and as an attorney in Starkville, said lawyers find it difficult to take time off because the courts don’t take summer breaks and clients are still active in the summer. At Mississippi State, many professors teach summer school from the end of May to the first week in August. Those who don’t teach are likely to be off at conferences and seminars pursuing career goals. And even kids’ camps and sports schedules can get in the way of a family vacation.

“I think the bottom line is that no one in Starkville is going on vacation this summer,” Keehley said. “We’re all up here accumulating wealth. It is a boom economy, and everyone is trying to participate.”

He points out that in small rural towns in the South, it used to be common for people to close offices and stores on Wednesday afternoons. That’s pretty rare these days.

The Keehley family have access to a condominium in Arkansas for one week a year. This year they were so tied up, they didn’t get to use it.

“So for us it was really a week lost,” Keehley said. “We’re all sad about that. We do, however, have a week scheduled to go to Disneyworld the first week in August.”

Harvard University economist Juliet Schor, author of “The Overspent American: Do Americans Shop Too Much?,” takes a controversial position on work and recreation. Schor, in a column called “My Summer Vacation Wish — Real Vacations for All”, said that while she was a professor in the Netherlands, she was entitled to nine weeks of paid vacation per year.

“It seemed that few professors took all that time, but three to four weeks was virtually obligatory,” Schor said. “Late spring was the time of year the lunchroom conversation turned to holiday destinations, perhaps because this was when the vacation allocation arrived in the paycheck, a fat 8% bonus added to one’s salary. It was the government’s way of making sure every Dutch worker had money to take a proper holiday. Of course, it wasn’t really a bonus, but an intelligent enforced savings program in which a bit of one’s pay was held aside each month.”

Schor considers U.S. vacation practices downright archaic. Unlike most of Western Europe, where paid vacations are typically four to six weeks for all regular workers, the U.S. has no official vacation policy. Employers are not required to provide them, and the starting norm in good jobs remains a paltry two weeks.

“Millions of the hard-working poor, without steady employment, have no paid vacation at all,” she said. “And millions of the hard-working well-to-do have nice allotments which exist only on paper. The excessive demands of their positions make planning and taking significant time off almost impossible. Furthermore, Americans are much more likely to keep working while they do go away.”

According to the National Survey of the Changing Workforce, U.S. employees in 1997 were working 3.5 more hours a week than they did 20 years earlier. They are working more hours than they are scheduled to work, they do more overtime, bring more work home and take more business trips.

Schor said that it would be a good idea for Americans to think more like Western Europeans, understanding that being a good hard-working employee requires an annual period of serious relaxation. That isn’t just a three-day jet to the Bahamas, but a genuine unwinding, not only from work, but also from the hectic pace of daily consumer life.

“In the U.S., we tend to use vacations as opportunities for consuming, whether it’s expensive hotel stays, outlet shopping or exotic luxury destinations,” Schor said. “This is part of our larger pattern of work and spend, using economic progress to consume more, rather than give ourselves more time off. By contrast, Europeans treat their vacations less as spending sprees. They’re more likely to go camping, or hiking, or stay in the country where they can live more simply, enjoy the pleasures of nature and reflect on their daily lives. The vacation bonus ensures that everyone can afford to do this, even the lowest paid service workers. In Western Europe, vacations have become a basic human right. In the U.S., they feel more like an endangered species.”

Travel agents beg to differ. From where they sit, they are seeing plenty of Mississippians heading out for vacations.

“There are a lot of travelers out there who are taking the three- and four-day vacation as the quicker get away,” said Beth Thigpen, leisure travel consultant for The Travel Professionals in Jackson. “But we still have a lot of families traveling together taking a week-long vacation or longer vacations. It just depends on their needs. Get-away trips to Florida and Atlanta are popular, as are summer vacations to Europe and Caribbean.”

Thigpen said that although the general public may not see it, travel agents still are seeing healthy interest in vacations.

Glenn McGehee, president, McGehee Cruise & Vacation, Jackson, said that sometimes clients consider a shorter trip. But after they realize how much time gets eaten up just traveling to and from a destination, they opt to go on a trip of a week or longer.

“I wouldn’t just say people are taking shorter cruises as a trend,” McGehee said. “Rather than shorter vacations, we are seeing them extend it a day especially since airlines are heavily booked this summer. They like to arrive a day before the cruise, so when they get on the cruise they are ready to enjoy everything the cruise has to offer.”

A trend McGehee is noticed is that more people are opting for the ultra-deluxe, all- inclusive type of resort such as Sandals and Beaches.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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