There’s something special about the sunshine in August.
After the syrupy, sweltering days of July and the thick rains of June, the last full month of summer rolls in as a welcome relief. I’ve always found that the rich, autumnal sun gives me a boost of Vitamin D and serotonin, making me feel stronger and happier when outdoors. (Is this based on science or a kind of placebo effect? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.) Sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes, and cantaloupe are in high season, ready to be picked and gorged on at outdoor cookouts. The coastline waters become less frigid, ideal conditions for dips at the beach.
Some would have you believe that August is actually the worst month of the year. They’re wrong, but what’s undeniable is that the perks of the month are too often missed because Americans are stuck working. August is the ideal month to forget about work, get outside, and take a vacation.
Yet in America, even during the waning days of summer, we struggle to find time to take off from the job. On average, US workers have just ten days off per year, and America is the only developed country with no mandated paid time off, allowing employers to control much of our lives, especially for those lower paid. Fewer than 40 percent of low-wage workers in the private sector receive any paid time off, and they work more total weeks than higher-income earners, making it difficult to take any blocks of time off at all, even unpaid.
The labor movement, while growing in popularity and showing new signs of militancy, remains weak, foreclosing the possibility of most workers having the power to bargain for time off. And the lack of federal policies to ensure US residents get a vacation means that we keep working the longest hours in the industrialized world, with no end in sight. As sociologist Jamie K. McCallum writes in his book Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream, “a major worsening condition for workers has been the intensity, duration, and unpredictability of their working life.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As many European countries have long modeled, workers can take essentially the entire month of August off to do what they will. After enduring a hellish pandemic year, Americans deserve a long break from work to soak in the pleasures of summer.
Vacations Are a Victory Over Misery
For clues about how we could win such a demand, we can look to how it was won in Europe. In August 1937, Alice Jouenne, a member of France’s Popular Front government, wrote, “leisure promotes peace for it magnifies life and makes one love life.”
The previous year, France’s left-wing administration, newly in power, passed a law providing every French worker two weeks of paid leave, giving millions their first taste of a real vacation. The Matignon Agreements, passed by socialist Prime Minister Léon Blum in June 1936, followed militant labor action, including a string of strikes that spread across the country in response to the firing of factory workers for walking out on May Day. Following passage of the vacation law, Le Peuple, a labor newspaper, declared on its front page: “Victory Over Misery!”
And so was born the practice of a federally mandated vacation. While certain unions, like printers’ and mineworkers’, had demanded paid time off in the early twentieth century in France and Britain, most holidays at the time were limited to a few scattered days throughout the year — not allowing for long enough periods to travel and primarily unpaid.
In the years following World War I, many European nations began promoting leisure as a way to nurture dignity and patriotism among their populations. But while countries like Italy and Germany pursued fascist goals through their work-time policies, by the 1930s, as David Broder writes, France’s Popular Front “sought to promote its own democratic vision of what leisure could be.”
The government created an entire Organization of Leisure, and its minister, Léo Lagrange, said, “We must make available to the masses all kinds of leisure which they may choose for themselves.” As historian Gary Cross writes, the Popular Front’s pro-vacation policy “was an attempt to give a socialist content to culture and to supplement abstract and even divisive economic programs.”
The Matignon Agreements, known as the “Magna Carta of French Labor,” also included both the right to strike and a forty-hour workweek, and helped usher in a new approach to vacation and leisure time that eventually spread across the continent — and continues to animate how Europeans take time off work. After World War II, major unions across Europe demanded more paid leave, and by the 1980s, countries such as Finland, France, Luxembourg, Spain, and Sweden guaranteed workers five full weeks of vacation each year.
The August Shutdown
Today, paid vacation time is mandatory across the European Union, with a minimum of four weeks off. The average French worker takes thirty days of paid vacation per year, while in Austria, people take twenty-five days of vacation, alongside thirteen paid holidays. Denmark mandates five weeks of paid leave, with vacation days accruing at a rate of just over two days per month.
There’s a reason the longstanding practice of taking this vacation time in long blocks has produced what’s known as Europe’s “August shutdown.” Most Spaniards are required to take a certain amount of their vacations in August, and many companies shut down for the entire month. Half of all salaried employees in France went on vacation during each of the first three weeks of August 2010. Such “holidaymaking” in August is also practiced in the Netherlands. And as Saahil Desai reports, “In Italy, so many people take the last two weeks of August off that Rome’s transit system runs on a reduced ‘festivi’ schedule.”
Melanie Simms, a professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow, says: “In France and Italy, it is very common that people take the whole of August and relocate to the seaside.”
You might think that taking such long vacations would result in far less productivity, but even pro-capitalist outlets like the Economist explain that the opposite is true: “Despite, or perhaps because of, their leisure-seeking ways, Europeans are the most productive workers in the world.” OECD data shows that many countries that require less work actually tend to produce more when it comes to per capita GDP. The consulting firm Sibson has found that employers that provide and encourage vacations generate more engagement and less turnover among their workforces.
Taking vacations is also hugely beneficial to our wellbeing. According to clinical psychologist Francine Lederer, “The impact that taking a vacation has on one’s mental health is profound. Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation.”
A 2018 study by the American Psychological Association found that vacations significantly reduce stress by taking people out of situations that they associate with anxiety. Other research has shown vacations can also help to prevent heart disease and improve sleep. One Finnish study even indicates that taking regular vacations is associated with a longer lifespan. It’s clear: taking time off of work is extremely good for you.
While Europeans are enjoying their seaside escapes, Americans are spending a crushing amount of time on the job. In 2017, Americans worked a collective 270 billion hours — 1,739 hours for every worker. We work, on average, nearly 25 percent more than our European counterparts, yet while US productivity has doubled since the 1970s, wages remain stagnant as corporations rake in massive profits.
Even those who do benefit from paid leave in the US often have to work many years just to access their days off. It takes twenty years on the job to reach an average of twenty vacation days per year. And even when workers gain this time off, many aren’t able to use it. A recent study from the US Travel Association found that over half of all Americans did not use all of their paid vacation time.
Critics may argue it’s impractical to think a large swath of Americans could take August off. But we need only look to our neighbors across the Atlantic who have made it work for decades. Some large businesses, such as factories and plants, simply shut down for the month and work the slowdown into their production schedules, using the break to perform upgrades or maintenance. And tourists who travel to Europe in August will often find shops, cafes, and restaurants closed down for the month. Not being able to purchase a baguette or tchotchke is a small price to pay so that workers can take their well-earned breaks.
Of course, vital sectors like healthcare and food production can’t completely shut down. But these European countries have managed to keep their societies functioning while mostly shutting down for August. There’s no reason we can’t, too.
Give Me Vacation or Give Me Death
The US labor movement, enfeebled after years of attacks from big business and corporate-backed politicians, isn’t currently in an optimal position to win demands for more vacation time on a shop-by-shop basis. Yet unions could throw their support and organizing prowess behind passing federal legislation to guarantee workers weeks of paid leave.
Such a policy has been proposed by the left-wing think tanks People’s Policy Project and The Gravel Institute as part of their “leisure agenda,” which calls for a mandated four weeks of paid vacation per year. As Meagan Day writes: “Many of the ideas detailed by the report’s author, Ryan Cooper, are lifted straight from existing policies in European countries with social-democratic political traditions — that is, stronger traditions of class struggle than we have in the United States.”
In 2015, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Guaranteed Paid Vacation Act, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to require certain employers to provide at least ten paid vacation days per year. That’s a good start. But a 2021 version of the bill could go further, embracing the leisure agenda’s proposal of four full weeks of paid leave for all US workers. Or, hell, why not five weeks, like our French and Danish friends enjoy? The US Congress already takes an August recess, as mandated by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 — why not the rest of us?
During the Popular Front era, Lagrange, the French socialist minister of leisure, said he wanted workers to take vacations for “joy and leisure” but also as “an expression of liberty and democracy.” We can reclaim the promise of democratic leisure time and demand long paid vacations, so that all of us can soak up the sweet August sun.