America's Vacation Famine

dad on cellphone, kids playing, at seashore for cbs sunday morning
This segment originally was broadcast July 30, 2000.

It's V-day for the Formento family - the day Alex Formento; his wife, Beth; their two children, and a friend's two kids are setting out for a vacation at the beach.

It has all the earmarks of the classic modern American vacation: Harry Potter is going along, and so is Alex Formento's laptop computer.

They're packing everything six people could possibly need or want for a month, even though they're only going away for a week.

A week.

That's it.

The classic American vacation is short. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner reports.

"When it comes to time off among the industrialized nations, the United States is dead last," says Joe Robinson, editor of Escape, an adventure travel magazine. "We're in the basement."

"Europeans get, in general, four, five, and six weeks off. Australians, the same," he says. "We average about eight or nine days after the first year on the job."

Of course, given his line of business, Robinson has an agenda: to get the word out that Americans are the most vacation-starved people in the Western world and, on top of that, they are working harder and harder.

"We work two months a year longer in total hours than the Germans, and two weeks longer than even the Japanese every year," says Robinson. "So put it all together," he says. "The average husband and wife is working about 500 more hours per year more than they did in 1980."

Today's technology has blurred the line between work and personal life, for better or for worse.

Just ask the Formentos.

"A vacation is a chance for me to get away with my family and unwind a little bit, unplug from what I do with my business," says Alex Formento.

But no sooner has everybody helped with the unpacking, no sooner have Beth Formento and the kids headed for the beach, than her husband is plugging into his business, the opposite of what he says a vacation is for.

Alex Formento is self-employed. He sells shelving for supermarkets and chain stores, so the very thought of really unplugging terrifies him.

The fact that Americans allow the demands of work to intrude on their vacation times is nothing new, according to Cindy Aron, author of Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States

"The story of vacation is a story of this tension between work and leisure in American culture," she says.

This has been true, she explains, the word vacation entered the American vocabulary in the 1850s.

One dictionary defines vacation as "freedom from any activity." But, from the very beginning, middle-class Americans couldn't seem to handle that concept. In order to justify taking time off, many people said tey were going for their health. Religious retreats and camp meetings were acceptable. Families gathered at Chatauqua, N.Y., for lectures and classes. Visiting national parks was considered educational.

President William Howard Taft actually recommended two-month vacations for everybody. The response from businessmen: howls of disapproval.

But by 1915 or so, those same businessmen were starting to offer paid vacations to blue-collar workers, in part to keep them from joining unions. They made going sightseeing in the family car a national habit.

Writer Calvin Trillin, whose books include Travels with Alice, thinks we try to do too much in too short a time.

"I think Americans to check things off," he says, offering, for example, the remark, "Well, now we've seen the Grand Canyon, then we'll see this."

"This we used to call 'check-offian' vacations," he says. "But not having to do with any Russian playwrights or novelists."

A recent Harris poll asked the question: Which would you prefer? More time off or more money?

A total of 64 percent of those surveyed said "more time off."

"It's just not funny anymore," says magazine editor Robinson, "the whole business of working till you drop."

"It's kind of an entangling web, right now, of technology, that everybody wants to be connected," he says. "But, at the same time, how do we disconnect?"

"And that's what we really have to be asking ourselves right now, and setting clear lines between what is the work place and what is my life," he adds.

If anybody has managed to get the balance right, it's Trillin. For the last 30 years, he and his family have packed up and gone to Nova Scotia - not for a week, but for the entire summer.

What is a vacation, to him?

"Well, of course, as a writer, it's sort of hard to tell," he replies. "Either we're always on vacation, or we're never on vacation, depending on how you look at it."

Trillin feels no compulsion whatsoever to stay in touch. Neither does his wife, writer Alice Trillin.

"My wife basically reads books," explains Trillin. "She reads a lot."

"And her big change sometimes in the day is changing from the porch to the bedroom to the boathouse," he says, adding that it's all reading, just in different chairs.

In fact, work gets done. Trillin has written books there. He has weekly deadlines, but technology now allows him to have his vacation attitude and keep it, too.

"There have been summers when I've gotten a lot done here, and summers where I really haven't gotten very much done," says Trillin. "But I don't feel terribly guilty."

"But I think it also depends on what sort of business you're in," he says. "If you o have your own business, I suppose that there's a feeling that if you don't do it,...nobody would."

Back at the beach, Alex Formento finally joins his family. But he remains fully armed, his beeper and his cell phone at his side in their holsters. But they don't stay in their holsters for long.

He says it is almost a fantasy of his, to go on vacation without his computer, beeper, and cell phone. "But I don't think I could," he adds.

"I know it helps him relax," says his wife. "I know when we're on the beach, and he checks the cell phone or checks his messages or touches base with somebody in his office,...then he knows,...'OK, now I don't have to call in till this afternoon.'"

"And then he really does enjoy and relax," she adds.

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