Boomers Took V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N in the Summertime

It’s summertime, and the living is easy … at least for kids home for the summer break. It’s commonly repeated that summer vacation from school was tied into the agrarian economy — that the break was needed so kids could work the family farm. However, that myth is simply not true. Up until the Civil War, there were several school calendars followed across the country. The majority did link directly to the agrarian schedule, and that meant kids would have more time off in the spring (for planting) and fall (for harvesting.) There was a winter term, and a summer term. There were no summer vacations.

The same was true for their parents; summer vacation was not part of the American culture. In fact, work was considered preferable to time off, and the mantra that hard work leads to the reward of financial success remains part of our national psyche to this day.

Naturally, the wealthy always could take time off any time they wanted. Even then, religious leaders vilified leisure time, proclaiming “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Nonetheless, by the mid 19th century, doctors began to speak out on the benefits of time off to relieve fatigue. It was around this time that the railroads crisscrossed the country, facilitating travel and sparking a new hotel industry. The first summer vacations from school were created at the request of this elite class to bring their children away with them. People began to head to the seashore “for the fresh air” or natural springs “to take in the waters,” and therefore, improve their health. Religious communities established resorts as a way of controlling people’s free time, lest they be tempted into drunkenness, idleness, and God forbid, real fun.

By the 1930s, time off from work, even for middle class families, was commonplace — at least in Europe. Britain passed its first paid vacation requirement (one week) in 1939, around the same time France guaranteed a worker two weeks of paid leave and the world labor market was advocating the 40 hour work week. The U.S. went its own way.

After World War II, the economy was booming. In order to compete for the best worker candidates, some American companies offered paid vacation as an incentive, though it almost never exceeded a week. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that the vast majority of U.S. employers offered at least a week of vacation time to all full-time employees.

The U.S. does not guarantee paid vacations, the only rich nation in the world to not require it by law. As a result, a quarter of American employers do not provide paid time off for full-time workers. By contrast, the European Union requires 20 days paid, while France, Brazil and Finland offer 30 days. Today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that an average employee with ten or more years on the job gets 10 days off per year, including holidays.

Mister Boomer recalls that in the 1950s, since a good number of his uncles worked at union jobs in factories, they received two weeks off. Mister B’s father, however, received one week. The extended family got together for a two-week camping trip every year. For Mister Boomer’s father, however, it meant dropping his family at the campground over the weekend and heading back home to work for a week. The following week he would join the family for his week of vacation.

By the time the Interstate Highway System was well underway in the early sixties, Mister Boomer’s father had earned two weeks off. He was anxious to, as the commercials urged, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” (even if it was a Ford). It was then that Mister B’s family took vacations by car and drove down Route 66, went to the White House in Washington, DC, saw the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, counted bears in Yellowstone National Park and gazed at the Grand Canyon over the course of the decade. None of that would have been possible without two things that occurred during the Boomer Generation: the spread of paid vacation time, and summer vacation from school. Of course, like the railroads had done a century before, the Interstate Highways allowed people of even modest means to travel.

Did you spend part of your summer vacations traveling with your family, boomers?

Boomers Played Outside When School Was Out for Summer

The annual last day of school was one of the most anticipated days of the year for Baby Boomers. It would be 1972 before Alice Cooper coalesced what boomers were thinking in anticipation of summer vacation, in his song, School’s Out. Before that time, boomers everywhere repeated the refrain that was incorporated into Cooper’s song:

No more pencils
No more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks

Once the mad dash out the school doors was history, boomers couldn’t wait for a summer of outdoor play. And that is exactly what boomers did: spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. A typical summer vacation day for Mister Boomer and his neighborhood was to get up the same time as when school was in session, have a bowl of cereal, and head out the door. He wouldn’t return until dinner time, though on occasion stopped by his house for a cool drink from the hose or a quick sandwich. Parents knew their kids were with a group of other kids, and didn’t know or need to know where they were at any given time. Truth be told, Mister Boomer, his brother and a host of neighborhood kids might very well be a close as a block or two away, or as far as many miles via bicycle.

For Mister Boomer, outdoor play fell into a few categories. One of the most popular among his neighborhood was the all-day baseball game. Innings easily reached double-digits as playing was more important than a game winner or loser. Another was to play in nearby woods and fields. The boys could imagine all sorts of army scenarios, hunt for snakes and mudbugs, pick wild berries and create make-shift weaponry from fallen branches. At one point the neighborhood was deeply involved in creating tree forts. More like platforms than actual buildings, the boys scrounged chucks of wood in alleys and fields, then borrowed hammers and nails from their fathers’ workbenches. Each fort in the forest was built and occupied by four to six boys, and ranged from 10 to 20 ft. off the ground.

Meanwhile, boomer girls in the neighborhood sometimes hung out with the boys, but more often they chose to play in the yards of their neighborhood friends or at the elementary school where the city had various day camp activities available. Mister B would ride Sister Boomer over to the school on his bike, where she could learn how to weave strips of vinyl into useless keychains, among other things, while Mister B might play a game of table hockey.

After dinner, most kids headed back outside. Mister Boomer’s neighborhood often had games of hide and seek. Both boys and girls from seven to early teens would participate. The games would encompass the entire block and have more than fifty players. Once the game was finished, kids could sit on porches or lie in the grass and stare at the constellations. No one had air conditioning in his neighborhood, so the night air felt good after being in the hot sun all day.

By comparison, today’s kids don’t like to spend much time outdoors. Everyone knows kids don’t have the freedom to roam the way boomer kids did, but the results of these changing times have short and long-term ramifications on the health of children. The birth rate has declined by 41 percent since 1960, so neighborhoods have fewer children who can get together as a group. Parental worries about heavy street traffic, pedophiles and missing children add to the mix. A survey by the Center for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that on a typical day a child is six times more likely to play a video game than to ride a bike. Bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995.

Many surveys are trying to get to the bottom of this trend, and have discovered some interesting reasons for the indoor preference. One line of thought blames air conditioning. In boomer days few people had home air conditioning. In Mister Boomer’s case, only some stores and the movie theater had it. Kids now have never lived without it, and have grown accustomed to indoor air rather than outside heat.

Others point to the parents. A survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) found that participation in every organized sport — including soccer,  basketball, football, track & field, baseball and softball — has dropped significantly in the past five years. Softball alone has seen a drop of 30 percent in participation. When asked, parents offered several reasons why they preferred their children not to participate in these organized outdoor activities: risk of injury; behavior of coaches; commitment of time; cost; and the emphasis on having fun over winning. All valid reasons, but other outdoor play does not seem to be substituted.

Some studies point to the release of Nintendo 64 in 1996 as the beginning of this downward trend away from outdoor play. Video games were around since the early 1970s, but the release of Nintendo 64 greatly enhanced the look and feel of the games, and expanded the amount of games available. The Kaiser study found, on average, today’s kids ages eight to 10 spend six hours a day watching TV, playing video games and using computers.

So, were we boomers outside more simply because we had no other choices? Or are today’s kids inside because of overprotective parents and an addiction to all things electronic? Scientists and physicians predict this trend toward less outdoor play will result in a less healthy generation, which is already reflected in the obesity rate among children. Could it be the answer to much of our country’s health concerns — especially among children — is more outdoor play?

What memories of summer outdoor fun do you have, boomers?