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?