David M. Shribman accused Americans of ruining August on Monday, through their cacophony of work, school and frantic scheduling. He remembers when August was “an idyll of idleness, a time of pure ease” – but nowadays, it’s ebbed into work and school obligations:
“Not so long ago—well within the memory of half the American population—August was the vacation month. It was a time, much anticipated and much appreciated, of leisure, languor, lassitude and lingering at the beach well into suppertime… What we’ve done to August has made it the cruelest month: infuriating work and inescapable school obligations amid intoxicating weather.”
The New York Times actually wrote a similar story in August 2006, called “The Rise of Shrinking-Vacation Syndrome.” Mike Pina, a spokesman for AAA, told author Timothy Egan that “The idea of somebody going away for two weeks is really becoming a thing of the past. It’s kind of sad, really, that people can’t seem to leave their jobs anymore.” Egan pointed to “the heightened pace of American life, aided by ever-chattering electronic pocket companions,” for crippling people’s ability to escape or just be “slothful.”
Since Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous study of American life in Democracy in America, we’ve been a documented case of superior work ethic. This work ethic has become tantamount to our national identity – and some might argue, our obsession. Social critic Morris Berman has written Why America Failed and Spinning Straw Into Gold, two books aimed at the nation’s work-fixated culture. He told the Atlantic in an interview last week that America is “essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years.” Americans, for the most part, lack true community or neighborly connection. They see careers, professional ambition, and prestige as means to “the good life.” In this mindset, life and pleasures become results-obsessed.
Berman does think these trends have escalated in the recent past: he writes that as the U.S. began to “speed up” from about 1965 on, “a kind of industrial, corporate, consumer ‘frenzy’ took over, which meant there was no time for anything except getting and spending.” This fits with Shribman’s description of the new August: a month that is now results-obsessed in its educational and vocational pursuits. Classes for high schoolers can begin as early as August 5 (whereas Shribman documents a time when they began after Labor day). College students return to campus mid-August, and summer travel has dropped by 30 percent. Americans, it would appear, are eager to achieve – not relax.
This frenzied environment may not stem entirely from technological advances (though gadgets certainly help) or even historical precedent. The country’s current economic situation fosters a sense of vulnerability and job insecurity, and this increases our desire to put in extra hours at the office. In turn, that economic anxiety may push students toward college and a degree with greater alacrity.
How to remedy this situation? Egan offers the example of PricewaterhouseCoopers, a company that forces its employees to take a vacation by instituting a national shutdown. Their employees “were not getting their batteries recharged,” but now that the entire workforce is forced into vacation, company officials recorded positive results. Research by the Families and Work Institute in New York City implies that being overworked may prevent workers from taking vacation. Their study found that 44 percent of U.S. workers felt overworked, overwhelmed by workloads, and unable to step back to reflect on the work they were doing in the last month. In addition, A Tuesday Economist blog post suggested we use technological advancements to help employees relax a little:
“Too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. Early in the industrial era real wages soared and hours worked declined. In the past generation, by contrast, real wages have grown slowly and workweeks haven’t grown shorter.”
For some, especially those burdened by economic woes, “vacation” may remain an unrealistic proposition. Perhaps for these individuals, August should be a month of savoring small things, making the most of weekends, and learning to turn off technological “gadgets” for a needed respite. Shribman urges us to return to the pleasures of eating peaches, hiking, and walking through town with an ice cream cone: none of these things require a weeklong vacation, but they do sweeten the summer. Perhaps it is time for Americans to reconsider the inherent value of leisure – and to seek out activities that are enjoyable for their own sake.