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The Demise of August

David M. Shribman accused [1] 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 [2].” 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 [3], 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 [4] and Spinning Straw Into Gold [5], two books aimed at the nation’s work-fixated culture. He told the Atlantic in an interview last week [6] 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 [7] 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 [8] 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.

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#1 Comment By balconesfault On August 21, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

This piece quickly reminded me of a talking point that I heard Rush spinning just a couple afternoons ago … that good hardworking Americans are disgusted with Obama taking a family vacation.

Seriously, that’s where we are? I’m not even going to dig into the comparative number of vacation days spent by Bush versus Obama. But we’re talking a hardworking man with a wife and two young kids … and we’re begrudging him heading up to Martha’s Vineyard to spend some time with the family out of the White House?

#2 Comment By Lord Karth On August 21, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

balconesfault writes: ” But we’re talking a hardworking man with a wife and two young kids … and we’re begrudging him heading up to Martha’s Vineyard to spend some time with the family out of the White House?”

When this “hardworking man” takes a staff of hundreds and spends several million of the taxpayer dollars on his little junkets, you’re dam#ed right I begrudge him that.

If he wants to get out of the White House so badly, let him go to Camp David. Or better yet, let him do what so many average Americans do—a “staycation”. Surely there are things in the White House to keep this man and his family entertained ?

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#3 Comment By TexasTea On August 21, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

The demise of vacation is caused by greedy business owners and their politician friends. This country could use government mandated vacation time for all jobs like Europe. But of course that is impossible, we can’t do anything that will “kill jobs” and “interfere with the free market (peace be upon it)”.

#4 Comment By David T On August 21, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

“When this “hardworking man” takes a staff of hundreds and spends several million of the taxpayer dollars on his little junkets, you’re dam#ed right I begrudge him that.”

I wonder if you felt the same way about other presidents’ vacations, including Reagan’s.
James J. Kilpatrick had to write a column in defense of them. [10] (It was pretty much the same as Reagan’s own defense, which was “A president doesn’t get a vacation; he gets a change of scenery.”)

#5 Comment By David Naas On August 22, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

August is the cruelest month.

#6 Comment By Dennis On August 22, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

I like the French way of just taking the whole month off! I spent the summer of 1998 in Paris, and I couldn’t believe proprietors of shops and cafes (at least ones off the main tourist track) would just literally board the place up and leave town for the entire month.

Americans think working hard and working all the time will bring them the “good life,” but unlike Europeans, they have no true sense of La Dolce Vita, or Dolce Far Niente.

#7 Comment By Mark On August 22, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

Remembering the sabbath is more important than ever in our mad dash to nowhere.

#8 Comment By Myron Hudson On August 22, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

Guilty, here. We vacation is August, typically travel or even better road trip, because it’s our anniversary month (and my wife works at a public school). But’ I bring the smart phone and the laptop. On our last trip I went to a café and worked for the morning putting out a brush fire while my wife hiked with friends. You might say I’m part of the problem.

The thing is, when work has timelines and non-delivery has serious consequences, how else to deal?

#9 Comment By Escher On August 23, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

These days the unwritten expectation is that we are always ‘available’ in case an urgent issue crops up at work. After all, our employer has been generous enough to give us a free smartphone with data plan included. They deserve something in return.

#10 Comment By REMant On August 24, 2013 @ 12:20 am

I don’t know about this, but it does seem a lot of ppl wait until vacation time to make news.

#11 Comment By Geoff Guth On August 24, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

Lord Karth

If he wants to get out of the White House so badly, let him go to Camp David. Or better yet, let him do what so many average Americans do—a “staycation”.

There’s a conservative tactic out there, often used to go after public sector unions, when one class of working people, who are getting low wages, little or no benefits, no pension and little or no time off are told to look at the “lazy” public employees on the so-called public gravy train who have things so much better thanks to those horrible unions.

Maybe, just maybe, the lesson we really ought to be learning from that isn’t that public employees should be treated worse but that private sector employees should be treated better.

I see that Lord Karth has bought into this logic hook, line and sinker. Maybe the real problem he should be devoting his considerable intellectual energies towards is just why all those hard-working Americans are forced to make do with a “staycation”, rather than begrudging the President his time off.

But that’s movement conservatism for you: always lowering the bar on everyone’s quality of life (except the ultra-rich, of course!)

#12 Comment By Reinhold On August 26, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

An interesting companion article would be to look at the number of Americans who work part-time, at under 40 hours a week, and whether their off-time is stressful or relaxing. I’d bet the former, and that it has something to do with the low wages of part-time work. I saw something very sad: striking Wal-Mart workers holding signs saying “I want to work full time!” No, you don’t; you want enough compensation to enjoy your life. Why can’t the sign say “I want fair and decent wages so that I don’t have to work every day of my life”? Are we really opposed to the idea of working less and getting paid more? Why do media outlets spend so much time telling us that to expect good pay for less work is lazy and shameful?

#13 Comment By BCaldwell On August 27, 2013 @ 7:54 am

I can remember when school did not start until Labor Day… and we all got educations. Then about 25 years ago, schools started to push the start date back further into August where now, at least in the South we start school during the first week of August during the hottest part of the year. My local school board always complains about its overhead costs like utilities, etc.. I asked them why they did not start after Labor Day? They really had no good answer. They claimed that they were mandated by the state to have a certain amount of days and if they pushed it up closer to Labor Day they would have to curtail or eliminate now other “popular” breaks like Fall Break (unheard of when I was a kid), Spring Break, etc. and of course they all want to get out of town before Memorial Day..whereas when I was younger the Memorial Day week was finals week. When I was young vacation trips were always the last week of July and the first week of August.

#14 Comment By Jitter On September 1, 2013 @ 8:57 pm

I believe Minnesota state law requires school start after Labor Day. Even post-secondary institutions do so.