The great Kiwi holiday surplus

19:45, Jan 08 2013

New Zealand's beneficial holiday surplus is never on more obvious display than during the holiday season. 

Despite the strangely loathing global stereotype of the lazy, fat and entitled American, as a people they seem to work too hard, empirically harder than any other country in the world, studies have shown.

In America, I know two people who were at work on Boxing Day. I know several others who were back at work before the New Year. Everyone was seemingly back at work on January 2.

In New Zealand, holidays contort each holiday season around the specific days of the week that Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year's fall. This year, I followed that most (office-dwelling) people took between the December 22 and January 7 for themselves. Many people I know are staying away from their desks until the middle of this month.

And why not? January is slow. It's hot out. Hit the beach and spend time with your family. Life is too short, right?

America has a sad work-life balance. 


The American Government mandates absolutely no paid annual leave for its workers each year. In the USA any paid annual (or parental, for that matter) leave you are offered is at the discretion of your employer (and consequently becomes a powerful recruiting chip).

Each year, the average American worker has only 12 days of paid annual leave on offer to them. In 2010, only 57 per cent of Americans took the days off they'd earned.

In New Zealand, the legal minimum is 20 days of annual leave. Italy leads the world in annual leave with an allotment of 42 days each year. (I want to go to there.) 

This lack of vacation has disturbing results in America.

An American worker toils three hours longer each week than a Japanese equivalent, five hours a week longer than the British and 10 hours a week more than the French. Conversely, the United States has one of the highest levels of income inequality among developed countries.  

And among various recessionary pressures and low consumer confidence, the situation is getting worse. I read in yesterday's New York Times that since the global financial crisis, more Americans today are happy to do the job of two people if it brings about a little income security. 

This troubled me. If anything, the work-life balance here should be swinging back toward the centre, not sliding further into the red.  

This holiday deficit in America (or surplus, depending on whether you're arriving or escaping) brings a few things to mind, some comparatively good, some extremely unfavourable.

When you factor this workload in alongside the lack of social safety net in America (no good medical insurance, etc) it becomes a poison pill that the middle class has to swallow daily.

Some people theorise that this is allowed to be in America because over time, race and gender have been politicised here, where class has been ignored - leaving the country with a weak labour movement  (evidenced further through recent crushing anti-union legislation passed in Michigan and Wisconsin).

However, it has come to pass, the result is not good at all: a lower- and middle-class craning to maintain profit to an owning class, with no security or guarantee provided by the government (most people I know - moderate earners, relatively privileged, university educated - would be extremely financially inconvenienced if they fell sick tomorrow).

But though part of this situation of overwork and holiday-deficit is created by social inequality, a lot of it is born out of searing drive and ambition.

Americans, as I have encountered them, want to work hard and succeed. Children are spurred by parents to get accepted into the best universities; university students strive for top graduate schools; grad-students jostle for posts inside the best companies.

Americans respect and reward success and focus in a way that New Zealanders sometimes don't. Whichever side of "tall poppy" you come down on, it's not a big part of the American lexicon.  

There's a large part of American work culture that seems horribly twisted, a remnant of a creaking, broken system... but when you flip the coin over, there's a ceaseless drive to be the best, to innovate and never quit that gets some great results.

In New Zealand there's government-provided healthcare, social welfare, fantastic green space, shorter work days, more holidays and more affordable rents. There's less of the brutal drive to get ahead and more awareness of the importance in living life as much more than just a worker-bee... but sometimes, this does (in my opinion, of course) manifest itself as a suspicion of hard work. 

Which probably means little to you at the moment, groaning at your desks after such a lovely long holiday (or dreading going back, whichever).   

How right do you think New Zealand gets it with its work-life balance? To you, what are the implications of this?   

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