I clearly don't want to brag about the 5 weeks of vacation I had back in France, but sharing about differences between France and the USA is what this blog is about. I have to warn you: if you ever decide to talk about your paid vacation time, you’ll definitely see some eyes popping! You might even be asked: “But, how were you able to take THAT (pause) MANY (pause) DAYS!?”
Let's dig a bit
It is all about negotiation
In the USA, paid vacation is considered part of your compensation: you do your work and, in exchange, you receive a salary, health insurance, and paid vacation time. In Europe, on the other hand, we don’t see paid vacation as a benefit; we see it as a right. Yes, a “they-owe-me-this, they-owe-me-that” kind of right.
It was shortly after starting my job search in the USA that I truly realized all three components of your compensation can be negotiated. Very little or no rules exist on minimum wage and health insurance, and there are no federal or state laws that guarantee a minimum amount of paid vacation.
Some companies, mainly large companies though, are conscious about the importance of work-life balance. They also know that it gives them an edge on the job market. These companies have developed internal policies about minimum paid vacation time and are less inclined to negotiation since they grant vacation time based upon your experience and your years spent with the company.
Forget about your five weeks of vacation
Most European countries currently establish 20 days as a minimum legal right. When I worked in France I had 25 days of vacation. Countries such as Denmark go as far as 30 days.
In the USA, on the other hand, the average number of paid vacation is only 9 days. Plus, paid vacation time is very unequally distributed: low wage workers get 7 days, compared to 13 days for higher-wage workers.
Something that really strikes me is that it is totally legal to work 40 hour a week and have no vacation time. This is the reality for more than 80 million low wage American workers. Some of these workers even combine several jobs to make ends meet. No questions asked as long as you can keep up with it (in France your main employer has to approve it for you to get a second job).
Available vacation time shapes how Americans travel and work
My former company in France had a policy that might sound surreal in the US: we basically were encourage to take 3 weeks of consecutive vacation during summer time. As a result, July and August were ghost months at the office. I still remember those unsuccessful meeting attempts, trying to join people and, in response, you getting those countless ‘out-of-office’ emails! But with experience comes wisdom, and I quickly learned how to go with the flow during summer time.
With an average of only 9 vacation days, the key word in the USA is “optimization”. Americans know how to use their vacation days wisely. They combine them with holidays such as the Martin Luther King, 4th of July or Memorial Day to create longer weekends. And they are true experts at getting the most out of 4 day getaways (note: holidays come on top of paid vacation days).
Believe or not, some people don’t even take all their vacation! Americans want to be seen as hard workers, feel that they contribution matters and that they are irreplaceable at the office. They handle their vacation days almost with secrecy, always making themselves available in case their irreplaceable help is needed.
So based on that
It’s all about negotiation. Paid vacation time in the US is a benefit, not a right. Americans get an average of 9 days of paid vacation. They want to be seen as hard workers and see taking vacation as risk to their careers. With this gap in vacation time and perception, no wonder Americans think Europeans are lazy!! ;)