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Shorter, cheaper vacations the new normal

Chris Elliot, CNN
(Tribune Media Services) — When Roger Bell takes a vacation, he normally flies to a national park or visits friends up north for two weeks. But like many Americans, Bell, a Woodstock, Georgia-based technical writer, lost his job in 2009. And that changed the way he vacations — maybe permanently.

Bell was unemployed almost a year before finding a new job that paid 25 percent less than his old one. That, in turn, downsized his next vacation from a destination like Yellowstone or Yosemite to an overnight trip.

“I’m only taking a few days off work over the weekend and only going to coastal Georgia for a beach trip by car,” he says.

Welcome to the “new” normal in travel: Shorter, less expensive vacations — or in extreme cases, just daycations — being taken by increasingly cost-conscious travelers. Maybe you’ve been on one of these mini-trips in the last year. If you haven’t, you probably will.

Travelers say they’ve begun strategically downsizing their vacations, and there’s no evidence the cuts will be reversed anytime soon. Quite the contrary. From where I’m sitting, it looks as if these changes are here to stay…

(9 August 2010)
EB contributor Ann Peluso in rural Maine writes:

I just returned this morning from one of the best vacations I have ever had. Bedroll under one arm and necessity bag [lantern, binoculars, tissues, glasses case, musical instrument, beverage] over the other, I trundled out to the back yard to sleep under the stars on “shooting star” night. It’s been so hot and dry that there wasn’t one mosquito. I slept very well, waking a few times to watch the stars. Everything was covered in dew this morning, but I was dry and cozy under the blanket. I woke slowly, drifting in and out of sleep, to bird song. I trundled back into my own convenient kitchen to my own favorite coffee. My shoulder hurt a bit this morning, but that’s gone now.

I think it is just necessary to sleep somewhere else from time to time. Kids used to camp out in the back yard all the time in the summer, and many older houses have screened sleeping porches for hot nights. My husband likes to curl up on the living room carpet on cold winter nights with his back to the heat stove. I know whole families who do that when
the power goes out in the winter, and the kids think it’s a real pajama party. Back in the 70’s we used to visit friends in the next apartment or down the street and then “crash” on the floor or sofa for the night. But then that’s another time and another story.

Do we really need vacations other than just finding a different place to sleep every now and then?


The Work-Sharing Boom: Exit Ramp to a New Economy?

Julie Schor, Yes! Magazine
Twenty months into the United States’ worst recession since the 1930s, standard approaches for putting people back to work are proving increasingly inadequate. Corporate bailouts, tax cuts, government spending, and stimulative monetary policy have been the mainstays of the government’s response to the downturn. But unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and job creation has been far below what is needed to return the labor market to its pre-crash state.

There is one bright spot on the policy agenda: work sharing. Government policies that encourage companies to reduce hours rather than lay people off are getting a new look.

Operated through the regular unemployment insurance system, state-based work sharing programs are a straightforward way of spreading and diffusing the impact of downsizing: Workers whose hours have been reduced in order to save jobs at their company are able to claim unemployment benefits for the lost hours, retaining a portion—typically half—of their lost wages. Companies have to maintain benefits for these workers; depending on the state, there can be some other requirements as well.

Shorter work time (SWT) schemes have been around for years, although they have tended to be a little known, even esoteric part of labor market policy. They are far more prevalent in Europe, where they originated in the early 20th century and expanded after World War II. SWT schemes didn’t come to the U.S. until the late 1970s, when California implemented an informal version to cope with stagflation, followed by a formalized policy in 1982. Ten years later, the federal government made these schemes a permanent part of labor market policy through an amendment to the Social Security Act…

…Work-share programs are probably the best way to respond to a short-term reduction in economic activity. But they also form a key pathway to a saner economy.

Reducing work hours improves work-life balance for many overworked, overstressed employees. Americans frequently report that what they most sense to be missing from their lives is the time necessary to enjoy them; research on well-being also indicates that adequate time is at the core of a healthy, happy life. Overworked employees report more family tension, less happiness, and more stress. This is a particular problem for Americans, who work between 100 and 350 more hours each year than workers in comparably wealthy countries.

Between Overworked and Out of Work
Instead of 10 percent unemployment, what if we worked 10 percent fewer hours?
Surveys done before the crash indicate that between 30 and 50 percent of Americans say they would prefer to work fewer hours, even for less pay. However, the structure of the labor market—including the need to work full-time to receive benefits—has made that difficult. That’s why taking advantage of SWT now, at a time when hours have fallen due to the shortfall in demand, is a golden opportunity.

Reduced hours can also lead to smaller ecological footprints, as I explain in my recent book Plenitude…
(9 August 2010)
Find out more about the book here.

Work-Life Balance Reconsidered

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
Dr. Isis is reconsidering the work-life balance issues with her usual thoughtfulness over at her blog, following on a longer conversation about the ways that this problem is (unfairly, obviously) shunted exclusively onto women. This is something I agree with – and I think her “Sack up, Dudes” is probably the most concise and accurate answer to the problem of inequities between men and women in the home.

As much as I totally agree with Isis that the shifting of the problem onto women is just plain old wrong (and it should be obvious that this is not something that happens in my house (if anything, the story should probably be “Sack up, Sharon”…although that sounds sort of wrong to me ;-)), I do think that all this discussion of work-life balance misses something basic – that the reason it is so hard to achieve this is not just that men get off the hook, it is not just that male participation in domestic life is insufficient in many households – it is that our entire industrial society requires a level of participation in the formal workforce that is virtually unheard of (Juliet Schor finds in _The Overworked American_ that the only people in human history that ever consistently worked harder than us were early 19th century factory and mill workers).

We have naturalized this assumption of our time, the externalization of the costs of domestic life, the constant exhaustion, the idea that things like caring for kids and elders and participation in the informal economy are luxury lifestyle choices for which accomodation by the workplace is wholly optional. We instead begin talking about this primarily as a gender issue, as though were our partners, male or female to get off their asses, we would naturally be able to achieve this magical thing called work-life balance. But balance can only be achieved when two things are equally weighted – and that’s manifestly not the case between work and life in our society, particularly American society.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally for full equitization of domestic labor – indeed, I’m in favor of everyone doing more of it. But this question of work-life balance cannot be dealt with wholly in the realm of the personal, in the realm of gender, or even in the realm of public responses – that is, it might be better for some people to have good free daycare or elder care, but none of that addresses the basic question of whether work has the right to edge life out in the way it does. The underlying assumption of much of our society – even critiques of our larger society like feminism, is that it does. I’m not so sure that’s right, or the costs to society as a whole in climate gasses emitted and social capital abandoned could be justified.

But even if you could make a justification for such a system in good times, when we are rich in money, jobs and energy, and then could justify the fact that work has almost wholly displaced life and thus most people spend time feeling they’ve failed to create a mythical “balance” in a society that puts all the weight on work and almost none on home and family life, I’m not sure that justification could extend in a time of fewer jobs, less money and less energy.

Are the societal benefits of the erasure of home life justified, when that means that millions of unemployed people who have lost their jobs feel they have lost everything, because their domestic life does not exist, and thus cannot be a refuge? Are those societal benefits justified when grandma is kicked out of her assisted living home because her stock market gains no longer support her? Are they justified when energy becomes increasingly costly, and we use fossil fuels to replace domestic labor that could be easily done in the home? As we get poorer, the power the industrial economy and corporations have over their employees gets greater – at the just the moment that we most need to begin to reclaim our lives.

These are question we absolutely have to ask, with complicated answers. So with Dr. Isis I absolutely declare to men (and those women) who do not do their share of work in the home “Sack up, Dudes.” But to everyone, we’re going to have to ask for a deeper consideration of work and life – and that involves some universal sacking up.

(10 August 2010)

but for those of us who still have jobs…

It’s official: We’re all burnt out

Paul R. LaMonica, CNNMoney
Feeling a little more tired after a long day of work lately? Join the club.

The Labor Department reported Tuesday that worker productivity fell 0.9% in the second quarter. That’s the first decline in eighteen months and may be a sign that employees have finally gotten to the point where they are simply stretched too thin.

The amount of hours worked rose at a faster pace in the month than actual economic output. That means that companies may no longer be able to rely on cutting costs, particularly through layoffs, to juice profits.

“What’s happened is a lot of U.S. companies have reached the limit of how much they can slash their workforce and work existing employees to the bone,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist with IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. “At some point, even weak spending growth will require businesses to hire more people to meet the demand.”

Productivity rose at a 3.5% annual clip last year, much higher than normal averages of around 2%. Companies did more with less during the worst of the recession. At the time, that was the only thing they really could have done.

But if companies thought they were establishing a new period where productivity could keep climbing without bringing people back to the work force, Tuesday’s numbers are a rude awakening…
(10 August 2010)