Americans Still Struggle to Keep Work out of Play

By Burn, Timothy | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Americans Still Struggle to Keep Work out of Play


Burn, Timothy, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Many employees begin struggling at work with recurring daydreams about the Big Vacation this time of year.

The imagination takes hold. You are no longer at your desk facing a computer but in an Adirondack chair, gazing across a shimmering lake at dusk as a heavy red sun plays its last rays over distant mountaintops.

Your everyday office coffee mug, too, has been transformed. It is a tall glass beaded with condensation with a straw and a festive paper umbrella. Its contents, fresh from the blender, include chunks of mango and pineapple, cranberry juice cocktail, crushed ice and a liberal dollop of dark rum.

"Darn it Smithers! If you don't stop staring at that calendar and get back to work you'll be looking at a permanent vacation!" screams the boss as he catches you once again thinking and plotting the perfect vacation on company time.

Even though they are entitled, many Americans view vacations as a guilty pleasure. You spend months thinking and planning for it, but once the vacation happens some feel restless and out of place.

That angst leads some vacationers to bring work with them on vacation. It leads others to turn their vacations into a form of work, such as driving cattle on a dude ranch.

This need to structure vacations into a worklike experience dates back to America's start as a nation, says Cindy Aron, professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of a new book, "Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States."

"America's tension between work and vacation has its roots in our Puritan beginnings," said Mrs. Aron.

Puritan officials discouraged not only idleness and sloth, but also any amusements that were deemed unproductive or morally suspect, she said.

"A lot of the tension continued to build in the 19th century when the middle class expanded and more Americans began to feel entitled to a little time off."

Middle-class America was built on the notion that success comes from being disciplined, hard-working and sober. These were the attributes that allowed people to earn the right to vacations, but going on that vacation threatened those jobs, she added.

To this day, the tension between work and vacation remains imbedded in the minds of U.S. workers, even as leisure has evolved over the years.

"The history of vacations reveals a constant tension between the desires and needs of would-be vacationers and what the culture, at any specific moment, determined are acceptable," Mrs.

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