Becoming European

Michael Metzger

On the whole, Europe goes on “holiday” throughout August. The US is trending this direction as well, especially with younger workers. We’re forgetting what holiday means.

Holiday comes from the root, holy day. Taking a break—Sabbath—contributed to holiness, which means “wholeness.” God is whole, or complete, perfect. He worked six days and then took a break. His followers are to do likewise in order to be wholesome.

Wholesomeness requires taking regular and periodic breaks. You can call it sabbath or vacation. Vacation comes from the Latin vacatio, meaning “freedom.” Vacations keep us from being be enslaved to work. Sabbath means “cease” or stop. It doesn’t refer to remedying exhaustion after a tiring week of toil. It’s the enjoyment of accomplishment, the celebration of completion.[1] Sabbath keeps us from always trying to escape work.

Europeans take the escape route. “Most Europeans get four to five weeks of vacation by law and get another couple of weeks by agreement with employers,” writes Joe Robinson, founder of the Work to Live Campaign. Industriousness has long been in decline. Niall Ferguson writes that the countries where the least work is done in Europe turn out to be those that were once predominately Protestant. Declines in working hours coincide almost exactly with steep declines in religious observance. As Europeans leave the church, they forget what holiday means. They seek to escape from work.

The US has long been headed in the other direction. American workers generally feel enslaved. They manage to live with the stingiest vacation allotment in the industrialized world—8.1 days after a year on the job, 10.2 days after three years. They rarely use all their vacation. They routinely take their mobile devices with them.

Now America is reversing course—“downright European” according to Charles Murray. In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray recites the founding fathers’ four virtues (industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion). They’re in steep decline, however, especially over the last 10 years.[2] Industriousness was a “bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children.” That’s less the case today.

Beginning in 1973, General Social Survey researchers asked a large sampling of workers to look at a card and tell them which one thing on a list you would most prefer in a job. The card had five choices: High income; No danger of being fired; Chances for advancement; Working hours are short—lots of free time; Work that’s important and gives a feeling of accomplishment. Between 1973 and 1994, prime-age white workers’ first choice was always work that “gives a feeling of accomplishment.” The two least-chosen first choices were always short hours and no danger of being fired. Because of this boring consistency, the GSS dropped the survey for the next 12 years.

In 2006, the survey was resurrected. The results are startling. As millennials join the workforce, US workers indicate less interest in meaningful work and more interest in secure jobs with short working hours. Maybe it’s a reaction to the Great Recession, but America is becoming European. Americans now seek escape from work.

If Niall Ferguson is right, reviving industriousness requires reviving religion. The Christian faith elevates work as holy. It’s a vocation, a calling. Vocations are the best way to enjoy vacations. These breaks become Sabbaths. They’re no longer escapes. They instead free us from being enslaved to work, reminding us that “it is senseless to work so hard from early morning until late at night, fearing you will starve to death; for God wants his loved ones to get their proper rest” (Psalm 127:2). Enjoy your vacation.


[1] Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), pp. 113-114.

[2] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 130.


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  1. Mike — yes on the power of the biblical Sabbath. Etymologically though, the word “holiday” does not mean “wholeness,” though it serves it wonderfully. It is the Hebrew term “shalom” that means “wholeness” and “integrity” with “peace” as a necessary cognate. A “holiday” or “holy day” is rooted in the Hebrew “qadosh” and Greek “hagios,” both meaning to be “set apart.” All interfacing wonderfully, but I had to make this technical observation. To confuse the word “holiness” with “wholeness” is an etymological fallacy, even though the former serves the latter.

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