America: The No Vacation Nation

by Nora Dunn on October 5, 2009

I recently read this enlightening bit of information over at Wanderlust and Lipstick:

A 2009 survey from Expedia found that 1/3 of employees don’t take all of their vacation time. While this speaks (to a certain degree) to how individuals make personal choices, there might be something else underlying our reluctance to hit the road.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research calls the U.S. the No Vacation Nation. In a 2007 study, they determined that the U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation for employees. That means you can take a job, work your 40 (or more) hours a week, and it’s considered a bonus to be given paid vacation time.

But when we are blessed with vacation time, what keeps us from taking the time off we earn and deserve? According to the Expedia survey, people who don’t take their vacation time do so for several reasons. They hope to receive compensation for unused time, they have a hard time planning ahead or their partner can’t travel during the same time period. What’s worse? One in five respondents admitted to canceling a vacation because of work.

This especially hits home because Kelly recently landed a job in Australia, in which he has walked into seven weeks of annual paid vacation.

Seven. Weeks.

Although his job is linked to the school system (which grants lots of time off, even in North America), nary an Aussie has batted an eyelash since we’ve told them about Kelly’s allotted vacation time.

Instead most of our Aussie friends are horrified when we say that average corporate citizens in North America consider themselves lucky to score three weeks of vacation time per year, more realistically acquiescing to the standard two weeks per year. Loyal upper management employees might see five weeks of vacation time per year…after 20 years of service.

I remember those days well. I would get my 10 days of vacation time and painstakingly determine how to divide them into two well-placed vacations, using long weekends to maximize time away from the office. Shy of those two vacations, I lived from long weekend to long weekend. But to not take all my vacation days…would have been akin to blasphemy in my books.

So it comes as something of a shock to me to discover that Americans (I can’t speak for Canadians with these statistics, but I can only surmise that they are similar) don’t even take the vacation time afforded to them. A few years ago there were even murmurs of increasing the number of hours in a legislated work-week. With longer working hours and less vacation time, how do people decompress long enough to remain balanced and healthy?

As a function of how “out of touch” I have become, I no longer do a double-take when somebody tells me they just took three months to drive around the country, or that they have been traveling for years. I cringe at the thought of “only” spending a month or two in New Zealand, and yet I realize that many of my former North American colleagues would be challenged to ever visit anywhere for more than two weeks. Ever.

“Yeah, yeah, Nora. Nice problem to have”, you say. “Not everybody is as lucky as you”.

Possibly.

But then again, I’m not the only one, and I’m not so special. There are more and more people who are rejecting the current system and its inadequacies in favour of a higher – or at least different – quality and standard of life. This takes on different forms depending on the person and their desires; for some, it is the opportunity to make their own hours with a location independent income, and spend more time with their kids. For others (like me) it is the commitment to long-term travel and the realization that where there’s a will to make something happen, the way tends to present itself when we’re ready.

Although the States is generally a very productive nation, is it so from brute force of will and hours invested at the office? I hope not, but I’m not so sure. It is no secret that the “happiness index” has plummeted over the last few decades, and I don’t believe it is a global phenomenon so much as it is linked to the North American work-centric culture.

I think that somewhere in the mix North America lost sight of the forest through the trees. We are caught up in a lifestyle based on consumption, which in turn perpetuates people’s need to work hard – to earn enough money to pay off their last (or their next) purchase. Vacations become luxuries, since many can’t afford to actually go anywhere anyway with their consumer debt load…so they may as well just keep on working.

In any of the places I have traveled to or lived in that seem to have a more balanced approach to life, there is usually no television (ie: no commercials telling us what we “need”), no big box stores to tempt us with stuff we don’t need, and a strong focus on family, nature, and healthy eating as priorities. I believe this approach is possible even in the big city, but requires more dedication in the face of constant stimuli and the requirement to “keep up” with the consumption curve.

To those one in five people who have canceled your vacation for work: I must first say that I understand. Sometimes stuff just happens at the office. I get it, really I do. But I have just one underlying question: Do you work to live, or do you live to work? Hopefully the answer to that question – and how you feel about it – will shed some light on whether you will work through your next vacation.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Jarosz October 6, 2009 at 1:37 am

Good post Nora. Those of us on the other side of the Atlantic find it hard to believe how ANYONE can get by with two weeks vacation. And there have been numerous studies that have shown US workers to be less productive (per hour worked) than their European counterparts.
As you suggest, there is a prevailing culture of long hours in American business. I spent a year working in NY, made sure I took my 10 days and I felt something of a slacker for taking a whole week at once.
You have been very kind in your analysis. I think there is no excuse for not taking your time off, and it cannot be healthy to work without taking your vacation. Even if your partner is unable to get the same time off (another question arises but I’ll leave that one alone) surely it’s better to have the time to yourself, have a break with friends, whatever.
Too many organizations are happy to create an unspoken culture of corporate bondage.
Sometimes, when it comes to time spent devoted to work, less can be more. To quote an overused cliche, nobody lay on their deathbed, reflected on their life and wished they’d spent more time in the office.

Reply

brian from nodebtworldtravel.com October 6, 2009 at 3:49 am

3 weeks? I thought it was more like 2!

Life is too short. No one ever looks back on their life and says, “I wish I spent more time in the office!”

There are many options for location independent lifestyles now. Speak English and have a passport – you’ve got an advantage over much of the planet.

Reply

Grant Lingel October 6, 2009 at 4:23 am

Great post Nora!

You are so dead on it’s ridiculous. As an American living in New York City, I see the worst of it… people working 80 hours weeks and never getting time off. When I returned to New York from one of my few stints living in Mexico, I took a job (in the Chrysler Building of all places) out of desperation. In at 8AM out at 7PM and get this — people actually brought their lunches back to their desks to eat and work when in theory, they could have taken up to an hour (I was the one of the few doing that). It’s always been hard for me to wrap my mind around all work and no play but all work and no life is beyond that. Keep up the good work!

Grant

Reply

JoAnna October 6, 2009 at 6:49 am

You said it Nora! Working long hours with minimal vacation (or remaining plugged in for the duration of those 2 precious weeks) makes people intolerable to work with and for. They’re cranky, demanding and unhappy. Despite all the statistics out there, some people must still believe that the more they work, the happier they’ll be *someday.* But what about today?

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 6, 2009 at 7:59 am

@Andy – The question you almost posed (about whether you can get time off with a partner) brings up another side to this issue, which is the iron grip that many companies hold on vacation time…you could have eight weeks off a year, but not be allowed to take your time off in chunks of more than one or two, or at certain times of year. My having taken a month to go to South Africa was almost unheard of, and I got many strange looks from colleagues for doing so.

@Brian – Even two weeks in some companies is considered to be a luxury! Yikes.

@Grant – I used to be guilty of eating lunch at my desk from time to time. At the time I figured I’d just buy something I didn’t need if I left the office (I was surrounded by shopping centres); somehow the idea of just getting outside and going for a walk escaped me!

@JoAnna – You bring up another great issue: when we DO take vacation, how tied to the office are we? Although I like the idea of bringing a smart phone to deal with emails and not return to a full Inbox when I get back, what is the emotional cost of even that half an hour spent in front of it each day of your vacation? Hmm…

Reply

Toby October 6, 2009 at 5:46 pm

It’s a life choice. People are trading their youth for (hopefully) more time and a better lifestyle later on.

A good case study is that of Philip Delves Broughton who wrote an excellent book about his experiences in Harvard Business School. He said that in almost every class there was advice from successful businessmen/women saying that the most important thing is the work-life balance AND that they neglected it. Work is addictive: you feel like you are cheating yourself and maybe your family if you do not do it enough.

Reply

Dick October 6, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Hi Nora,

Here in The Netherlands,in my work, if I don’t take at least three weeks off in a row I would get into serious difficulty ! And there is always enough left to move to the next year . Ever heard of the the term Vacation Lake ? Of course this is not allowed but it is hard to prevent this ! You definitely took the right decision .

Reply

Prime October 6, 2009 at 7:36 pm

This is not just a purely American phenomenon. I heard a lot of middle class Filipinos who said they don’t have money to travel and they’re quite amazed that I can afford to do so given that I’m not rich (nor do I have corrupt politicians for relatives). The funny thing is, while they claim they don’t have the money to travel, they actually have the money to buy a car or the latest cellphone model.

Reply

Amanda October 6, 2009 at 8:17 pm

This is so true! I am an american currently living in europe, and this is one of my biggest reservations about moving back to the US. It’s so much healthier to take lunchbreaks, eat a real proper meal, and take your vacation days! When I lived in France I had about 7 weeks holiday, now that I’m in London, I get 5 weeks … and it’s still not enough ;)

Reply

Carmen October 6, 2009 at 10:37 pm

It’s amazing – isn’t it – how we in America are so stringent about work and frown at people who take time off. My husband is in a similar boat. He has worked for the state of Texas for 15 years. I have wanted to take the children abroad for a year and have planned to do so for many years but Tony is unable to get any vacation to really spend significant time with us. The state also has no sabbatical leave program. I mean, that’s what people take government jobs for – right? Lower wages in return for better benefits, more vacation, etc. He has over 100 days saved up but doesn’t take them because of feeling it would be frowned upon and that his job could be in jeopardy. So – we are apart as a family this year while the children and I are abroad. It’s ridiculous that it has to be that way.

In addition, while I was researching for our next book at NuNomad, I found that the average life expectancy for a person in the U.S. is about 66.6 years for men and 71 years for women. When you look at that in light of the current retirement age of 65 which will probably increase to 67 because of social security crises think about what that means for all those folks who think they will live their dreams after retirement!

Reply

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen October 7, 2009 at 3:46 am

I think Europeans have a lot to teach about quality of life.

They typically spend less on housing and consumption but enjoy more vacations and time with their families. I think North Americans have gotten so caught up in consumption, that they are losing sight of what is most important.

There is a great book called the European Dream by Jeremy Rifkin talking about these issues.

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 7, 2009 at 7:49 am

@Toby – You bring up an excellent point:

“He said that in almost every class there was advice from successful businessmen/women saying that the most important thing is the work-life balance AND that they neglected it.”

…If I did the math, I could potentially conclude that all the successful businesspeople who came to speak to Harvard got to where they were in business BECAUSE they neglected a healthy work-life balance….what do you think?

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 7, 2009 at 7:55 am

@Dick – I appreciate workplaces that require employees to take time off. Does everybody in the company get the same (or similar) time off?

@Prime – It all comes down to priorities. Would the Filipino people consider taking time off even if they didn’t travel per se?

@Amanda – Only 5 weeks vacation now…how easy our perception shifts, huh? :-)

@Carmen – Those are some scary life expectancy stats, especially if people shoot for 65 as a retirement age! Yikes. I’m so sorry that you and your hubby are separated while you travel….you’re right – it is ridiculous.
Now here’s a question I have for you: You say that your husband doesn’t want to take his accumulated vacation time because it would be frowned upon and his job could be in jeopardy….do you really think (especially in a government job) that they would push him out of the company for taking the time off that he has earned? (I’m sure it’s possible; I’m just wondering how much of it lies in the perception of the employee).

@John – You got it! Thanks for the book recommendation; I’ll pick it up.

Reply

Laura Byrne Paquet October 7, 2009 at 10:55 am

Great post! And hear, hear.

One of the roadblocks I think many people face when planning a vacation is the idea that they have to do lots of expensive things once they get to the destination. But you can pick and choose. Stay in an apartment, a hostel or somewhere else with cooking facilities, and you can save a fortune in breakfasts alone. Take the metro instead of a rental car and that’s more money saved. (I usually end up spending all that saved money on other things, but that’s a whole other issue.)

Have you seen the Take Back Your Time website? (http://www.timeday.org/) It’s all about the effort to wean people away from working long hours. (Although I shouldn’t talk–I’m swamped with deadlines and contemplating a late night at the computer…but I’m trying to stop making that a habit.)

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 7, 2009 at 11:11 am

@Laura – Absolutely! Vacations don’t have to be expensive propositions. Heck just the time away from the office spent with a good book can be rejuvenating! And a book costs less than going to a movie…and it keeps on giving so much longer too.

Reply

Nomadic Matt October 7, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Now Americans are worrying about taking even 2 weeks off because they worry it might send bad signals to their boss in this economic crisis.

Americans are sadists

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 8, 2009 at 8:03 am

@Matt – There is an interesting discussion going on over at Wise Bread about a similar topic: I wrote a similar article over there (the opening quote and premise is the same but it is written completely differently), which has sparked quite the debate about Americans, and productivity, etc.
Check it out!
http://www.wisebread.com/america-is-the-no-vacation-nation

Reply

Toby October 8, 2009 at 8:26 am

@Nora — I think that that is definitely true for many of the people speaking at Harvard. It is something that they admitted (at least as described in the book by Philip Broughton). Absence from work, especially for an extended vacation, can definitely impact someone negatively in the workplace, and so the safest route is probably to not go on vacation. That is certainly not the happiest route to take through life but the one that they chose based on their priority on job achievement. Of course, there are entrepreneurial outliers like Mark Zuckerberg, but at least half of their success has got to be luck.

Reply

Joe Todd October 8, 2009 at 11:31 am

I think “society” in general has a lot of things turned upside down and “work” is one of them. For me “true ambition is the deep desire to live a useful life and walk humbly under the Grace of God.”

Reply

Maya Gonzales Berry October 8, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Hi Nora,
We have just completed our first year in Australia after 5 years in Spain. It was a bit hard for my husband to go from the six weeks paid vacation in Spain to the four weeks that he gets here. At least he has the possibility to by additional leave.
Last night we were talking to someone from the USA who has been here for about 9 months. He has yet to take anytime off and still works a lot of weekends–the only person in his company who does–I think that being a workaholic is part of his lifestyle. Kind of scary.

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 9, 2009 at 10:18 am

@Toby – It’s just too bad that success (at least in North America) more often than not is connected to being a workaholic. Ah well – I guess it’s the good/bad/ugly of capitalism…

@Joe – Thank you for boiling it down to just beautiful simplicity. A fellow once said to me if we could all just “be”, we’d be much happier.
I wrote a post on the true definition of wealth here (you may be interested):
http://www.wisebread.com/the-truth-about-wealth

@Maya – I wonder if your US friend simply doesn’t know any better than to work as hard as he does, even though he is in Australia where things are more relaxed. It seems to be part of the working culture in much of the States; if you aren’t working as hard as you possibly can, there’s something wrong with you.

Reply

Joe Todd October 9, 2009 at 10:30 am

Thanks for the link to true definition of wealth . Excellent post. For me I hopefully have recovered from “The disease of More”

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 9, 2009 at 11:15 am

@Joe – As the Aussies would say, “ta”! Glad you enjoyed the post about wealth.

Reply

Dave October 17, 2009 at 1:07 am

“using long weekends to maximize time away from the office”

I certainly did this many times, and I was a lucky one to have 3 weeks of vacation at my first job, and 4 weeks at my second (both start-ups, which tend to value time off more).

And I can relate about being out of touch with the corporate mentality toward time off. I think most countries in the world deserve at least 1 month of my time, so I don’t know how I can continue to *not* be a professional hobo since returning from my RTW trip. :)

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 19, 2009 at 8:20 am

@Dave – You bring up a great point about returning to the work force after a RTW trip….I don’t know that I could ever accept such short vacations myself. However that’s part of the reason I have been working for myself for the last 10 years or so….I’d rather set my own rules.
(However I always joke that I’m my own boss, but my boss is a b**ch! She never stops cracking the whip!!!)

Reply

Lauren Quinn October 24, 2009 at 6:47 am

Great post and great discussion. During college, I worked 2 part-time jobs in addition to full-time classes–a total of about 60 hours a week of work, with never more than 2 days in a row off (usually only 1 though). I did this with no benefits, no sick days, no paid holidays and, of course, no vacation time. It’s what I had to do to survive and pay for school. While I do think overworking and over-consumption is ingrained in our culture, it’s also a result of relatively weak organized labor–relative to Western Europe. Thank God, I’ve since found a way to travel about 1/4 of the year, but I definitely know what’s it’s like to be sucked into the grind out of necessity. You forget what vacation is. In restaurants, I’ve worked with immigrants who work 80 hours a week with no days off for years on end, to provide a better life for their kids. I count myself as extremely fortunate to be able to give myself time to travel–even if it’s unpaid!

Thanks for bringing this up!

Reply

theprofessionalhobo October 24, 2009 at 3:25 pm

@Lauren – You bring up several wonderful points: about what it is to work hard through our younger school years to make ends meet, and about what it is to be less fortunate with a need to work long hours. Even a vacation spent at home can be a luxury. Thank you for this perspective!

Reply

The Know December 8, 2010 at 11:15 am

This subject is definitely a sore spot for me. I am so frustrated with corporate America and the lack of balancing a healthy lifestyle. I fell in love with traveling after I studied abroad in Europe twice and I was so eager to graduate from school to start making money in my career. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly use the money I make in my career to travel for months at a time like I used to do when I was in college. In my current job, we have to wait until we’ve been there for 1 year so that we can be granted our 5 days of paid vacation time. At this point, I’ve been here for 9 months and I have 0 paid vacation time. Oh how I wish we can adopt the Italian, Spanish or Australian way of life! Work is not what “LIFE” is about.

Reply

theprofessionalhobo December 8, 2010 at 7:36 pm

@The Know – I hear ya! And I hope – for your sake – that the job is worth it, or is a means to something that’s worth it.
I put in many years of drudgery before I was in a position to pack up and travel. In some ways it helps me appreciate the freedom I have all the more! There’s still lots of work to do, but it’s on different terms.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: