America – the No Vacation Nation:
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.Here is the CEPR study, updated in 2019.
(This post was originally published in 2009, and has since been updated for formatting and accuracy of links and content).
This especially hits home because Kelly recently landed a job in Australia, in which he has walked into seven weeks of annual paid vacation.
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”.
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.