Do You Use All Your Vacation Days?

June 26th, 2016 by 

Today we wanted to share an interesting article and an interesting study on the usage of vacation days - the former in the Wall Street Journal and the latter from Project: Time Off.  It turns out that the labor force participation rate isn't the only casualty of the last generation in the workforce: since 1998, Americans have been taking fewer and fewer vacation days every year as well.

How much of a shift are we talking about here?  Among Americans with paid vacation days, workers took on average 16.2 vacation days in 2015... down from the average of 20.3 days between 1976 and 2000.  More shockingly, it wasn't just a few workers skipping the vacation days - a full 55% of qualified workers left some vacation days on the table in 2015.  Project: Time Off added that all up and came up with an estimate of 658 million unused vacation days... which they computed to be worth about $223 billion in spending.

Vacation Time Taken Trend, from Project: Time Off

Vacation Time Taken Trend, from Project: Time Off

What's Causing This Vacation-Skipping Trend?

The Project: Time Off study is chock full of interesting details on the psychology of skipping vacation days, some of which I'll highlight here for you.

It turns out that many workers feel that any break in work-time would lead to an overwhelming amount of work upon their return, and even that their work is so critical that "no one else" can do the job (a full 30% for that one).   Other options were allowed in the survey as well, including two other stressful responses garnering, respectively, 22% and 19% response rates for reasons people didn't vacation.

  • Want to Show Complete Dedication
  • Don't Want to be Seen as Replaceable

While the first of those two might rhyme with our last article on hard workers, the second is undoubtedly a negative response to this sort of question, implying a major stress in a current job.  Backing up the negativity of that response, a shocking 58% of respondents reported not feeling support for taking a vacation from the boss - and 80% said if a boss was fully supportive they would have taken a full vacation.

Taking that a step further, a full quarter of employees agreed that they should do some work while on vacation.

On Working Hard in Your Youth...

"‘I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one. And I’m still fanatical, but now I’m a little less fanatical."

-Bill Gates

Although the numbers are showing up in the statistics now, a shameless devotion to work has existed for as long as work itself. Furthermore, it's a devotion often seen for highly paid and skilled white collar professions.  And, yes, the fact that those that work more hours also work for more money is a fact we've called out before on DQYDJ.

Here's one point I want to address, though: the study called some of this vacation-skipping phenomenon work martyrdom, which I didn't find entirely fair.

Demographic changes in the workforce means you've got a lot of Millennials at one end of the workforce balanced out by Boomers now occupying more senior positions.  As the richest man in the world implied in the above quote, it's easier for younger workers to burn the midnight oil - a point we've made here as well.  And, newsflash, it's often younger workers who find it hard, logistically, to use all of their vacation time.

And How About You, PK?

As a worker with a '3' to start my age, I'm not immune from the vacation skipping we're discussing - and I can certainly comment on having a young and growing family.  I know my friend Sherry at Save. Spend. Splurge. would agree: it's hard to vacation with a toddler.  The logistics of traveling with a two-year-old mean most of our trips are to see family.  As for our personal trips?  They're more "vacation" than vacation nowadays.

(Who said you can't type sarcasm?)

Also, Mr. Gates's message rings true to me - I do enjoy working hard in my thirties (I even assign myself homework in the form of article writing on this site!), and I don't expect that to change in the very near future.  As my family will be growing as well, I'm happy with the current status quo - even with a few vacation days left on the table in every year.  I don't feel particularly slighted by this situation - I'm happy working more hours today while I can, with the expectation that one day that won't be as easily done.

And, hopefully, my sop to the difficulties of vacationing with a young family doesn't paint me as a work martyr!

(Also, I took more days off in my 20s than Bill Gates!)

Should We Be Taking More Vacation?

Yes, probably.

Americans should probably take more vacation.

I have to hedge here - true, there would be more jobs created to fill the needs of vacationers taking those unused 658 million days of vacation... but workers with paid time off also tend to be very highly productive employees.

Even though it wouldn't show up in the statistics as new jobs created, note that the 658 million extra days worked themselves are, in effect, a lot of highly paid and highly productive 'jobs', even if just tacked onto the hours of already existing jobs.

I do have sympathy for the other argument, though: vacation does tend to make workers more productive when they return.

That's not in the sense of "return to mountains of work and productively Getting It Done", mind you.  I'm thinking in a more positive sense: stress reduction, a clear mind pointing to more efficient solutions, and even new methods learned while reading books in diverse fields.  And, dare I say, continued learning in your current field... surely I'm not the only engineer who tackled a new programming language or method during some time off (back me up, internet!).

So, yes, I would agree that taking more vacation is important to your work product, your reputation, and your psyche.  While I don't agree with every conclusion in the study and tend to find the work martyr bit a tad overwrought, I agree that using your vacation benefits is A Good Thing.

My Homework for You - Discuss this, Maybe Even On Your Vacation

So, get out there, get refreshed, and come back as a finely tuned machine.

Just don't take a vacation from DQYDJ - we'd love your comments on this one.  Let us know how you budget your vacation days, how your budgeting has changed over the years as your life circumstances changed, and all that fun stuff.  Or, tell us about your trips!

Hope the summer's going well!



PK started DQYDJ in 2009 to research and discuss finance and investing and help answer financial questions. He's expanded DQYDJ to build visualizations, calculators, and interactive tools.

PK is in his mid-30s and works and lives in the Bay Area with his wife, two kids, and dog.

Don't Quit Your Day Job...

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