In case you forgot, this is what vacation looks like: you, the sunset, and no bosses for 1,000 miles.
My husband has a saying when we travel: If it doesn’t hurt, it wasn’t worth it. Over the years, we’ve had food poisoning in at least a dozen countries, battled bed bugs in Singapore, come face to face with tapeworms in Indonesia, and recently spent two weeks with a souvenir from our South African safari: African tick fever. Unofficially, we’re a little mental. But we do it for the sake of the adventure: to boldly go as far and as fast as we can in the two weeks allotted for our annual vacation. We push ourselves to experience new cultures and exotic foods; to learn, to see, to do, fear be damned. That body-shaking terror I feel every time my plane encounters turbulence? I just medicate and get back in the air once a month, if I can.
But as a passport-wielding American of which there are 125.9 million of us, just over a third of the country, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. State Department it appears I’m one of the few to even take vacation, let alone go abroad. There’s been much ado this year about a hand-wringing study by the U.S. Travel Association that says Americans accumulated some 429 million unused paid days off in 2014. From 1976‚ 2000, we took about 20.3 vacations days annually; from 2001‚ 2013, that dropped to 16 days, which U.S. Travel is calling the Lost Week. That amounts to about $52.4 billion in let me say it again, paid benefits wasted. Thrown away. A week’s worth of work, given back to The Man. It’s enough to have earned us the ignominious nickname he No-Vacation Nation. What’s the mascot for that? A pale, bug-eyed worker drone chugging coffee and sending emails while on the toilet? No thanks.
We…volunteered to exhaust ourselves, Juliet Schor wrote so eloquently in her 1992 book The Overworked American. That was 23 years ago: pre-smartphones, pre-social media. Before we all started checking email first thing in the morning, or while rocking children to sleep at night. Before we were constantly connected yes, even on vacation. And we’ve done it with fervor: taking pride in our ambition, celebrating each upward tick in GDP and productivity (neither of which is commensurate with wages) while mocking countries less aggressively dedicated to output. Remember that Cadillac commercial starring Neal McDonough during the 2104 Winter Olympics? When he sneered at other countries for taking all of August off and not being the “crazy, driven, hard-working believers” Americans are? Here’s a refresher:
Consider the cold, hard numbers that we as a nation so love: In a 2013 report, the Center for Economic Policy and Research found that the ‚U.S. is the only rich nation without legally mandated vacations for employees. Among our Western peers, France famously mandates 30 days of paid vacation annually, while Austria commands 22 days off plus 13 paid holidays. The Swedes, who have CEOs considering a six-hour work day right now, get 25 days off each year.
The U.S.? Zero. Zeroes across the board. Even Japan tells its workers to take to two weeks off a year, and this is a country that used to send its kids to school on weekends!
We work hard, play hard, and die young. If living in moderation is a bore, vacationing that way is unthinkable.
The statistics are damning, but not really surprising. It’s how we roll. We’re a nation of bingers. All or nothing: It’s how we eat, how we drink, how we spend. The land of Big Macs and personal jets and $500 million-dollar mansions in Bel Air. We are simultaneously obese and anorexic, teetotalers and alcoholics. We work hard, play hard, and die young. If living in moderation is a bore, vacationing that way is unthinkable. A recent Skift report on How Americans Travel shows that our habits fall to extremes: Roughly 51 percent of Americans didn’t take a single vacation day in 2014. When we did, we stayed close to home typically a long weekend getaway, with 86 percent traveling by car, or a staycation or went on a careening 14-day, 11-flight jaunt to the other side of the world like our lives depended on it. (Guilty as charged.) The cram-it-all-in vacation has been a thing of gentle mockery since a 1957 New Yorker cartoon (and later a 1969 Mel Stuart movie) posed two American tourists in a picturesque square in Europe, oblivious to their surroundings as they consulted a tour schedule. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium, read the caption. Just swap out the schedule for an iPhone, add a selfie, and you have the 21st-century update; we just call it FOMO now, a fear of missing out.
If we made time off a priority can you imagine that? what would that do to our mental health, to our understanding of ourselves, our families, and other cultures? What would we learn by looking up from our tour schedules or our smartphones and glancing around? Vacations have been known to actually reduce the risk of heart disease; and if you take a trip longer than two weeks, it recharges the brain like getting a great night’s sleep, wrote Fast Company in “Why Not Using All Your Vacation Time Is Bad For Your Health.” (Now there’s a headline.) And have you heard the one about the young rats who were all work, no play? The National Institute for Play in California found that the their brains didn’t develop properly, their cortisol (stress hormones) levels stayed too high, and the rats died. Their little rat bosses just went out and hired more rats.
So dare I ask: Why? Why do we refuse to take a break, even a one-week vacation? Of all the articles I’ve read, the people I’ve talked to, one word continues to chime like a death knell: fear. A 2014 Glassdoor study, which has very similar findings to U.S. Travel’s Project: Time Off, reports that people work during vacation because of fear of getting behind and returning to a mountain of work (28 percent), and a fear of being seen as replaceable or outright losing one’s job (17 percent). The Great Recession isn’ far from our minds, and vacation doesn’t fill an empty belly.
But that’s not the only way fear manifests itself: It’s fair to say that the recent Paris attacks, Brussels lockdown, and Beirut bombings have spooked more than a few people, prompting them to cancel trips and stay close to home. Is it mere coincidence that Americans stopped using a week’s worth of vacation in 2001? They’re very different anxieties, but two sides of the same coin fear for our security, for our future. This stress is real recorded in yet another study and at its worst, paralyzing, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s safety in numbers, like:
40 The percent of executives surveyed by the Creative Group who thought their employees would be more productive if they took their vacations. Only 9 percent said they believed productivity would decrease. Bosses need to take their own advice, though, and tell their employees to take a break. No one likes a work martyr.
$73 billion The amount the U.S. economy would reap in sales if employees took one more day of earned leave each year.
195 The number of countries on our planet to explore, fighting fear in the process. Mark Twain said it best: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Zero The number of people who said “I took too many holidays this year.” Ever. Even if you come home with African tick fever.
Source: Condé Nast Traveler