Americans leave 430 million vacation days on the table per year

You may have seen some of these stats — they’ve been on morning shows and evening news for a couple of days now. Basically, Americans don’t take as much vacation as they should; 430 million days of paid vacation time is left on the table every year. Here’s the report; the first part of the title is “Overwhelmed America.” This has led to a bunch of discussions about being a “work martyr,” and quotes like this:

“We found that people have this whole busyness as a badge of honor thing,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “We’re becoming a nation of work martyrs. People really wear it on their sleeves how they don’t take time off. Everyone around the world looks at Americans like we’re crazy.”

That quote made me feel smarter than I really am, because I’ve written about the same topic before.

Now, a personal story — and a bit of a sad one at that, but bear with me. Last fall, my aunt passed away fairly young (about 60). It was a tragic situation because it happened pretty quickly; she essentially got sick in July and passed away in October. At the end of her life — I wasn’t there day to day, but I know people who were — she never talked about work and spreadsheets and clients and bookings, but she talked about memories and experiences and trips. For example, her and my uncle had gone on a genealogy trip in the last 18 months of her life, and also gone to the Caribbean with friends. That’s what was on her mind at the end.

I’m not trying to argue that you should make life decisions based on how you might feel when you’re close to the end of your life, but I do think you need some context around how to think about things. Too often, we get caught up in the day-to-day of what we do and what our responsibilities are, and we don’t realize the bigger picture. First off, vacations let you re-charge and reflect and relax; all of those are good things in terms of your professional existence. If all you do is grind, you’re basically grinding yourself to a nub. You need those periods of breaking away; weekends are good, but they’re not everything. Weekends become errands and stuff too.

Quotes like this are ridiculous:

Managers didn’t set a very good example either. The survey found that nearly half answer emails on their vacation, three in 10 return work calls and just 37 percent of senior managers surveyed fully unplug from work while they’re away.

Get awayHave experiences. The work will be there when you come back.

In this same study, I read something like 30 percent of people were “afraid” to take vacation because they thought other people might jump them at work, or something like that. Asinine. If someone is going to jump you because you’re gone for a work week or maybe a little more than a work week, then you live in a politically-fraught environment where someone might jump you when you’re there doing your work. If the people making promotion decisions are going to penalize you for taking some time off, that’s not a place you want to become a manager anyway; I don’t care how high the salary is. Life isn’t about Excel.

Here’s some common excuses and rebuttals. Look it over and make some notes.

Final thing: as people are living longer, there’s this idea that “what” generations leave to the next generation will change. For years, that model was “money” (as in, inheritance/etc.) Now the idea is the grandparent generation does OK for itself, and they take big family trips — in the travel and leisure industry, they call that “multi-generational” — and in the process of spending some of the nest egg, they’re giving their children and grandchildren experiences as opposed to cash on the barrel when they’re gone. I think you’re going to see more and more of that, especially as “real wealth” is probably going to get harder to accumulate.

Look, life is about the value of the experiences and the connections you make; work is a part of that, but it’s not something that should define everything. Travel is a way to experience life and gain context. Do it. You’ll still have a job to get after when you get back.



Ted Bauer