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The mystery of the disappearing vacation day

The pool is full of guests at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort in Liberty, NY, in 1977. (Universal History Archive/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


Did you know that Americans are about half as likely to take a vacation in any given week as they were 40 years ago? We neither ! When we spotted this alarming trend in an obscure government time series, our eyebrows rose so high our ears popped.

Where did our vacation go?

First, the data backstory: Every month, the good folks at the Census Bureau send out surveys asking about 60,000 Americans what they did in a given week — usually the one that includes the 12th of the month — so the Bureau of Labor Statistics can measure the percentage of the workforce actively seeking employment but unable to find one. This is called the unemployment rate.

To calculate this all-important rate, the BLS needs to know if you worked for pay during the week in question. If not, he must know why. After all, it would be pretty embarrassing to count someone as unemployed while on a road trip to Oregon’s glorious John Day Fossil Beds.

As a happy side effect of this process, we have data to calculate a much less advertised metric: the vacancy rate. And we regret to inform you that this rate has steadily declined from 3.3% of the workforce in any given week in 1980 to 1.7% today. Yeah.

Additional analysis shows that the decline was driven by our inability to take full week vacations. We estimate that shorter absences have increased slightly as more people take a day here and there for quick trips, mid-week errands or Mental Health. But that increase is too small to offset the sharp drop in luxury vacations of a week or more.

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It doesn’t seem to be a matter of supplying vacation days. It is true that the United States is the only advanced economy without guaranteed paid holidays. However, BLS data on employee benefits suggests that more than 90% of full-time workers in the private sector have access to paid time off, a figure that has remained relatively stable for decades. And the number of paid vacation days offered by the typical employer has increased in recent years.

We therefore focused more on the demand for vacation days: who uses the most? Has this changed?

The first observation to draw from the data is that teachers crush everyone in holiday draws. Full-time workers in education were about four times more likely to be on vacation than their full-time peers in other industries.

Older, more educated workers are more likely to take vacations, but salary or industry status does not always predict vacation use. Blue-collar workers and production workers — think construction, manufacturing and agriculture — are the least likely to be on vacation. But workers in entertainment and recreation, typically a lower-paying sector that includes restaurants and hotels, trail only educators in terms of free time.

Educators dominate the vacation landscape in the United States so much that they skew all the statistics. At first we thought women were almost twice as likely to be on vacation at the height of summer, but in reality women are just more likely to be teachers. Remove education from the equation and both genders show similar trends.

Perhaps because of changing school calendars and the growing need for a second job to supplement their income, teachers are losing their summer holidays. But these losses represent less than a quarter of the overall holiday loss, according to our estimate. It’s huge, but clearly not the whole story.

Dive deeper into the data and we find that it’s not just teachers who are losing their summer vacations. While Americans are now taking fewer vacations each month of the year, summers have seen the steepest decline by far. We were about a third more likely to be on vacation last July than in July 1980. This remains true even when we leave out teachers and parents. (If you’re wondering why the data seems to show that no one takes a vacation during the winter holidays, remember that these measures are usually taken around the 12th of the month, avoiding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.)

Elise Gould, from the Economic Policy Institute, has a broad view.

“Except for very short periods of time, in the late 1990s or the few years before the pandemic recession, workers had very little influence,” Gould told us. “You see that in wages, so why wouldn’t you see it in their ability to take benefits?”

Some workers may have accumulated a lot of vacation time, she said, but they may not feel free to use it. As Amber Clayton of the Society for Human Resource Management told us, it can be a matter of job security.

“If they’re not there and someone else is doing the work now, they look like consumables,” said Clayton, who runs the organization’s knowledge center. “Or they feel like their employer will disapprove of them if they leave,” she added.

Okay, but the parts don’t quite match. Data shows vacations have steadily declined, in good and bad times alike. So while our increasingly precarious work situations may be part of it, something else has to drag that line down.

At George Mason University, organizational psychologist Lauren Kuykendall delved into anti-vacation forces in a 2020 analysis published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. She and her students have found that employees are less likely to use all of their vacation days if they don’t expect to detach from work and really relax, or if they fear the vacation will penalize them. financially.

Hospitality worker focus groups convened by Elizabeth Yost of the University of Central Florida and her colleagues Edwin Torres (Rochester Institute of Technology) and Giulio Ronzoni (University of Florida) produced similar results. Several respondents said technology has changed the mood of their vacation, making them more likely to check things out at the office. Many others cited the cost of travel as a deterrent to vacation. Some said they split their holidays into smaller, more affordable trips, or took time off midweek to run errands or visit the dentist.

“Individuals would weigh the cost/benefit of taking all that time off at once,” Yost told us. “And they found there were more personal and professional benefits to taking shorter, meaningful vacations.”

This lines up well with data showing an increase in the number of people taking partial weeks off. But that rise isn’t enough to offset the epic drop in the full-week holiday.

The full picture didn’t fall into place until Gould, a senior labor economist with decades of data mining, suggested we look at trends in other reasons Americans absent from work.

Most have not changed much over the years: days missed caring for family or children, hiding in bad weather and going to school have remained relatively stable. Others have fallen for obvious reasons: absences due to labor disputes have fallen sharply since the start of the union membership plunged.

But one type of absence, the sick day, offered a clue: In the late 1970s, about 1.5% of Americans were sick in any given week. By 2019, that figure had dropped to 0.6%. Even in the era of covid-19, it averages just 1%.

So sick days and vacation days have generally dropped in tandem. It triggered a metaphorical little light bulb above our heads.

In her research with hospitality workers, Yost found that they resisted using vacations to preserve their options in an emergency. Many were on a paid time off (PTO) plan that consolidates sick days, personal days and vacation days into one bucket. While workers often appreciate the flexibility of PTO and employers find it easier to administer, such plans can deter taking long vacations by making us feel like we’re reducing the PTO we might have. needed in the event of sudden illness or tragedy.

“Workers may be reluctant to use the PTO because they feel they have to save it for their health or personal days,” Gould said. “They may also be reluctant to use the PTO when they are sick because they want to save it for the holidays. It can go both ways. »

The prevalence of PTO plans has steadily increased. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 67% of employers offered such plans in 2022, up from 36% in 1995.

“It becomes more like, ‘Oh, we can’t really take a long vacation. I use these days for this and I use this day for that,'” Yost said. “You have three weeks of vacation and that’s how you should use those days,” so maybe that sounds a little different to the employee.

As far as correlations go, this one is pretty compelling. So the Data Department will (tentatively) solve this mystery: Changes in how employers categorize our vacations could slowly strangle America’s summer vacation.

Hello everyone! The Data Department is a vast (one-man) bureaucracy that turns quantifiable questions into columns! What interests you: What types of people file their taxes earlier? Why do older Americans tend to spend less money than younger ones? What is the most common birth month in each state? You just have to ask!

If your question inspires a column, we’ll send you an official Department of Data button and ID card. This week’s buttons go to Santa Barbara, Calif., reader Daniel Stone, who asked how vacations vary by income, and economist Catherine Anne Edwardswho suggested we look at federal data on benefits and compensation.

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