4 Charts That Explain America's Vacation Problem

“Work hard, play hard” is a phrase and way of life deeply engrained in the American way. For decades, it was the American reality.

Unfortunately, Y2K did not just turn a few clocks back to 1900. With the year 2000 came the end of our vacation glory days. In just 15 years, Americans are taking a week less of vacation, down to 16.2 days in 2015 from the long-term average of 20.3 days. We call it America’s Lost Week.​

1. America's Lost Week

America’s Lost Week is made of the daydreams that were just that, memories that could’ve been, and a whole lot of FOMO. Last year, Americans earned one full day more—an average of 21.9 days each—than in 2014. The additional day resulted in a meager 0.2 more vacation days used per worker. That is a lower share of earned time off used than in 2014 (73.8% from 74.9%), when vacation usage reached its lowest point since time off usage began being measured 40 years ago.

If we keep up at this rate, America will see Vacation Zero by 2046. I don’t know about you, but a year without vacation doesn’t seem like a worthy year.

So how did we end up here? Where did America go wrong?

As we zigzag the country talking about our vacation problems, most often, we hear, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

2. Unemployment Zigs While Vacation Zags

But upon closer examination, the data shows otherwise. Overlaying vacation usage data with employment numbers shows the lack of correlation. In fact, the two highest unemployment rates since BLS started tracking vacation usage are in 1982 (9.7%) and 2010 (9.6%). But in 1982, Americans still used an average of 20.9 days, compared to 2010 when they used just 17.6 days. Last year, despite unemployment shrinking to 5.3 percent, vacation usage stood at just 16.2 days.

3. Consumer Confidence Rebounds

Not convinced? We also looked at consumer confidence, which reached all-time highs in 2000, when vacation usage first fell below the long-term average of 20.3 days. The downward trend of vacation usage has continued steadily for the past 15 years, where consumer confidence has gone through two cycles of downturn and recovery in the same period. While consumer confidence has felt the Obama rebound since the economic downturn in 2008, vacation usage still shows an overall decline.

Then what is it? The answer is in the palm of your hand.

4. X Marks The Spot: Technology and America’s Lost Week

As connectivity goes up, vacation usage goes down. Instead of zigging and zagging, America’s Lost Week forms a near perfect X when compared to technology adoption.

With smartphone ownership climbing, the Internet—and therefore the office—is now in our pockets, intensifying the attachment to work. Nicholas Carr, author and former executive editor at Harvard Business Review, wrote, “The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.”

The constant connectivity leads to a craving, according to Steven Yantis, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. He writes, “The mind is wired up to seek new information, and will automatically respond to a signal that something new is available (email, text, phone, tweet).”

A 2012 survey by Harris Interactive found that 60 percent of Americans do not go more than an hour without checking their phone. We are so connected that we have gotten to the point that phantom vibration syndrome is a real, actual thing people experience.

Peter Post, grandson to manners maven Emily Post, summed up how connectivity changed our relationship with work, “I recalled pre-digital world work habits. I certainly was more difficult to reach, but even if you reached me, I might not have been able to solve a problem that cropped up. I wouldn’t have the work or communication tools with me, and it would fall to the people back at the office to solve it.”

Compared to today, where accessibility is something we are loath to give up, and somehow, 24/7 access has become synonymous with success.

The goal here isn’t to vilify technology. I, for one, am not about to give up my iPhone. The point is to be more thoughtful about how and when we use technology. What boundaries are you going to set?

June 14, 2016