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Why Americans Take Fewer Vacation Days

This article was written by in Career and Work, Featured. 21 comments.

In most workplaces throughout the United States, employees receive vacation days to use every year as a benefit, and in some cases, unused vacation days expire at the end of the year. According to the latest survey by Expedia, on average, Americans earned 14 vacation days this year but used only 12. While the survey represents a larger percentage of taken vacation days than I’d assume would be the case, those 12 days are low compared to vacation days taken by employees in other countries.

In France, Spain, Denmark, and Brazil, workers receive 30 vacation days on average, and they take each of those vacation days. Is the lack of vacation in the United States a symptom of an economy under pressure to grow? Since this is a pattern that’s been consistent for many years, can we attribute the country’s growth as a major economic power in the twentieth century a result of the American workforce’s dedication to sitting in the office? It can’t be a result of the economic recession, where employees must work harder because companies are forced by their financial situation to produce more with fewer resources.

Beach VacationAccording to the survey, 58 percent of Americans say that both their work schedules and the economy do not affect their decisions about taking vacation days away from the office. Sometimes survey respondents lie, and sometimes they are unaware of their motivation and can’t accurately report it on a survey, but if the average American is leaving two vacation days on the table this year, there must be another reason.

Vacation days are different for the slice of the American workforce that includes entrepreneurs and business owners. Running your own business, particularly if your business consists of only you or of a small number of people, is a type of employment that invades your personal life. The responsibilities of a business owner are different than the responsibilities of someone who works for a large corporation. Most employees can leave their work at the office at five o’clock and dedicate the rest of their time awake to themselves or their families.

Many business owners, on the other hand, live and breathe their businesses and can’t do a good job of putting their work to the side. I haven’t had a vacation in years where I completely set aside my work on Consumerism Commentary. In the past, I’ve planned for a trip by writing articles for the website in advance and scheduled them to be published at the right times, but I’d still be on call twenty-four hours a day to make sure the site continued to operate correctly, answer important emails, and ensure a constant stream of people would visit.

In some cases, I’ve even used traveling for vacation as an opportunity to meet colleagues and clients in the area I visit. My recent trip to California to visit family also gave me a chance to meet Neal from Wealth Pilgrim and other potential partners behind the scenes. Perhaps the lack of vacation days taken by Americans on average is affected by a higher concentration of workers, like business owners, who feel — or are — personally responsible for the success of their business.

Perhaps there is another explanation, as well. On a scale from socialism to capitalism, the United States economy falls somewhere right of center. Workplace benefits of any type are results of left-of-center policies, and with “socialism” being a dirty word in today’s economy, there might be a stigma against those who make taking vacation days an issue for discussion with their supervisors. Some corporate employees want to be competitive in their workplace in order to secure their jobs, and not taking vacation days or other voluntary benefits is one way to show your dedication to the corporate entity.

While the average American leaves only two days on the table, based on an average full-time salary, that’s $34.3 billion in benefits that will go unused this year in total.

Do you receive a benefit of vacation days from your employer? How many did you take this year?

Photo: mdanys

Updated December 2, 2011 and originally published December 1, 2011.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

My employer, a large airplane maker, would “expire” anything over 60 days at the end of the year. When I first started working there I let them build up to sixty and then took my total allotment each and every year after that. When I retired, they paid full salary for each unused vacation day (58). Can’t complain about that!! The company encouraged vacations and I never felt any pressure to stay on-the-job, although once or twice I adjusted my vacation to accommodate overseas customers.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Europe shuts down for the month of August which makes it mandatory to take it. Very rarely do companies shut down in the U.S. for vacation.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

When they shut down, everyone takes their vacation at the same time. Which why more folks die on their highways during vacation than any other time of the year. It wasn’t too long ago that many of France’s elderly died due to a combination of a heatwave and those who normally looked after them being gone. Although the company I worked for didn’t actually shutdown for vacation they shut down completely from Christmas eve until the first workday of the next year. Those days were considered paid Holidays rather than vacation, but the week or so off was great.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I get 3 weeks a year, and as a consultant with billable hours, we can use them in whatever size chunks we prefer (i.e, I can take an afternoon off and use 4 hours). They don’t expire. I’m not sure if there’s a maximum, but I would likely never hit it. My wife and I like combining shorter (4 or 5-day) trips with 3-day weekends (I’m on a 9/80 work schedule so I get 3-day weekends every other week, and she can take time off as needed) to minimize the number of vacation hours I use, and I’ll often bring my laptop and remote in if I’m going somewhere that I expect to have a lot of downtime and won’t mind working a few hours. I took a 10-day international trip (with no access to anything) recently and by working extra before the trip I managed to only use about 4 days worth of vacation time.

I don’t get any pressure not to take time off (in fact, the other day I was reminded that I have 2 “floating holidays” that must be used by the end of December or lost, and that I should definitely use them!)

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avatar 5 wylerassociate

At my company, we get the 5 holidays, 5 floating days & about 10-30 days of PTO based on years of service. I try to use all of my vacation days.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

Our vacation system is screwed up in the US because most people feel guilty about taking their allotted time. Despite the company’s encouragement, individual managers can make scheduling vacation difficult. Most countries in Europe “give cover” to the workers by mandating a minimum number of vacation days that range from 20-30 per year. It’s a lot easier to schedule vacation when you can say “I have to — it’s the law” versus having to ask your manager in the US if you may schedule the time (which you have already earned).

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avatar 7 Anonymous

Most of the other countries with high vacation times have laws that mandate minimum amount of vacation time. US has no law. Therefore.. low vacation.
I think Americans take the amount of vacation we due simply due to culture and because thats what we get. I bet you if there was a national law that required American employers to gave us all 5 weeks a year then most Americans would use almost all of it.

I bet some Americans don’t take vacation cause they can bank it and either use it later or cash it out. I don’t know if that practice is common in other countries.

I get 4 weeks a year and I use all of it every year. My employer doesn’t let us bank time so its a use it or lose it system so you bet I use it.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

My employer also doesn’t allow rollover. Even if I end up with a day or two in December, hanging out at home playing video games or cleaning the house, I always use every day. My department encourages us to take our days, but even if they didn’t, I would.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

I consider paid time off to be part of my pay, so I always use every single vacation day I’m allowed. That said, another potential reason is that many companies are now lumping sick days, vacation days, and personal days into one large PTO chunk. So many people might intentionally not use 1 or 2 PTO days just in case they get sick and need off work. I usually do that and then just take whatever days I have left off around Christmas or New Years. But I suppose if something came up, it’s conceivable I wouldn’t be able to use up all my days one year.

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avatar 10 Ceecee

Some companies allow you to carry the days over to the next year. In that case, I would save some. When I left my last job with benefits, I got paid for my unused vacation days, so none went to waste. If it was a use or lose situation, I would use every last one.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

There is also the egotistical ” I’m so critical to this company that i can’t afford to take time off” syndrome. Its kind of sad, really, to see that. So pointless.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

I think there are plenty of legitimate circumstances in which you can’t “afford” to take time off – in my line of work, we have clients depending on us to get data and reports out on time to avoid delaying projects. Fortunately, most clients are fairly understanding if you have a trip that you’ve planned far in advance and warned them about.

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avatar 13 Luke Landes

In my experience, the people who think they are indispensable to an organization are more often just insecure than actually indispensable.

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avatar 14 shellye

LOL – very true, Flexo!

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avatar 15 Anonymous

I didn’t get a chance to access my vacation days when I finally earned the benefit, but I would’ve definitely used them. Sometimes we work way too hard. You need a break from the fast paced life.

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avatar 16 lynn

I used to save my days until my parents both became ill at the same time. i used all of my time caring for them. After that, I learned to use them for me.

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avatar 17 shellye

Vacation time was one reason I changed jobs. One nice thing about the financial industry is that we get all the bank holidays off; that’s about 8-10 days right there. My last job gave two weeks’ PTO (paid time off) that you could use for either vacation or sick days. You could use them in hour chunks, half-days, full days, whatever. Seems like a lot of time, until you factor in time off for kids’ dr. appointments, school conferences, etc. (x3 kids for me). But I chose to have kids, and I chose to work, so that’s my issue.

But my new job gives two weeks’ vacation, two weeks’ sick time, all the bank holidays, plus you get your birthday off (full day) and work anniversary off (half-day). I get to start using these benefits in another month or so. The pay and health benefits are better, too, but it was the time off that really sold me on this job. As I get older, I realize how important it is to spend time with your kids, in light of the fact they’ll be moving out of the house soon to go off to college.

I don’t know if the European way is better, but I watched my entrepreneural parents work their tails off for 40+ years to create a very successful business. But they seldom took vacations, other than to see their grandkids during the holidays. My dad passed several years ago without seeing much of the world and I feel bad about that. So I’m trying to get my mom out more as a result.

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avatar 18 Anonymous

I think culture has a lot to do with it, combined with employer practices.

We supposedly have a work ethic in the US which predisposes us to get the job done. At new companies, employees often feel like part of a team doing great things – which makes them want to push through to make things happen. We have a lot of new companies in this country.

Employers do (or did anyway) let employees ‘bank’ vacation days – to be paid out at termination, or roll them over to the next year to combine with other days.

As mentioned, above, in some industries in the US, providing coverage for the area you work in does make it hard to schedule the time off – especially in companies where most employees have kids and prefer to vacation when school is out!

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avatar 19 Anonymous

I think a lot of people feel like taking a lot of vacation time will negatively affect them either directly or indirectly. A direct impact might be that if things aren’t going well for the company and they’ve taken a lot of vacation lately they might be higher on the list of people to be let go. An indirect impact might be that if projects are being distributed when they’re off taking vacation then they might not get a good project or may end up with too much or not enough to do. A lot of countries in Europe have much stronger provisions protecting workers and making it very difficult to let someone go, so that may not be as much of an issue there.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

As a European living in Europe I have yet to be given the month of August as annual leave, however we do have, under European law, a mandatory minimum number of days that we have to take off. I think it is 20 but not sure as we mostly get more. Obviously its also a cultural expectation but it might explain why the USA is so far down the list for life expectancy ages despite the being the world richest country and the world leader in medical research. Maybe some work life balance would help? Lets be honest, the work will probably be waiting for us anyway so take some time off.

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avatar 21 Anonymous

I think companies are pushing for things to get done (obviously). They might offer this vacation, but I think people have almost gotten to the point where they feel bad for taking all the days off. They think to themselves, “I need to get all this stuff done. I have no time to take a break” or maybe the person next to them doesn’t use all of their vacation. So people almost get a sense of taking the full time off (even when given) is almost against the norm.

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