America is terrible at summer vacation
It's August, which means, sorry to say, that summer is officially winding down. There's still time for you to plan a beach getaway, but act fast.
Most Americans, however, will not take a last-minute trip to the beach or anywhere else. In fact, about half of Americans will take no vacation at all this summer.
This reticence to get away isn't due to some character flaw. We're not a nation of workaholics who don't want a break. The problem is that our policies regarding time off are fundamentally broken.
Simply put: America sucks at summer vacation.
As has been well-documented, America is the only advanced economy that does not mandate paid vacation time for workers. We also skimp on national holidays, many of which employees have to work anyway.
But even the roughly three-quarters of private sector workers who do get paid vacation time from their employers are leaving that resource on the table. Per Project: Time Off, American workers collectively leave more than 700 million vacation days unused per year — even though that time is considered part of their overall compensation.
Americans forfeit vacation time not because they can't bear the thought of being away from the workplace, but because of fear: fear of being fired, fear of falling behind at work, or fear of the financial blow. America's at-will system of employment and the modern economy's often precarious job situation — whether it's workers making their money on contract or via the notoriously unstable gig economy — means workers are scared that if they're away from the job, they'll be seen as replaceable. Often, too, their wages are simply too low or unpredictable for them to comfortably spend dollars on getting out of town.
Employers don't do enough to dissuade workers from having these perceptions, despite the widespread evidence that regular vacations make workers happier and more productive. Vacations also cut down on a host of other costs associated with higher turnover and miserable employees; it's way more expensive to regularly train new employees or try to drag more work out of unhappy ones than it is to keep your existing workforce content. Businesses should be in the business of encouraging time away from the office for entirely selfish reasons alone.
And yet, many workers report they don't think their employer wants them to use their vacation days. Most say they think the boss would prefer they not talk about their vacations after having taken them. But most businesses report encouraging vacation time.
There's a clear disconnect here. And it doesn't have to be this way: Europeans are famously much more tolerant of long vacations than are Americans, and their productivity at work doesn't suffer. There's something in the employee-employer culture there that doesn't translate across the Atlantic.
Then there's an additional wrinkle in America making summer harder for adults: the closure of K-12 schools. This time off is bad for students — particularly those from low-income households, who fall behind their richer peers in terms of learning retention — but it's bad for parents, too. There's no policy in place for working parents who need to scramble to provide two months of round-the-clock care for their school-age children.
America's child care system is outrageously expensive for those who have the ability to access it; in most states, child care costs more than tuition at a public college. Summer magnifies that problem, placing a burden on parents who are covered the rest of the year by public schools. Per the Center for American Progress, families can expect to spend about 20 percent of the income they make during the summer on the child care expenses they incur when school is out, which amounts to some $3,000 for the average family with two children.
This cost is non-negotiable for many families, as both parents work in about 60 percent of American households that include a married couple and children, according to government data. And it's money that could instead have gone toward a family getaway.
Fixing all of this requires policy changes that will hopefully prompt a cultural shift. A national child care policy that takes into account when schools are closed, as well as an extended school year, for instance, can take some of the burden off working parents. Mandating paid time off will also help those employees working for companies where that benefit isn't currently offered. Taking steps to raise wages wouldn't hurt, either.
Finally, if workers didn't constantly fear losing their jobs, they wouldn't be so scared of taking a break. That attitudinal change has to happen — because per both the data and simple good sense, we'd all be better for it.