The mystery of the disappearing vacation day
First, the data backstory: Every month, the fine folks at the Census Bureau send out surveys asking about 60,000 Americans what they were doing 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 that’s actively looking for a job but can’t find one. This is called the unemployment rate.
To calculate that all-important rate, BLS needs to know if you worked for pay during the week in question. If not, it needs to know why. After all, it would be pretty embarrassing to count someone as unemployed when they were really road-tripping to Oregon’s glorious John Day Fossil Beds.
As a happy side effect of this process, we have data to calculate a much-less-heralded measure: the vacation rate. And we regret to inform you that rate has fallen steadily, from 3.3 percent of the workforce in a given week in 1980 to 1.7 percent today. Yikes.
Additional analysis shows the drop-off has been driven by our failure to take full-week vacations. We estimate that shorter absences have risen slightly, as more folks take a day here and there for quick trips, midweek errands or mental health. But that bump is too small to offset the sharp drop in luxurious, week-plus vacations.
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It does not seem to be a matter of vacation-day supply. It is true that the United States is the only advanced economy without guaranteed paid vacation. However, BLS data on employee benefits suggests that more than 90 percent of full-time, private-industry workers have access to paid vacation time, a figure that has remained relatively steady for decades. And the number of paid vacation days offered by the typical employer has ticked up in recent years.
So we looked instead at vacation-day demand: Who uses the most? Has that changed?
The first observation to leap out of the data is that schoolteachers crush everyone else in the vacation sweepstakes. Full-time education workers were about four times as likely to be on vacation as their full-time peers in other industries.
Older workers and more educated workers are more likely to go on vacation, but an industry’s pay or status doesn’t always predict vacation use. Blue-collar and production workers — think construction, manufacturing and agriculture — are least likely to be on vacation. But workers in the entertainment and recreation field, typically a lower-paying sector that includes restaurants and hotels, trail only educators in terms of time off.
Educators so dominate the U.S. vacation landscape that they skew all the stats. 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 the two genders show similar patterns.
Perhaps because of changing school calendars and the increasing need for second jobs to supplement their income, teachers are losing their summer vacations. But those losses drive less than a quarter of the overall vacation loss, by our estimate. That’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 now vacation less in every month of the year, summers have seen by far the steepest decline. We were about a third as likely to be on vacation last July as we were in July 1980. This holds true even when we leave out teachers and parents. (If you’re wondering why the data seems to show nobody taking vacation during the winter holidays, remember that these measurements are typically taken around the 12th of the month, avoiding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.)
Elise Gould, of the Economic Policy Institute, takes the wide view.
“Except for in very short periods of time, the late ’90s or the few years leading up to the pandemic recession, workers have had very little leverage,” Gould told us. “You see that in wages, so then why wouldn’t you see that in their ability to take benefits?”
Some workers may have plenty of vacation accrued, she said, but they may not feel free to use it. As we heard from Amber Clayton of the Society for Human Resource Management, it can be a matter of job security.
“If they’re not there and somebody else is doing the work now, they look like they’re expendable,” said Clayton, who runs the organization’s Knowledge Center. “Or they feel like it’s going to be frowned upon from their employer if they take off,” she added.
Okay, but the pieces don’t quite fit. The data shows that vacation has declined steadily, in good times and bad. So while our increasingly precarious work situations may be part of it, something else must be dragging that line down.
At George Mason University, organizational psychologist Lauren Kuykendall looked deeper into anti-vacation forces in a 2020 analysis published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. She and her students found that employees are less likely to use all their vacation days if they don’t expect to detach from work and truly relax, or if they worry that vacations will set them back financially.
Focus groups of hospitality workers 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 findings. Several respondents said technology had changed the feel of their vacations, making them more likely to check in on things at the office. Many others cited the cost of travel as a vacation deterrent. Some said they broke their vacations into smaller, more affordable trips, or took time off midweek to run errands or go to the dentist.
“Individuals would weigh the cost/benefit of taking all of that time off at once,” Yost told us. “And they found that there was more of a benefit personally and professionally to take shorter vacations that were purposeful.”
That lines up nicely with data showing a rise in people taking partial weeks off. But that rise isn’t enough to offset the epic decline in full-week vacationing.
The full picture didn’t slide into place until Gould, a senior labor economist who has logged decades in the data mines, suggested we look at trends in other reasons Americans miss work.
Most haven’t changed substantially through the years: Days missed to care for family or children, to hunker down during bad weather and to attend school have remained relatively flat. Others dropped for obvious reasons: Absences due to labor disputes have fallen sharply since the early 1980s as union membership plunged.
But one type of absence, the sick day, offered a clue: In the late 1970s, about 1.5 percent of Americans were out sick in a given week. By 2019, that had plunged to 0.6 percent. Even in the covid-19 era, it averages just 1 percent.
So sick days and vacation days generally have fallen in tandem. That set off a little, metaphorical lightbulb over our heads.
In her research with hospitality workers, Yost noticed they resisted using vacation time to preserve their options in case of an emergency. Many were on a paid-time-off (PTO) plan that lumps sick days, personal days and vacation days in a single 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 as if we’re cutting into the PTO we might need in case of sudden illness or tragedy.
“Workers may be reluctant to use PTO because they feel that they have to save it for health or personal days,” Gould said. “They may also be reluctant to use PTO when they are sick because they want to save it for vacations. It could go both ways.”
The prevalence of PTO plans has risen steadily. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 67 percent of employers offered such plans in 2022, up from 36 percent in 1995.
“It becomes more like, ‘Oh, we can’t really take a long vacation. I use those days for this and I use this day for that,’” Yost said. “Whereas if somebody said to you, ‘You have three weeks of vacation and that’s how you must use those days,’ then maybe that looks a little different for the employee.”
As correlations go, this one is pretty compelling. So the Department of Data will (tentatively) stamp this mystery solved: Changes in how employers classify our time off may be slowly strangling America’s summer vacation.
Hi there! The Department of Data is a vast bureaucracy (of one) that turns quantifiable questions into columns! What are you curious about: What kinds of people file their taxes early? Why do older Americans tend to spend less money than younger ones? What’s the most common birth month in each state? Just ask!
If your question inspires a column, we’ll send an official Department of Data button and ID card. This week’s buttons go to Santa Barbara, Calif., reader Daniel Stone, who asked about how vacations vary by income, and economist Kathryn Anne Edwards, who suggested we look into federal data on benefits and compensation.