08/30/2011 12:25 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2011

Vacation Complications (Think Generations)

Remember that stress-envy thing we were all feeling in the late '90s? You know, talking about how much we were working, how tired we were and how there were simply not enough hours in the day? We wore our stress with a badge of honor. And there was a cloying jealousy among those who weren't experiencing the same fatigue -- until many of the stressed got hit with heart attacks and high cholesterol because they were too busy working to take care of themselves.

Then came the Internet, then social media. Many of us have never slept since -- or never stopped working, for that matter. (Thanks, Facebook.) Because you can't win battles in the boardroom if you are not in the war, and in today's workplace that means 24/7/365 devotion and bloodlust.

I'm not sure anyone is envying anyone else's stress these days, mostly because we're all feeling it -- we've created an inability to disconnect, disengage and, ultimately, live that other part that is now lagging far behind, that thing called "life."

We can't even catch a break on vacations anymore. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from late 2010 found that only 57 percent of Americans use all the vacation and holiday time given them by their organization, among the lowest in the 24-country survey. And a recent Adweek/Harris poll said 46 percent of Americans work during their vacations.

Even our world leaders can't catch a break, and if anyone deserves a vacation, it's usually that group. President Obama had been widely panned for heading to the Vineyard, family in tow, when our country is clearly not in the vacationing mood. We want our leaders to be in charge, now more than ever. In light of recent events, to a public watching every move our president makes and listening to tea-drenched rhetoric, the thought of our leader slurping on bowls of chowder and reading fiction did not sit well. (Although he did come home early to deal with the impending Hurricane Irene.)

At this moment, there's a new bitterness for those who choose to romp in the sun or explore a rainforest rather than wallow in the trenches with their colleagues. I think it's because vacations seem superindulgent and extravagant in times like these, no matter who you are. With all this talk of another recession and a slumping market, it's hard not to envision a second Great Depression -- and you'd better believe that the people who were in the first one knew nothing of a week in some pointless paradise.

Across the pond, French and British leaders have experienced the same backlash as Obama and also retreated from their retreats. During the recent riots in London, David Cameron had to leave his Italian vacation to try and figure out how to stop the insanity. And Nicolas Sarkozy, whose wife is with child, needed to cut his French Riviera holiday short to deal with the downgrade fears sweeping his country. What's so striking about this is that Europeans value holidays (vacations) more than breathing. If you've ever been in Paris in August, you know that the place is nothing more than a ghost town.

But don't think we're entirely immune to the vacation mindset on U.S. shores -- a recent Facebook status update from a friend of mine on a Friday in Manhattan showed he was wondering why the only people left in the office were senior management. Well, because all the junior staff had hightailed it in their Havaianas to the Hamptons.

Today's young workforce (the millennial generation) is not at all down with this anti-vacation thing. Like no generation before them, the Y set is not willing to forgo a work-life balance to get ahead -- and they're not about to lose vacation time in favor of making another spreadsheet or completing an RFP. In a recent survey on millennials by Euro RSCG, the company I work for, we asked young adults to choose the single most important factor in a job and discovered it's work-life balance (cited by 37 percent), with salary coming in second (28 percent) and work atmosphere third (23 percent).

I wonder what this will mean for the workplace of the future and if people will actually be able to take vacation time without the slightest bit of guilt, and without a smartphone burning a hole in their pocket. (I've ruined many vacations in my life, both pre- and post-smartphone.) Our work ethic has always been our ace in the hole for being competitive on the world stage, but are we doing ourselves and our country a disservice by not embracing vacations?

Because, work ethic and sleeve-rolling-up aside, there is, of course, a great and proven psychological benefit to vacationing. Take a 2010 study conducted to discover how such breaks affect mental and emotional well-being and happiness. A researcher associated with Erasmus University in the Netherlands assessed 1,530 Dutch adults, 974 of whom vacationed during the study. Examining participants from both groups, he and his team tracked happiness levels while noting the type and duration of the vacation, focusing on feelings during the break and immediately afterward. The findings: very relaxing vacations increase happiness for the first two weeks (but fade completely by the eight-week mark). The research also found that two or more short breaks throughout the year provide a greater benefit than one longer trip per year.

In the end, maybe we should stop worrying about whether the 20-somethings in our office have a good work ethic or whether our desire to go on an African safari will be misunderstood and ultimately hijacked by a work emergency. Maybe we all need to stop whining about other people's vacations -- world leaders included -- and simply go on our own, work-filled or not.