The end of May used to mark the unofficial start of vacation season in America. Summer was bookended by long weekends: Memorial and Labor Day. Three glorious months of picnics, long weekends, road trips and family togetherness. A time to relax, recharge and reconnect with friends and loved ones.
These days however, Memorial Day weekend signals the beginning of a national lament that appears on websites, newscasts and newspaper editorials: What has happened to the great American tradition of vacations? Like our fast food diets, we have acquired junk vacation habits only taking short 2.3 days a year vacations!
The Cadillac ad man says it's by choice -- real Americans don't take their full vacations because vacations are for wimps and they distract us from achieving the American Dream. But after spending a couple years researching and writing the book America's Vacation Deficit Disorder: Who Stole Your Vacation?, I could not disagree more: it is not by choice that we don't take vacations anymore (at least not for most of us anyway), and real Americans ought to take notice.
Like many things in these United States, our cherished national rite of taking vacations has been trending towards decline for some time. Most Americans take great pride in their work, as they should. Most Americans derive great contentment from their jobs, and that is a good thing. Clearly, we Americans remain an innovative, creative and productively powerful global workforce. We are a nation of universally recognized hard workers, with a long history of great accomplishments and stunning achievements. Yet, the facts today reveal a rather ominous and disturbing picture of the average worker's life in America:
• We are working more and longer hours than ever
• We are taking our work home with us more than ever
• We have less leisure time than ever
• We are spending less time with our families than ever
• We are sleeping less than ever
• Caffeine and energy drink consumption are on the rise, along with cocaine and methamphetamines
• Anti-depressant prescriptions are on the rise
• Sleeping pill prescriptions continue to grow more than ever
• Our nation's collective health is in decline with our life expectancy officially stagnant -- some say declining
• Our allocated paid vacation/time off is declining more than ever
• The actual amount of vacation time we take is diminishing more than ever.
The warning signs are all there. We have epidemic levels of anxiety and depression, obesity and heart attacks, absenteeism and job burnout, sleep deprivation and the use of chemicals to help keep us awake and then put us back to sleep again. America is a nation in crisis. And I lay a big part of our nation's holistic health problems on America's Vacation Deficit Disorder.
It was not my original intention to ring alarm bells researching American's love affair with their beloved vacations, but that is where I arrived at after following the facts. I had hoped to enter the conversation as a lover of travel from an early age fondly recalling taking road trips with my family to national parks. But the facts took me in a different direction.
Simply put, America, now labeled far and wide as the no-vacation nation (the only industrialized democracy in the world that does not mandate vacation time off... or sick leave for that matter!), has a trillion dollar national crisis on its hands and is in dire need of an intervention. Our vacation deficit, I discovered, is costing U.S. businesses and taxpayers over a trillion dollars a year and is shortening many American lives!
The rational economist in me sought answers to why and how our nation's vacation deficit evolved -- although of course there are still some vacation deficit deniers who contrary to the facts still believe that everyone in America of course takes a lot vacations each year -- and I was able for the first time in my research to actually quantify the tangible costs.
Here are a few of the more distressing American Vacation Deficit Disorder realities that affect our health and economy:
• That not taking vacations costs businesses, taxpayers and hard working Americans between $2,300 and $3,800 per person per year!
• That not taking vacations negatively affects our health to the point that it increases our risk of premature death by at least 20 percent!
• That not taking regular vacations wrecks personal lives and alienates us from our families and communities!
• That not taking vacations affects almost half of all hard working U.S. employees!
All sad facts.
Yet, there is a glimmer of hope because on the positive side, research revealed over and over again, that the actual taking of one or two week vacations annually is actually good for business and the U.S. economy.
So, it comes down to education, enlightened self-interest (ours and our employers) and choices. Slippery subjects in the political theater that we now reside. Indeed, there is a solution to our nation's ever-widening vacation deficit that I call the 4 percent solution because for just pennies on the trillion-dollar-a-year loses we as a nation incur as a direct result of our vacation deficit, we can save ourselves from this growing national disorder.