June 01, 2015

Summer Vacation: Who Gets One?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As I write, summer break is just beginning at our university. “Have a good summer,” echoes through the hallways as many students and professors say goodbye for a few months. Some students speak of summer jobs, internships, and hanging out with family and friends. A few mentioned exciting vacation plans while classmates look on with envy.

How is summer vacation a sociological issue?

Last year I wrote in “Hotels and Stratification” that the kind of travel one engages in—business or vacation—often impacts the kinds of amenities offered. But many people seldom get to travel at all due to their personal financial situation, which should come as no surprise. And there are others who rarely take vacations not just because they don’t have the money, but because of job pressures.

The Center for Economic Research published a report titled “No Vacation Nation” detailing the disparities in vacation policies among the world’s wealthiest nations. The United States is the only one of these wealthy nations that does not guarantee workers paid vacation, and 23 percent of Americans have no paid days off.

Even those with vacation time might not feel like they can use it. A study published last year by the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) called “Overwhelmed America” found that 41 percent of American workers with vacation time do not use all of it. According to the report, nearly 20 percent of respondents report that they receive negative or mixed messages about taking their paid time off. In a still recovering economy, workers might feel pressure to demonstrate that they are hard working team players devoted to their jobs.

For instance, a friend of mine who was just starting out in a law firm was making plenty of money to afford a vacation, but in a hyper-competitive environment didn’t want to take time off. When he did go away for a weekend, he remained plugged into his office via electronic devices. He went out of town, but he was not exactly on vacation. And yet he felt anything more would put his future at the firm in jeopardy. Even those that do take vacation might feel pressure to remain available to their employer.

Other employees might find that getting time off approved becomes a major obstacle to planning a trip in advance. The USTA report found that nearly a third of workers can’t control when they take their vacations; rising through the ranks doesn’t necessarily make this process easier. Of senior business leaders in the USTA study, 56 percent thought that the higher up one rises the harder it is to take time away. Nearly half of them said that they respond to work emails during their paid time off.

Vacations matter—they provide revenue for the travel industry (which is why the industry did this study in the first place); according to an Oxford Economics study, approximately $99 billion dollars more might be spent on travel if people used all of their vacation days. The study also found that taking paid time off contributes to better worker productivity, reduces stress, and improves dedication. And yet the most common reason this study found for workers not taking their full vacation time was the feeling that there was too much work to do to take time off.


Photo courtesy of the author

This is a sentiment I can relate to very well. For many people within in academia, there is a continual pressure to conduct research, publish, seek grants, and attend conferences. Some of this is truly a labor of love—we might have projects that we haven’t been able to get to during the academic year that summers give us the opportunity to undertake. For many years I would regularly work through the summer, and on national holidays like Memorial Day and Fourth of July (and all the others). This kind of work effort can bring praise and promotions, and eventually, burnout.

For many adjunct faculty members, teaching summers is a must in order to scrape by financially. Taking time off means not being available if asked to teach a class at the last minute, and perhaps losing your place in the part-time faculty queue for future classes.  (For a thorough discussion of inequality within academia, see “Class Segregation in Academia” and “Hey, Miss: How Not to Talk to your Instructors”.)

Since most parents need to be in the paid labor force, children often find themselves in scheduled activities during vacation time as well, at additional cost to their parents. Camp is not just for summer anymore, but in some cases for winter and spring breaks too.

So who gets a summer vacation? And what are the implications for the many who do not?


I completely agree with this article. Since the economy suffered in the recession were are recovering very slowly and one of the problems is people do not have enough time for themselves. Generations of family work and work to maintain the little money they will receive. No time for themselves most likely creates them to become overwhelmed from work.
This quote stood out to me "20 percent of respondents report that they receive negative or mixed messages about taking their paid time off. In a still recovering economy, workers might feel pressure to demonstrate that they are hard working team players devoted to their jobs."

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