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Americans are taking fewer vacations than they used to

Christopher Furlong

Clark Griswold can forget about driving all the way to Walley World.

If "National Lampoon's Vacation" had been shot today, he just couldn't have taken the time off work. That's according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which show that Americans are taking fewer, shorter vacations.

Nine million Americans took a week off in July 1976, the peak month each year for summer travel. Yet in July 2014, just seven million did. Keeping in mind that 60 million more Americans have jobs today than in 1976, that adds up to a huge decline in the share of workers taking vacations.

Some rough calculations show, in fact, that about 80 percent of workers once took an annual weeklong vacation — and now, just 56 percent do.


Long vacations are going out of style (BLS)

It's not as if Americans are cutting back on an excessive vacation habit, either. The United States is the only developed economy that doesn't guarantee its workers a paid vacation. Most of its peer nations promise about 20 days off a year, according to a report by Rebecca Ray, Milla Sanes, and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

About a quarter of the American workforce doesn't get paid vacation, according to data they cite from the National Compensation Survey. The no-vacationers usually work part-time or for small employers in low-wage jobs.

The average American gets 14 days off from work, according to an annual survey by the travel company Expedia, but actually uses only 10 of those days each year. It's an open question why Americans don't use it all. They say their bosses are supportive and that scheduling got in the way. Others say they're are just stockpiling it for some future trip —but wouldn't someone, then, eventually take that trip?

One possibility is that vacation suffers from a "Prisoner's Dilemma." It's dangerous to be "that guy" who uses all the time off they get when everyone else is on the job, so workers limit their vacations. On balance, The Wall Street Journal says, the evidence does support that theory. Workers pay a career penalty for vacation. If Americans could establish a pro-vacation norm, those pressures would lessen.

That seems to be happening in some workplaces, where bosses require workers to use their time off. That might be, for the most part, just a management fad. Yet it is surprisingly normal in one industry: finance. That's not out of kindness, however. Regulators have long recommended banks require vacations as a way of making it harder to conceal embezzlement.

It's not clear what's driving the trend towards fewer, shorter vacations. Tourism tends to be very cyclical, but the decline of the great American vacation seems to have been a gradual affair. There aren't any shortage of possible explanations: lessened job security, stagnant median incomes, rising part-time employment, and an increasing share of households with more than one member employed could all be parts of the story.

There's no obvious sign that any of this has hurt the travel industry, though. Hotel occupancy is back to pre-recession highs, and employment in the leisure and hospitality industry has been one of the bright spots of the recovery. It seems like they're carrying on, Griswolds or not.

* Here's how the math works.

The Current Population Survey surveys workers once a month about a specific "reference week." If an employed person says they were absent that week — that is, they worked zero hours — and the reason why is "vacation," they're counted here. There's no reason to think that workers are more likely to take off during the survey's reference week than any other, so we can divide the number of vacation absences by the number of workers, and raise that to the fourth power to get the percentage of workers who took a weeklong vacation in one month.

Now we multiply the percentage of Americans who didn't across the last twelve months, since vacation is (obviously) seasonal. That gives you the share who haven't taken a vacation in the last year. The calculations assume that nobody takes more than one weeklong vacation each year.