Maybe People Don't Go On Vacation Because They're Afraid Of How Easy It'll Be To Get On Without Them  

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 20 2013 5:15 PM

Will A Vacation Reveal How Dispensable You Are?

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Venice is fun. Not sure about the flooding.

Photo by ANDREA PATTARO/AFP/Getty Images

Americans take fewer vacation days than residents of most other rich countries, presumably because Americans generally get fewer vacation days than people in countries where vacation is mandated by law or by collective bargaining agreements. But Lauren Davidson wrote an interesting piece recently about how most people don't even take all the vacation days they get.

While I was on vacation for the first time in a while (I'd been hoarding vacation days to save up for a long trip) I had a brainstorm about this. Or, rather, I found myself in an unusual position. A part of me was rooting for terrible traffic news from Slate. After all, I wasn't around writing columns. I wasn't participating in brainstorming meetings or chiming in on email threads. I did some tweeting, but not nearly as much and it wasn't as news focused. Wouldn't it be great for me if it turned out that without me doing all that stuff the business was falling apart? Conversely—what if everything was just fine with me gone? What would that say? Nothing good.

And there's a real contrast here between the modern office job and the classic middle class manufacturing gig of the postwar years. When you're on an assembly line, you're supposed to be replaceable. When someone is off for a week, someone else picks up the shift. Maybe the bosses need to shell out for overtime and it's inconvenient in that sense. But the workers aren't supposed to be beautiful unique snowflakes. The factory rolls forward without any particular person.

But as more and more of us work in jobs that are abstracted from core goods-producing and service-providing functions ("bullshit jobs" according to David Graeber) we run the risk that our absence won't be noticed. Maybe people are actually going to be happy that they don't have to put up with my typos and lame jokes and weird lunch preferences? This is part of what strikes me as particularly insidious about the new fad where companies offer "unlimited" vacation days to employees. Technically that's supposed to be a perk. But the practical message seems pretty clear—don't take any time off unless you want to send a clear signal about how useless and lazy you are.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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