If you are anxious about taking time off from work for fear of being penalized for it, you should blame someone between the ages of 18 and 34, according to a new industry report.
The survey, commissioned by a travel industry initiative called Project: Time Off and conducted by research firm GfK, concludes that the millennial workforce is driving a cultural trend that discourages time away from work. (The report calls this being a "work martyr," which is basically being a person who doesn't take vacation.)
After finding that 48% of young workers “think it is a good thing to be seen as a work martyr by the boss” compared to 39% of Gen Xers and 32% of Boomers, the report concludes that millennial workers need to commit to vacationing, lest they ruin things for their older colleagues and the future generations of workers who will come after them.
“Millennials and work martyrs must reconsider their thinking,” according to the report. “But it will take good managers who are willing to work as change agents in order to reap the business benefits of time off: more engaged employees, an improved team environment, and greater productivity, to name just a few… The choice is simple—it just needs to be made.”
An even less generous write up from Money magazine landed on the headline: “It’s the Millennials’ Fault You Can’t Take a Vacation.”
I know it's fun to blame millennials for things—I look at myself in the mirror once a day and blame myself for at least one thing and then scream—but this is some truly ridiculous shit right here.
If the goal is to make young people take more time off, the answer is to support policies that create the conditions (or better attempt to create the conditions) of economic security for young people. Not to blame people in the earliest phases of their careers for potentially being too financially anxious to go bodysurfing in Fiji or whatever.
"I don't find it surprising at all that the youngest generation in the workforce is going to be less likely to take time off than older generations," Andrew Hanson, a senior analyst at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, told me. "But I think that often gets misinterpreted as something new about this generation, but it has more to do with the stage of life we're in and the fact that we're making less money in our lives. We need vacation less, we're trying to get ahead. I think a lot of those things are driving the survey data, even if the survey data isn't the most reliable."
The report itself acknowledges that economic insecurity and a sense of professional vulnerability are major factors in young people’s attitudes about work and time off. But none of that context really leaches into the conclusion, and it certainly hasn't translated to the cascade of responses to the survey.
But it should, particularly when you look at the groups most closely identified in the report with the “work martyr” trend.
"Workers who meet the work martyr definition tend to be slightly more female (52%) and slightly less likely to be married (55% are married, compared to 62% overall), but they are overwhelmingly Millennials. More than four in ten (43%) work martyrs are Millennials, compared to just 29 percent of overall respondents."
In other words, young single women are less likely to take time off because they may feel they will be punished for it. Now where would a woman get an idea like that? Hard to say for sure, but my best guess would be, uh, absolutely every single place you look.
A small but revealing study put out by Boston University in 2015 makes one of the problems of time off pretty clear. Erin Reid, a professor of organization and behavior at the university's Questrom School of Business, interviewed 115 workers at a consulting firm with a culture of long hours and around the clock availability.
And while she learned that women and men felt equally overwhelmed by the 24-hour expectations, she also found that many men at the firm were "passing" as pulling marathon hours when, in reality, they were working something closer to a 9–5 schedule.
Men at the firm found ways to meet locally with clients or covertly negotiate reasonable schedules with managers. Women who wanted and needed the same flexibility, on the other hand, often used more transparent means, like flex hours and remote work, to set their schedules. These women, for "revealing their inability to be true ideal workers," were then marginalized within the firm.
This was also due in part to gendered assumptions about how women and men use their time away from the office:
In addition, women’s work time may be under greater scrutiny than men’s: people at this firm seemed to assume that women who left the office around five went home to their children, while men who left around the same time could be, in the words of one administrative assistant “on the way to a client’s.”
Hanson's research with Georgetown has documented other kinds of barriers for women in the workplace, but the through-line is the same: they have to do more work than men in order to get the same outcomes as men.
"Reflecting on Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, women really do have to put in a lot more effort to make their way up the ladder relative to men," he said. "When we look at the wage data by education we see that women need one additional degree in order to get to the same wages as men."
But young workers overall are facing some difficult labor trends.
"What we've found in our own research is that it is taking them longer to get traction in the labor market," Hanson explained. "If you look at 1980, years ago they got to the same point, the median wage, at age 26. Now it takes until age 30 to get to that point. If you look at how long it takes to get a full-time job with benefits, that has also been pushed further into the future."
And while the travel industry survey doesn't account for race in its examination of attitudes about time off, the gaps in employment and overall wages that drive this kind of professional anxiety are much more glaring for black workers and workers of color. (Overall, black and Latino workers have less access to paid time off than their white peers, according to a 2016 report from the Center for American Progress.)
The looming threat of unemployment—and this is, after all, the ultimate anxiety we're talking about when we talk about what's fueling "work martyrs"—isn’t just about a lost paycheck.
It’s about a trend in which states like Missouri are attempting to scale back unemployment benefits from 20 weeks to 13 weeks, wages have been frozen for decades, high school and college graduates are taking lower-level jobs with fewer benefits, and funding for anti-poverty programs is largely stagnant.
All of that means making due with less if you're between jobs or long-term unemployed. And for many young people with little to no savings, that can mean not making due.
So the report's warped framing of the problem—young people are driving a trend that penalizes time off and "shaming" other workers who try to vacation—leads to a warped solution: young people need to “change their thinking” about vacation.
This is the economic analysis equivalent of when your older brother (“your” older brother) would take your hand in his hand and taunt: stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself.
Want people to take more time off? Boost benefits. Finland offers 500 days of unemployment benefits. Sweden offers 480 days of paid parental leave. France offers a minimum of five weeks paid vacation. These are also countries that offer full health benefits that are not tied to your employment status, which is how most Americans get their insurance.
Creating a culture where people feel secure enough to take time off requires policies and institutions that make that possible. If you want someone to blame for it, take a hard look at the members of Congress and state legislatures who have spent decades systematically shredding the social safety net.
These are many of the same people who earn more during their vacations than a minimum wage worker pulls in all year. Who says Americans don't appreciate leisure?