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In the Good Old Summertime - or Overtime?

As the summer begins, Americans plan to enjoy their summer vacations, a time for swimming, sunning, relaxing and – checking work emails?  What polling tells us about vacation in America

Time off with pay

Most working Americans receive at least some paid vacation and have for many years. The first questions about paid vacation time were asked in 1939. When all respondents (not just the employed) were asked if they or their husbands usually got vacation with pay each year, about three in ten said they did. This proportion had increased to just under half in a survey with the same methodology in 1949. In 1982, a survey of the employed found that 75% received paid vacation benefits, and a 1997 poll found similar numbers. These results align with the 1993 US Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that 82% of employees in private industry received paid vacation. In 2012, the Bureau found 77% of private industry employees had paid vacation, little change from two decades before.  A 2008 Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post/Harvard poll found that even among low wage workers, defined as full-time workers making $27,000 or less, 60% received some paid vacation.

chart of americans with paid vacation time

Overall, despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that U.S. workers receive and take less vacation time than employees in most industrialized nations, most Americans are satisfied with the vacation time they get. Only 14% of the employed in a 2014 Gallup poll said they were dissatisfied with the amount of vacation time their job provides.

But do they actually take a vacation?

Twice in the fifties, Americans were asked whether they were planning on taking a summer vacation that year. A little under half said they were. When the question was asked again in 1991, the proportion had increased to 59%, and remained, with some variation, roughly at that level throughout the early 2000s. But when this question was asked in 2014 for the first time since the Great Recession, just 47% of the country said they were planning a summer vacation.  In a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, 43% of the country said they had taken a vacation at any time in the last year, and a 2013 Allianz Global Assistance/Ipsos-Public Affairs found 45% of the public said they typically take an annual summer vacation.

chart of americans planning a vaction with paid vacation time

It is worth noting that “vacation” in this case is not defined. Earlier polling indicates that the public has different understandings of what vacation means. For example, a 2006 Fox poll found that 37% of the public considered traveling to see family to be vacation, while 57% consider it a family visit and not really vacation.Those who take their vacation time in short segments, or those who take time off from work and stay home, may not consider themselves to have taken a vacation.

Is V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N spelled W-O-R-K?

Those employees who do take their vacation time aren’t necessarily leaving the office behind. The first questions about involvement with work from vacation weren’t asked until the late 1990s, when just over a third of the employed admitting to calling into work from vacation. Recent polls have found that roughly half of the employed check in with work while on vacation, and 35% check their work email at least once a day.

Those who remain in contact with their jobs during their vacation time are split in their feelings about the practice. In a 2014 Allstate/National Journal poll, 41% of the “work-connected” said checking in from vacation was comforting; while 47% said it was stressful. Overall, worrying about work from vacation is common. A 2012 CBS News/New York Times poll found 46% of the employed said they never worried about their jobs during a long vacation, but 27% said they did so once or twice, and 24% said they did frequently or all the time.

chart of americans working during  paid vacation time

Preferred location for vacation

When Americans do take a vacation, where do they want to go? Gallup asked which state made for the most ideal vacation spot in 1948 and a similar question in 2002. California, Florida and Colorado held strong appeal across the decades, and the addition of Hawaii and Alaska to the Union meant two more top choices.

us maps with preferred states to vacation in

If given the opportunity to go anywhere without concern for cost, the majority of Americans in 1950 would “see America first.” American travelers became a bit more adventuresome in their imaginations over the course of the 20th century, and in 2006 just a third said they would stay in the U.S. The second most popular choice remained Europe.


chart of global vacation preferences

Vacations to Europe, however, stay in the realm of fantasy for most Americans. A 2009 Associated Press/Gfk poll found that just 8% of Americans took a vacation trip in another country that year, while 33% vacationed in the States, and 58% didn’t take a vacation trip. A 2014 survey of Boomers aged 49-67, a demographic likely to have resources for travel, found 11% planning a trip abroad, 49% planning a trip inside the States, and 42% not planning an overnight vacation away from home at all.  Perhaps there is some benefit to staying close to home – at least those calls to the office should be easy to manage.

Data Providers:

CBS News
Gallup Organization
Harvard School of Public Health
Kaiser Family Foundation
New York Times
Pew Research Center
Washington Post

Date Published: May 26, 2015