We take vacations, but we work so hard throughout the year that they become indispensable to our sanity. The conventional wisdom that economic progress has given us more things as well as more leisure is difficult to sustain.
This passage appeared in an essay about how our modern work load has been increasing over the last few decades, and we have so little time left over after our paid gigs that it leads to serious health and social problems. It had a number of great points, but this one about vacations really hit home when I first read the book about a decade ago.
At that time, I was fairly early on in my career and also building a family. Because I was a pretty junior employee at a very old school company that was not generous or flexible when it came to employee time off, I got just two weeks of vacation each year. I know many have it even worse, they have no paid time off. But two weeks out of the year to make a life is just not enough. Especially when you are an "exempt" employee where "overtime" is unpaid and just expected in great quantities. Being a corporate slave is draining.
To make matters worse, because of the inflexibility of our company's policies, we had to use our few, precious vacation days for things other than true vacations where we might recharge our batteries. For example, early on in my career, I remember being horrified when I spoke to one of the only moms in our office, and she explained that when her kids got sick and couldn't go to school, she had to take vacation time to stay home with them. There were no sick days, no personal days and no flex time. If you were not physically present in the office, you were docked vacation days for the absence. At that point, I was not yet a parent, but it depressed me to think that one day if my kids ever had any illnesses, we might never get the opportunity to take a family vacation together because I'd have no time off from work left over.
Another time early in my career, I had an uncle who passed away after a long, slow decline. Our family is small, so I didn't think twice that I needed to be present for the funeral. It was out of town but in-state about four hours away. Ours is a family of teachers, so my cousins thoughtfully arranged for the funeral to be on Dr. King's birthday, which is a national holiday and all the local schools were closed for the day. The thought was no one would miss work to be at the funeral. Not so for me as it would turn out. I was stressed to find out later that the death of my uncle was not covered under the company bereavement policy. And our company observed few national holidays. Dr. King's birthday was not one of them. So, they took one of my few vacation days that year when I had to miss one day's work to attend a family funeral. With so few days each year, I always plotted and planned carefully when I'd use each of those days, so being docked a day for the funeral really threw a fly into the ointment. It also just seemed pretty heartless.
In those days, my co-workers and I were compensated pretty well in financial terms. Indeed, I was making more money that I ever imagined I'd make, more than my parents had. I had always just wanted to do interesting work and make enough to keep a roof over my head, so this was not something I had sought. But we had no lives. We had no time to enjoy the money we were making. We had homes that we rarely saw. We could afford to fly to exotic locations, but only for a couple days at a time.
My husband and I love traveling and early in our corporate careers, we had no children. We took advantage of the situation to go to as many interesting places as possible in our brief windows of freedom. But this line in the book really hit home. Despite never being able to stay anywhere for more than a couple days, I was excited about the trips we were taking. However, this passage in the book opened my eyes. Was I really enjoying the trips and the adventure of visiting new places? Or were these trips a necessary antidote to the overbearing grind of the corporate treadmill we were on? I began to think that I was working and not really living 50 weeks of the year. Those 2 weeks of vacation were the only real living I was doing. I just didn't have time to enjoy life the rest of the year. What a depressing thought!
I pondered this dynamic a lot. I didn't just go into my boss's office immediately and quit to go be a vagabond. But I did begin to work hard to find ways to carve out more of a life from then on out. Life is short, life is precious. Wasting it to put in ridiculous hours of face time was not what I wanted.