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Sanity Takes A Vacation

September 3, 2011

The other day I got this spam message advertising a newsletter containing lots of sage career advice.  It’s a little too late to have any benefit for me but a lot of people ask me to look at their resumes and that sort of thing so I decided to take a look at some of the articles so I’m up with the play on the state of the art.

Bottom line? There’s a recession on.

Resume cover letters are back to basics.  No pictures of your dog, no more saying how crappy the potential employer’s web site looks and how you can’t wait to
re-engineer it.

But the article that captured my attention was the one that talks about vacations.

To make a long story short, the message was if you are entitled to a vacation, you probably shouldn’t take it, and if you have to, plan to work while you are vacationing.

The idea is that times are so tough that if you show that you are expendable, by being gone for a week or two, you might end up being turfed out in favour of employees whose personal values are better aligned with those of the company.

Some statistics from the article:  Fifty-two per cent of people surveyed said
they were cancelling their vacations.  And in this case, cancel means
not taking time off.  Eighteen per cent said that they needed to be “available” in the event of an emergency and thirteen per cent said that even if they were out of town on vacation they would still be expected to do work.

One of the experts quoted in the article said “Checking out completely is an old-school mentality.”

Let’s deconstruct that statement.  “Old school” means out of fashion and therefore no longer accepted.  “Checking out completely” means having a life.

And that is now unacceptable.

I’m not one of those people who see conspiracies everywhere, but this makes me wonder if there isn’t some nefarious capitalist plot afoot to get as much work as possible out of the masses in order to maximize profits and shareholder returns.  Do they care if people get burned out and quit?  No!  There’s a recession on and for every poor schlub who can’t take it there are ten applicants waiting in line.  Why not squeeze as much blood as we can out of the turnip?

But you don’t need conspiracy theories to understand that what is happening is inevitable. It’s the way the world works.

All of this was explained in 1899 by Thorstein Veblen in his landmark book The Theory of the Leisure Class.  It should be required reading for everyone because it explains everything from Lady Gaga to the Tea Party to Creationism and reality TV.  And remember it was written in 1899.

I’d first heard of the book when I was in high school and my father made us read Chapter 9 “The Conservation of Archaic Tastes” in an attempt to get us to stop listening to heavy metal music.  It didn’t work but I ended up reading the whole book and that enabled me to see Veblen’s every idea validated as I’ve
lived through the end of the 20th century, and the 21st century so far.

Briefly, Veblen states that humans are fairly primitive and tribal people (just watch Jersey Shore if you disagree).  Back in the hunter gatherer days, for reasons having a lot to do with testosterone, the hunters emerged as socially superior to the gatherers.   Because hunting was only occasionally necessary but gathering was a full time job, the socially superior hunters had leisure time on their hands.  This gave them time to get up to mischief like starting wars with other tribes (I’m oversimplifying here).  Wars and military honors created additional opportunities to create measures of status in society and to create distinctive classes.  That’s how kings and nobles emerged.

What is crucial to the theory is that the lower class is dependent on the upper class.  Initially the gatherers were dependent on the hunters.  If the crops failed the hunters could always go out and kill a woolly mammoth.  Later, the lower class became dependent on the warriors to protect them.  In Veblen’s day the factory workers were dependent on the white collar workers to sell the goods they produced, give them paychecks and to keep the business running.  And today we look to politicians to protect us physically, politically and economically.  And to Hollywood stars to give us reasons to buy magazines at the grocery checkout.

Because the upper class doesn’t have to work as hard as the lower class, they have the luxury of leisure and Veblen argues that our innate desire to achieve higher status and demonstrate our achievements have led to conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure.  In fact, he coined both of those terms.

We all know what conspicuous consumption is.  Conspicuous leisure is the same thing.  When you don’t have to work as hard as the poor gatherers you have time on your hands.  So you can play polo or golf or spend your evenings on Facebook.

Of course, human nature being what it is, higher status people are generally not all that happy to share their wealth, leisure or status with the rest of us.  That is why it’s hard to get into a country club.  Veblen stated that just as the leisure class evolved rituals for demonstrating status, they expected the rest of us to be suitably impressed, and more importantly to do our part to support them and their leisure pursuits.

Which brings us back to vacations and one of my all-time favourite Veblen quotes:

Servants should not only show a servile disposition, but it is quite as imperative that they should show a trained conformity to the canons of conspicuous subservience.”

And what better example of conspicuous subservience is there than to forego your vacation so that the CEO can take a private jet to his vacation home?

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2011 6:29 pm

    It’s definitely like this in America, but my UK contacts seem to take every opportunity for a holiday very seriously and never miss one. I haven’t had a vacation in many, many years. I’ve accepted it as part of life, because not only does a vacation cost money, but you lose the money you might have made (especially if you’re self-employed) if you didn’t take a vacation, so it’s a double expenditure. This is the first I’ve heard of companies making lack of time off a sort of mandatory requirement, but I see it happening. Maybe unspoken, but definitely a force to become accustomed to. Of course there are government agencies, banks, etc., that this would not apply to. Just try cashing a check on a Saturday in my town!

    But these are hard times, so it doesn’t surprise me. I’m just a poor gatherer myself!

    • September 5, 2011 10:01 pm

      I can understand a self employed person ot being able to take long periods of time off but organizations of any size should be able to manage without a person for a few days.

  2. September 3, 2011 9:38 pm

    That book is now on my must read list.
    As for vacations, the flip side is that anyone who doesn’t take a vacation is looked at pretty oddly.

  3. September 4, 2011 1:11 am

    That was well said, and tells it like it is. I saw this first hand via my son in-law who worked for a major US bank. I’m so glad I’m out of the workforce, but now finding myself having to guard my nest-egg diligently.

    • September 5, 2011 10:02 pm

      Know what you mean, but somehow I don’t think our nest eggs are going to be any safer if people don’t take vacations!

  4. September 4, 2011 1:12 am

    I’ve always gone with the theory that the Big Dogs want to keep the Little Dogs too overextended and tired to organize any resistance to their own exploitation, because that might mean the Big Dogs having to give up some of their share (and some of their worldview). Which is tolerably close to your Veblen-based statement of the problem.

    I am self-employed, as it happens, and not in a situation where that allows me to keep very far ahead of the bills, so I do feel that “cost of a vacation” connection very strongly. At least I have a built-in requirement for a certain amount of time off; if I don’t quit giving massages for the better part of a week every three months or so, my hands start to go numb or I get a sore shoulder. So I factor in the vacation as “maintenance of the equipment.” But it’s a good thing that I’ve decided travel will always take more out of me than it can ever give back, because I couldn’t afford it.

    Which brings me to something that bothers me almost as much as the shrinking of leisure, and that’s the concept of leisure as passive engagement in activities that really just keep feeding the corporate machine. You know, a cruise, a Disney World vacation, something orchestrated and programmed that keeps *other* people working, for the moment. The idea of just f***ing off — or wandering off in your own direction, possibly producing something but only for the love of it — needs more cheerleaders. That was what alarmed people so much about the hippies in their day — not that they used drugs, not that they refused to cut their hair, but that they didn’t want to be part of the machine.

  5. Snoring Dog Studio permalink
    September 4, 2011 1:29 am

    That newsletter sums up the sad state of affairs and you detail it’s craziness so well, Thomas. I’m fortunate to be working at a place for a boss who believes in down time, but I know the opposite exists. I’m confident that multiple studies show that people are more productive if they re-energize during a real vacation. The callousness and inhumanity of the workplace is appalling. And here we are, in 2011, still operating under a serfdom mentality. Ugh. We need change badly. Like, sledpress, I don’t want to be part of the “machine.” It’s dehumanizing.

    • September 5, 2011 10:04 pm

      No question that people need a break so i think this idea of not letting people take off is very short sighted.

  6. Len Skuta permalink
    September 4, 2011 1:48 am

    Yes things never change. The person incharge was allowed to get tired but you were expected to bea fountain of energy and endurance.But maybe that is what gave me the stamina to live into my 82nd year.

  7. September 4, 2011 4:07 am

    I think this is a Japanese model where the firm is god. And they owe everything , even beyond the point of exhaustion. V is very insightful and I remember studying him years ago but I suppose it is time for a reread. All power to the producer, the proletariat, the workers.

    • September 5, 2011 10:07 pm

      A lot of people think Veblen is out of date but I think if you take his basic premise it is definitely scalable to contemporary society.

  8. jacquelincangro permalink
    September 4, 2011 4:22 am

    I’ve never read Verblen’s book, but there are some really interesting concepts in there. I guess in a lot of ways, the more the world changes, the more it stays the same!

    • September 5, 2011 10:10 pm

      I agree–he wrote it as economic theory and it still holds up (in my technical opinion) but it makes more sense as a critique of culture.

  9. Ray Pfahl permalink
    September 4, 2011 9:00 am

    The fear is taking a vacation leads to downsizing at age 71 I just finished working. I feel immune
    to those fears, As someone else put it I am keeping tabs on my nest egg,I am getting close to the
    yoke and maybe the yokes on me. It might be time to go back to work,Tom need any good barn painters
    or tree planters LOL.

    The cause of all this mess is of course is greed . The never ending bubble burst.
    Loans where made to anyone everyone, based on the bubble. It is amazing how many people are walking away from their homes.

    The solution may be coming 12-21-12 ask any Hopi,Mayan, or Nostradamus. If that won’t work ,I say
    the banks stuck with these homes should destroy them and maybe we can start a building boom.

    • September 5, 2011 10:11 pm

      I totally agree–greed was a major driver of the housing collapse in the US which was a major trigger of the global recession and that’s what is causing this current philosophy.

  10. September 4, 2011 11:17 am

    hmmmm, interesting that this should come up. Just a few day ago (on facebook!) I commented on a post about making sure you have life/work balance. the person who posted the comment was suprised by my response…..that there is no such thing anymore, (on the whole) employers don’t care about life/work balance, they care about their bottom line. In today’s climate with so many people out of work and so few jobs available….employees are too afraid to take time off, leave work on time, not work weekends in case they a) get overlooked for promotion b) lose their job to the next person waiting in line. as you said:
    “The idea is that times are so tough that if you show that you are expendable, by being gone for a week or two, you might end up being turfed out in favour of employees whose personal values are better aligned with those of the company.”
    interesting post Thomas and really spot on for the current climate.
    regards
    Cindy

  11. September 4, 2011 6:50 pm

    Wow! What a nightmare, people being intimidated into not taking leave and being available all the time. Time to call the employer’s bluff, what?

    “Why not squeeze as much blood as we can out of the turnip?” … ha ha.

  12. September 4, 2011 9:08 pm

    It’s mandatory to TAKE 3 weeks off in July in Denmark (where my friend lives). And I just came back from the standard 5 weeks vacation we get in Sweden. I can’t even imagine not taking a holiday during the year. I’d be worthless.

    • September 5, 2011 10:15 pm

      From what I’ve heard Scandinavian countries are way ahead of the rest of the world in things like vacation, maternity leave, etc.

  13. September 5, 2011 1:13 pm

    “Servants should not only show a servile disposition, but it is quite as imperative that they should show a trained conformity to the canons of conspicuous subservience.” and I thought that all went out of fashion in the 19th century. What a sorry state we have arrived at when people are too scared to take the breaks necessary for their physical and mental health in case they lose their jobs.
    I shall read Veblen again. It is a book that I was introduced to about half a century ago and shall now dig it out again.

  14. September 5, 2011 5:58 pm

    Very thoughtful post. I agree with you.

  15. September 7, 2011 4:19 am

    Great way of tying Veblen into today’s anti-vacation dystopia.

    But I’ve been telling myself (bitterly) that there was instead a peculiarly modern trade-off: you can have money but no time to enjoy it (your “nobles in this post), or you can have time but no money to enjoy it (your “gatherers”). In short, a lot of people do have plenty of time, but they have no jobs or the bad jobs. It’s only the people with the “good” jobs who seem to have no time. I exaggerate, of course.

    Incidentally, I have never read Veblen, and you’ve made me feel guilty for it. But I’ve talked quite a bit to my colleague at The Economist, Tom Standage, who has, for one of his books, looked into hunter-gatherer society.

    he says that they were quintessentially egalitarian, un-hierarchical. Hierarchies (kings, nobles, peasants) came only with the shift to agriculture (arguably the biggest even in human history).

    • September 7, 2011 8:31 am

      Thanks! Of course the wild card in this discussion is the economy. This issue existed five years ago but was viewed very differently.

      As far as the shift to agriculture, I’ve heard that event is the basis for the Biblical story of the expulsion from Eden. The Garden of Eden represents the carefree days of hunting/gathering. The language is the Bible is highly suggestive:

      “Cursed is the earth in thy work; with labor and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shall eat the herbs of the earth. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth . .” Plus presumably they had to invent clothing because they were staying in cold climates during winter rather than migrating.

  16. September 9, 2011 3:52 am

    I’ve always given that advice about vacations; I assume that if I can effortlessly step out of the office for two weeks without any hiccups, it won’t be long before they realize I’m not worth the money they’re paying me.

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