The American people have found out that two to three months of vacation are necessary.
William Howard Taft
It was July, 1910 and President Taft was addressing a group of vacationing business leaders in ultra-chic Bar Harbor, Maine. He claimed that a vacation of ten days or two weeks was insufficient and explained that, “there is such a thing as exhausting the capital of one’s health and constitution.” He thought a two to three month break was necessary, “after the hard and nervous strain to which one is subjected during the Autumn and Spring, in order to enable one to continue his work the next year with the energy and effectiveness it ought to have.”
It was an incredible suggestion and the New York Times set out to interview, “big employers of labor and men of affairs,” for a response. The Times reporter had some trouble finding such men as, “a surprisingly large number practiced Mr. Taft’s two and three months idea and were out of town enjoying themselves.” But the reporter did manage to find some noteworthy New Yorkers to survey. The presidents of U.S. Steel and the Lackawanna Railroad as well as the vice-president of Standard Oil believed in paid vacations but weren’t sure of the optimal length—though none hinted at any enthusiasm for the two to three month plan. A former Postmaster General took a different tack and suggested that perhaps, “Mr. Taft was merely expressing his views as to what he would like for himself.” A prominent banker stated, “I think that a three months’ rest was needed by the President of the United States and other high officers in the government and it appears to me that their duties would permit them taking that length of time without any detriment to their official work.” The owner of the Grand Union Hotel had a similar impression, “I feel he should have one of that duration—perhaps longer—for it certainly must have been a big strain on him to open so many baseball games and to supervise so many personally conducted trips all over the country.” He added that all legislators might benefit from annual three to eleven month vacations. The superintendent of public schools supported the president and said a 90 day break was popular with both teachers and students. He lamented, however, that living conditions in the city were so poor, that the schools still had to open every day so that the children had a decent place to play. All in all, among business, if not the schools, there was general agreement that a two week vacation was just about right. They thought professionals might get a bit more time, clerks a bit less, and all in accord that an unpaid vacation was no vacation at all.
There’s a certain irony in all this. Over 100 years ago, the general consensus was that workers should have two weeks of paid vacation a year. Even those advocating shorter breaks recognized the toll that workplace stress, pressure and “mental strain” exacted from workers. Yet by 2013, the average American had only 13 days of vacation and left three of those days unused. Mental strain hasn’t been eradicated since 1910 and the pressures have only increased. One reason is that in 1910 no one was expected to be available around the clock. Today, thanks to technology, we’re tethered to the office 24/7 and expected to be responsive to those late night emails from the boss. The upshot is that even on vacation, 61% of us will still be working. This has increased from 52% last year and from 48% the year before. There’s clearly an unhappy momentum building. The challenge for each of us is not to let work consume us. If you’re in charge, start cutting your folks some slack. If you’re not, start looking for some accommodation. Listen to the president! —Ebert