"Work harder!" It's a motto familiar to the millennial generation and those before us. But work harder and longer with no benefits, no paid vacation, and with no sense of meaningful fulfillment at the end of the work day? That's where America's newest and largest workforce is questioning the status quo.
Born in 1992, I fall right in the center of the millennial category. My mother and father had polar experiences with their careers and what it meant for their quality of life. My mom, a federal government employee for over 35 years, worked hard, advancing in her field and receiving more benefits over time. The childhood days I remember best are the ones when she volunteered in my school, when she took off early for birthdays, recitals, and concerts, and when she could stay home with me if I was sick as a child.
Now, close to retirement, she enjoys over six weeks of paid time off, many sick days, personal days, and the freedom to take half a day for lunch, appointments or simply to spend the afternoon with her daughters. When looking at America as a whole, she is one of the few with such benefits and security. But the majority of Americans do not have these benefits, and neither did my father.
A Kenworth Truck employee for the majority of his career, his relationship with work was defined by constant fear of job loss, layoffs, and lack of job security should medical issues arise. And they did. Burdened with diabetes, his health slowly began to deteriorate, and when injuries occurred, recovery became harder and longer. As cycles of infection and pain took over, work became more difficult. Unable to retire without loss of his pension, he was forced to work an entire year standing on one foot for over eight hours a day. Finally, after this intense time of suffering he was able to retire on disability at age 56.
Sadly, the years of constant pain proved too great even after retirement- years later he underwent surgery and amputation that further impeded his mobility and quality of life. As a child I never questioned the injustice of his situation, but as an adult entering the workforce I cannot help but wonder how things would have turned out if had he been given adequate time off for treatment.
Growing up I never imagined myself working the standard 9 to 5 office job. I firmly believed that my life held greater meaning – I was meant to touch lives by spending my days traveling, teaching, leading, building, and loving the world around me that was broken, unloved, and even unnoticed. As I continued my education, I sought a path that went against the grain of American society in which consumerism rules and people "live to work" rather than simply working to live. I was blessed to find an education program at Western Washington University that questioned America's addiction to "stuff," where we redefined the idea of meaningful work, and where we prioritized the things in life that matter and last.
Throughout my time as a recreation and leisure services student, I began to think critically about work/life balance and how to reverse the ills that the generations before have suffered in this country. Whether it be overwork, stress, anxiety, burnout, or the sacrifice of a quality life. I wondered what life would have looked like for my father if he had more opportunities to engage in therapeutic recreation and trust that his job would still be there after his healing was completed.
I became obsessed with understanding how a nation built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had become the land of the fatigued and the home of the burned out. I refused to give into the life that we Americans see as the norm. As a country we work much more than most other rich countries, and leave over 400 billion days of paid vacation unused.
By conservative estimate, one in 9 Americans works over 50 hours a week (some studies put the number at one in four), compared to one in 26 Canadian workers and one in 152 in the Netherlands. While often it is true that comparison is the thief of joy, I find it hard not to be jealous of what citizens in these other countries have and many Americans lack – the freedom and fundamental right to enjoy leisure and rest that is guaranteed and protected by their governments.
I find that I am not alone in this mindset; millennials are changing their relationship with work. We are less persuaded by bigger paychecks and increasingly motivated by factors that benefit more than our bank account. We want to be inspired, motivated, and aware of how we are impacting the company as a whole, as well as what the company is contributing to the world.
Time flexibility is also becoming an important factor for millennials in the job hunt. This generation is more likely to give up promotions, take pay cuts, and switch jobs in order to better manage work and family life. If your company wants to attract millennial talent, you should pay attention to this fact.
We want to work in a place where our lives will be joyful, fulfilled, restful, and where we emerge grateful each day for our opportunities rather than burned out and resentful. I believe these motivators should be possible for all workers, but for that to happen there must be a shift in the mindset of our society. It should start with more vacation time. The right and ability to vacation directly affects worker productivity, turnover, and sense of satisfaction.
As a young adult going into the workforce, I want to be part of a movement toward ensuring this right for every employee regardless of class, race, gender, or type work. I am passionate about vacation policy because I believe it is a matter of social justice and human rights. We must look to other nations where policies are in place and realize that it is possible to give all employees these rights while also improving our economy, productivity, and overall quality of life.
While it won't happen overnight, we need to begin now. The end goal is a happier, healthier, more fulfilled, rested, and productive society and that would be a win-win for everybody.
Rachael Lewis is a recent graduate of Western Washington University and coordinator of Take Back Your Times' Vacation Policy Initiative