A number of companies--led as always by high tech--are giving employees an unlimited number of paid vacation days. While this seems like an attractive perk, it's actually just a clever scam that allows companies, in effect, to reduce the number of vacation days that employees actually end up taking.

To illustrate how the scam works, consider the parallel case of flextime.

How "Flextime" Caused the 100 Hour Work Week

Fifty years ago, employees (white collar and blue collar alike) worked 9-to-5, five days a week. This was the fabled "40 hour work week" that labor unions fought (and in some cases literally died) to secure as a worker's right. The 40 hour work week accomplished two things:

  1. It forced companies to hire more labor (or pay overtime wages) if more work needed to be accomplished. This reduced unemployment and increased wages so that most families could live well on a single income.
  2. It ensured that when employees "punched out" of the day, their work day was done. As a result, it was possible for most workers to have a private life and leisure time. Your evenings and weekends belonged to you.

In the 70s, however, companies--led as always by high tech--started touting the concept of "flextime." Rather than being forced to adhere to a rigid schedule, employees (mostly salaried) could shift around the hours that they worked as much as they liked.

My first corporate job had flextime; I sometimes came in at 6am and left at 3pm to avoid rush hour. At other times, I'd come in at 10am and leave at 7pm. Nobody had a problem with that.

If you're paying close attention, you'll notice that working 6am to 3pm, or 10am to 7pm, entails working an hour longer than 9am to 5pm.

That extra hour was a classic slippery slope. Without the explicit boundary of 9-to-5, I had to decide how many hours to work each day based upon my personal assessment of my value to the company. And I made the calculation that I'd be fine as long as I worked "just a little bit longer" than 40 hours a week.

I discovered what countless other salaried employees have discovered, which is that under flextime, very few employees have the chutzpah to say "eff it, I'm only working 40 hours a week because, baby, I'm worth it." Instead, employees compete to see who can work the longest hours and thereby impress management the most.

The result is what we have today, a situation where the 40-hour-work-week no longer exists and anywhere from 60 to 100 hours a week is considered a normal workload.

Unlimited Vacation Time Is Classic Bait-and-Switch

While it sounds like a perk ("Wow! I can take a whole month off!"), it instead makes taking vacation subject to the same psychological pressure that keeps people working ridiculously long hours. It turns a RIGHT to take your vacation days, no matter what, into an OPTION that must be constantly negotiated.

So, while you might daydream about taking a month off, chances are you won't have the chutzpah to actually do so. On the contrary, you'll quickly realize that you'll earn management's displeasure if you take any vacation at all, because then you're not being a team-player, which is the exact same logic behind management's demand for 100 hour work week.

Unlimited paid vacation is at the point where flextime was when I started corporate work. Employees under the new system end up taking about as many vacation days as they did under a pre-defined schedule. That won't and can't last inside a corporate culture that demands 100 hour work weeks.

Mark my words: if unlimited paid vacation becomes as universally popular as flextime--and there's every indication things are headed that way--the number of actual paid vacation days that most employees actually take will become vanishingly small....just like your private life under the "perk" of flextime.

But wait, there's more. Under the old system, you could accrue vacation time, which is a seriously valuable perk. For example, when I left the corporate world to start my own business, I had banked 12 weeks of vacation time, a cushion that helped keep me afloat during my launch. Unlimited paid vacation days, of course, don't normally accrue.

What You Can Do, Today

So, then, what can you do about this deceptive fake-perk scam? Simple:

  • If you're the boss and think that unlimited paid vacation might be a good thing for your employees, wake up! If you're going to do pursue this sneaky strategy, have the honesty to admit at least to yourself that you're doing it not because you want happier employees, but because you want to squeeze more work out of them.
  • If you're the boss and truly want to help your employees, change your vacation policy so that they MUST take vacation days... and then increase the number of paid vacation days. That way, employees will actually take vacations and get some distance from work, and return to work in a healthier, better condition. (Which is the point, yes?)
  • If you're not the boss and your company has already gone this route, insist upon taking exactly as many vacation days as you would have taken under the previous system. This strategy will work, at least for a while, because the official story is that the new system is a perk rather than a burden. Taking what you're owed won't work forever, though, because if history is any guide, by 2030 you'll have CEOs like Elon Musk and Jack Ma insisting that committed employees don't take vacations--just like they insist that committed employees work 100+ hours a week.
  • If you're not the boss and your company is considering an unlimited vacation time policy, share this column with everyone you know, so that they aren't fooled into thinking it's a perk. Once they know this is the thin edge of the wedge that will destroy the entire concept of paid vacation, they can pressure management to scuttle the idea.

So now you know what unlimited vacation time is all about.

One last word. When you go on vacation (enjoy them while they last!) you can ensure you don't return to a pile of unread emails if you use  this incredibly brilliant email auto-reply.