The vacations that aren’t: The myth of “getting away from it all.”

Even with the end-of-year holidays coming up, for many families, the biggest vacation time of the year is now over.

And if you took that vacation and were able to steer completely clear of any work-related requirements … consider yourself lucky.

For years now, we’ve heard about the challenge to “disconnect” completely while on vacation, as more ways for the office to intrude on personal time and space continue to proliferate.

For the latest insights on this issue, we have a recent online survey of 6,600+ travelers from 14 urban areas around the world, conducted by Marriott Reward’s Global Travel Tracker.  Foremost among the research findings is that the majority of us are staying connected with our work via e-mail or other digital means while on vacation.

Breaking down the responses by gender, a larger portion of women than men reported that they are able to completely disconnect from work while on vacation.

On the other hand, by a 36% to 44% margin, fewer men than women reported being “more stressed” upon returning to the office and facing the presumably larger stack of work requirements that have built up during their absence.

Interestingly, the Marriott Rewards survey found that residents of Tokyo report the highest levels of stress upon returning to work, whereas residents of Mexico City are at the other end of the scale. Residents of major U.S. cities – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — fall in the middle range of the 14 international urban areas that were included in the Marriott Rewards survey.

Speaking personally, I haven’t been able to “completely disconnect” from the office while on vacation in living memory — and I don’t think I know anyone else who has.

What is your vacation track record in this regard? What sorts of strategies do you use to get the most relaxation out of your days away from the office? I’m quite sure other readers will be interested in hearing about them.

Work/family gender roles are changing … even if the media portrayals of them aren’t.

Work and family nexusIt may be the year 2014, but many people continue to wander gracelessly through the gender minefield when it comes to the workplace.

We saw this in spades two weeks ago, when the Today Show’s Matt Lauer asked General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra how she successfully balanced her role as CEO of a large corporation with that of being a Mom.

Mr. Lauer was excoriated for asking the question, with criticism coming from all quarters (left and right).  He was accused of sexist questioning.  Several commentators pointed out that he had never asked such a question of the male top executives he had interviewed earlier at GM and Chrysler.

Mr. Lauer correctly noted that Ms. Barra had addressed this very issue proactively in a magazine article, and hence he thought the line of questioning was fair game.

Still, the fact that a flurry of controversy was stirred up at all reminds us how emotionally charged questions about gender roles continue to be, several generations after the birth of the feminist movement.

In point of fact, gender roles have been evolving pretty rapidly in the past two or three decades.  Sparked by economic and employment forces as well as changes in social norms, more men than ever are choosing to stay home with family, even as the participation of women in the workforce has reached all-time highs.

And field research conducted in May 2014 by consulting firm Insights in Marketing suggests that it’s men more than women who now feel that they’re facing struggles and stigmas associated with achieving a good work/family balance.  To wit:

Among men surveyed who have children under the age of 18, ~35% report that they are “feeling more torn between work and family” … whereas with women with children under the age of 18, only ~26% report the same feelings.

Here’s another result from the same survey:  By a 57% to 41% margin, men are more likely than women to agree with the following statement:  “A man’s primary duty is to financially provide for his family.”

Those figures may not come as a surprise.

By contrast, nearly the same percentages of men (78%) and women (74%) disagree with the statement that “A woman’s primary duty is to be a full-time caretaker for her family.”

According to the research summary issued by Insights in Marketing, these findings suggest that certain gender stereotypes are no longer accurate:  Society truly accepts (and even expects) women to be a part of the workforce, while expecting men to care only about their careers.

Instead, the survey reveals much more similarities than differences in how women and men see their family and work roles:

  • ~81% of women surveyed feel that their first obligation is to their home and family … and ~75% of the men surveyed feel the same way.
  •   ~48% of men surveyed feel that their career gives their lives purpose … but ~40% of the women surveyed also reported the same feeling.

Even though real change is happening on the ground, it’ll probably take more time before we start seeing the change being reflected in popular culture — and so that Matt Lauer can ask a question without incurring the wrath of a thousand baying wolves.

Remember that, too, the next time you see a TV commercial for laundry detergent.  You know — the one where Dad is some doofus who puts way too much soap in the washing machine and then can’t figure out when to add the fabric softener …

More findings from the Insights in Marketing report are available here.

U.S. Workforce Trends: Revenge of the Gray-Hairs

A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends unit reveals that when it comes to working, U.S. senior citizens aren’t ready to leave the stage. Instead, they’re staying on for encore after encore.

Incredibly, the Pew study forecasts that nearly 95% of the growth of the American labor force over the next eight years will be among workers age 55+.

What’s behind this interesting demographic development – one that has actually been taking shape for some time now? I think it’s three things:

Americans are living longer and staying healthier longer
Most seniors wish to stay active and productive as long as possible
The economic climate

This last factor has been particularly acute with the current recession that has caused the loss of retirement investment balances and real estate values. This is underscored in the Pew survey, where nearly two thirds of workers in their 50s reported that they might need to push back their expected retirement date because of the current economic conditions.

But the Pew study also makes clear that once the recession lifts, it’s highly unlikely that the aging of the workforce will reverse. That’s because many seniors find that working satisfies fundamental social needs like “being with other people” (56%), “feeling useful” (68%), and “giving me something to do” (57%).

By contrast, the other workers surveyed by Pew (ages 16 to 64) see themselves working “to support myself and my family” (88%), “live independently” (78%), and “to qualify for a pension or Social Security” (65%).

All of which proves that as people mature and move through the cycle of life, many of them make a shift in their perspective: “Work to Live” becomes “Live to Work.” For someone just entering the workforce, that might be laughably hard to believe … but the Pew survey results bear it out.

And another takeaway message to younger workers: Don’t expect your older colleagues to exit the scene anytime soon … the competition’s still hot ‘n heavy.

Surprise! Deep down, we actually like the 24/7/365 work environment.

It’s a common gripe you hear among business professionals: The proliferation of laptop computers and mobile communication devices has contributed to a “24/7/365” work culture, making it more difficult than ever to disengage from the office and putting bigger stresses on work-life balance.

The irony, people claim, is that laptops, PDAs and other equipment which promise to improve productivity and make daily work tasks easier, have actually created more work and resulted in longer hours devoted to the job. And you can’t escape it — at home, on vacation, or wherever you are.

But now, along comes a research study that gives the lie to these assertions. Manpower firm Kelly Services has just released the results of a massive worldwide survey of ~100,000 people in the workplace. Among the survey’s findings: Three-fourths of respondents appreciate the opportunity to remain in constant contact with work – even though one-third of them report working more hours each week as a result.

And among the North American survey respondents, 64% say they’re happy with their current work-life balance, and more than half claim their productivity at work is “much better” as a result of utilizing the new technologies.

So how do we explain the difference between all the negative “cocktail chatter” we hear … and the far more positive survey responses provided when no one’s looking?

It might be because people tend to exaggerate negative opinions – especially when surrounded by spouses and friends who are more than eager to lend moral support – all the while murmuring protestations of disapproval about the “big, bad organization.”

But I think the reason for the incongruity is more basic. On a theoretical level, most of us want to preserve the boundaries between our work life and our personal life. It just seems like it’s the correct position to take on the issue. But another part of us feels a need to stay connected … to be continually “in the know” and not miss a beat — even for an hour.

Moreover, in today’s challenging employment environment, being hyper-connected and super-clued in with the company is more crucial than ever, for self-preservation if for no other reason.

Besides, when it comes to being in control, most people just like that feeling — a lot.