Anyone who has ever been employed has daydreamed about taking a year off to travel the world, write the novel they’ve been batting around in their head, join the Peace Corps, or find the deeper meaning of life by doing all of the above. The day to day grind lends itself to escapism... and the longing to transcend the ties that bind, to roam free, can take up a sizable portion of one’s head space, depending on how happy they are with their job situation.
When real life meets the hypothetical, as it has for workers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, it’s an interesting case study to see what people will actually decide. The New York law firm, in an effort to cut costs, but retain associates, is offering their employees a third of their base pay, amounting to approximately $80,000, to take one year off.
According to the “layoff tracker” on Forbes.com, over half a million people have been laid off since November 1, 2008 at America’s 500 largest public companies. The incredible offer from Skadden would be a dream come true to the people who have lost their jobs altogether. $80,000 to these hundreds of thousands of people could save homes, families, lives. At press time, of the 1300 employees, only 125 had expressed interest in the year off/decrease in salary offer.
Of those taking leave, Skadden reports, “Some will take the year off to spend time with their children or look after a sick relative. Someone’s planning to wrap up his Ph.D., someone else is looking into legal work for a news organization, and another associate will be (on a) round-the-world adventure.”
Nice 'work,' if you can get it.
Money aside, the bigger issue here is, most of the lawyers are afraid to leave their competitive field, for fear of losing their edge or being forgotten. Many also need to maintain a certain standard of posh living, which won’t be sustainable on eighty grand a year. The shock factors in this starry-eyed fantasy turned real life situation make the story so compelling. First shock: the notion that someone could get paid a lot of money to take time off to do whatever their heart desires. Second shock: not every employee is leaping at the chance to swap cash for leisure time. I am addicted to my work and would opt to continue working over taking paid time off, and it’s interesting to note that I’d be in like-minded company among the vast majority of employees at Skadden; who will continue to put in grueling hours instead of toasting on a remote beach at sunset for $80K. But what does this say about our society as a whole and our compulsion to work, even in light of a healthier offer? That’s the $80,000 question.