How vacations reveal American Dream may be in jeopardy

For several years we’ve polled our small business audience weekly about issues and conditions that impact them.

Whenever a question is seasonal or a recurring issue, besides serving that poll, the responses often produce a bonus. For example, the potential to identify year-over-year trends, or illuminate a current market trend.

In last week’s poll response, we scored both of these bonuses. The subject was a seasonal one that’s almost unique to small business ownership – “Will you take a vacation?” – with three response options: 1) “I’ll take an entire week off;” 2) “Only mini-vacations, like a long weekend;” and 3) “Vacation? I can’t even take a day off.”

This year everyone moved. Historically the real vacation group fluctuated close to 50%. I was happy to see our new poll had almost six of ten (59%) respondents allowing they were taking a week off, whether to go incommunicado, or expecting to check in. The long weekend responders in the middle thinned out compared to past years, while the sarcastic, “What’s a vacation?” bunch increased.

The classic evolution of time off for a business owner looks like the inverse of our response options. In the beginning it’s, “What’s a vacation?” then you graduate to long weekends as the business matures, and finally to a full week off, or more, at maturity. Maturity means having your organizational and capitalization stuff together.

This week’s response also supports two forecasts I made in 2009.

As the Great Recession technically ended, I predicted small businesses would increasingly diverge into two categories: they would either become stronger, or inevitably erode their equity and credit and go out of business. That’s what I’m seeing in the responses to our vacation poll this week. The sector that formerly could only take off a few days is diminishing because they’ve either joined the organizationally and financially stronger ranks, or gone the other way toward extinction.

Historically speaking, it would be intuitive and accurate to think that the no vacation group would include startups, rather than just declining businesses. But I also predicted in 2009 that there would be fewer startups in this economic recovery cycle. As you may have seen reported by real research organizations, my startup prediction, unfortunately, has come to pass. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a steady, 10-year decline in businesses less than one year old, and the category total is 10% fewer today than 20 years ago.

So our vacation responses indicate a barbell effect happening on Main Street. And it’s good news that so many small businesses have survived and become stronger. But since every business, large and small, begins as a startup, the overall decline of entrepreneurship in the U.S. does not bode well for the future robustness of the U.S. economy or the business ownership component of the American dream.

Write this on a rock …
If small businesses were a plant or animal species, it would currently be classified as threatened, on a path toward endangered.

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