People celebrate their birthdays in various idiosyncratic ways, but there are some near-universal traditions: having cake, blowing out candles and making a wish, receiving birthday gifts, and having extra-special celebrations for milestones, like a quinceañera or sweet sixteen. But what about taking the day off from work?
Most adults are used to spending weekday birthdays at work, with coworkers showering us with well wishes, handing us a card with dozens of sweet notes, and maybe even planning a break-room cake-cutting ceremony. Now, though, more and more companies are offering an alternative form of celebration: Happy birthday, we’ll pay you not to work today. Though this practice is not a workplace standard yet, the question is: Should it be?
“I always take off of work on my birthday,” says Taylor, who is turning 20 this week. “I feel that your birthday is the one day out of the year you owe yourself peace of mind as well as self-care, and should spend the day as you please. My workplaces have been in the service/retail area, and I know that I personally wouldn't want to deal with serving people on a day I want to feel special and catered to.”
“Because of COVID, I’m not working anymore and solely focusing on college as well as my blog — which I probably will ‘take off’ on my birthday as well,” Taylor continues. “Last year I was a sales associate at the Gap for my birthday, and the year before I was a cashier at Chipotle. You definitely should take off work for your birthday at least once just to see how it feels.”
Even if they have to use their PTO days to celebrate, some people are passionate about the practice of observing their birthdays as an occasion to not be on the job. “Hell yeah I take my birthday off work!” says Michele, 34, who works in a hospital. “First of all — it’s my birthday. Second of all, it’s Halloween, the best holiday of the year.” For Michele, it’s about crafting a day exactly as she sees fit, beholden to no one else. “Getting to do what I want on my birthday is extremely satisfying. I take myself out to breakfast, get a coffee, see a movie. And not having to work at the same time — even better.”
“This year my birthday landed on a Saturday, which is a normal day off for me. I wasn’t able to do anything exciting because of COVID, just stayed home — wine and movie night with the wife, which was just as fun,” Michele says.
“I take off work every year for my birthday,” says Samantha, 29, who works in the pharmaceutical industry. “I like to celebrate and give myself a break from coworkers, meetings and Zoom — I like to have one day where I reflect on the year and what I want to accomplish for the upcoming months. It’s very grounding and refreshing. I’ve never worked for a company that gave employees their birthdays off, [but] I’ve actually seen a decent amount of coworkers around my age take off for their birthday. It’s generally my older coworkers that don’t.”
For others, it’s really the principle of the thing — we’re not dreaming of labor, and that goes doubly on birthdays. “I take my birthday off, mainly because I like to take birthday vacations,” says Amanda, a 28-year-old who works in corporate law. “My birthday is March 17. I was in Puerto Rico (terribly timed), flew back on that day since the lockdown started and was in my room eating pizza, crying.”
“But even if I wasn’t going on vacation, I would still take it off, because why not? I think if you have the PTO then you should, because capitalism — or your work — doesn’t care about you.”
Of course, not everyone wants to be away from their job on their special day — especially if they love their coworkers. “I would rather go to work and get a bunch of decorations on my desk and all of my coworkers celebrating with me than being alone all day while my other friends and family are working,” says Katie, 28, who works in sales support.
And while for some the perfect birthday means a big blow-out that starts with a flight to a vacation spot and ends with a new tattoo they don’t remember getting, for others, the best birthday is a quiet one. That’s why Sarah, a 28-year-old who works in advertising, never takes that day off. “[Because] I hate my birthday and want to pretend it's not happening, but also because I don't want anyone at work to make a big deal about it,” Sarah says. Taking a whole day off would alert her coworkers that it is, in fact, kind of a big deal. “I'd rather it just pass without any acknowledgement from my workplace.”
“My team at work tries to do a little thing, just normal snacks and drinks in the office for everyone's birthday — when we had offices,” says Sarah. “I've found that now that people know I hate my birthday, it has almost backfired. Even though I never mention it, they'll go out of their way to surprise me. It’s very sweet but I try to make as little fuss as possible.”
When asked whether her coworkers generally take their birthdays off, Sarah says it’s about 50/50. “I work on a fairly large team, about 20 people day-to-day, and it's fairly mixed. I have never worked for a company that gives birthdays off, and I also have never really heard of that from anyone I know either. If I got a free PTO day for my birthday, I'd take it though!”
For Elyssa, a 39-year-old whose job is to work on budget policy, her birthday coincides with a crucial time professionally. “The fiscal year for the federal government ends at midnight on September 30th, and my birthday is October 1st — so it often feels like there is a ton of work to do around my birthday,” she says. “It's become increasingly common (compared to years past) to either face a government shutdown because of failed negotiations or to pass a Continuing Resolution rather than a formal budget.”
“This year I was able to have a pretty nice birthday, all things considered with COVID and how busy my workload has been — I went out to lunch with my husband and we also were able to have dinner together. I had actually planned to take the day off because I have so much vacation time stored up, but I had too much work to do because the Supreme Court nomination had recently been announced and things were in full swing.”
Katherine is a 33-year-old who works in the video game industry. She always takes her birthday off, “usually because it's during a holiday break, but at my current job we don't have enforced holiday time, so I just use PTO,” she says, noting that her company offers a lot of PTO. “The unenforced holiday time is replaced with 10 floating holidays we can use any time between October and March on top of our regular PTO.”
Floating holidays give flexibility to people who might otherwise feel that they need to plan their time off around Thanksgiving or Christmas, even if they don’t personally observe them — and adding such floating holidays on top of regular PTO could encourage more employees to actually take time off to celebrate the days that mean the most to them.
The idea of a birthday holiday, then, is really a conversation about more flexible time-off policies, and more time off in general. Americans are stingy about their paid vacation days, and that’s only been more true this year. Perhaps because we often don’t have very many PTO days to begin with, so we want to save it up for a “worthy” cause, like a trip to an exotic destination or a time when we’ll be really able to maximize days away from work. Broadening PTO and holiday policies encourages people to take the time now, not later, and recognizes that we all have different special days to celebrate.