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fter it became common in the 1870s, the British half-holiday took years to expand to a full day off. The American half-holiday didn't become common until the 1920s, but its expansion was more rapid. Often the weekend arrived in a full two-day configuration. The first factory to adopt a five-day week was a New England spinning mill, in 1908, expressly to accommodate its Jewish workers. The six-day week had always made it hard for Jews to observe the Sabbath, for if they took Saturday off and worked on Sunday, they risked offending the Christian majority. Moreover, as work patterns became increasingly formalized through union agreements, many Jews did not even have a choice, a state of affairs that threatened the Sabbath tradition. The five-day week—in which both Sunday and Saturday were holidays—offered a convenient way out, and it came to be supported by Jewish workers, rabbis, and community leaders, and some Jewish employers.

At first the five-day workweek was common in only three industries: the needle trade, building construction, and printing and publishing. In a few isolated cases employers voluntarily adopted the five-day week. The earliest and most notable of these was, curiously enough, Henry Ford, a staunch anti-unionist. In 1914 Ford reduced the daily hours in his plant from nine to eight; in 1926 he announced that henceforth his factories would also be closed all day Saturday. His rationale was that an increase in leisure time would support an increase in consumer spending, not least on automobiles and automobile travel. This was a prescient view, for the weekend did indeed become associated with outings and pleasure trips. But in 1926 that was still in the future, and Ford was alone among businessmen in espousing the weekend. He was roundly criticized by U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

What finally consolidated the two-day weekend was not altruism or activism or, paradoxically, prosperity; it was the Great Depression of 1929. Shorter hours came to be regarded as a remedy for unemployment: each person would work less, but more people would have jobs.

Just before the Depression the workweek stood for many at close to fifty hours; later, as a result of work-sharing, it fell to thirty-five or less. Eventually the New Deal legislation embodied in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 mandated a weekly maximum of forty hours to begin in 1940, although the act was mute about the length of the workday. Once the eight-hour day became customary, the five-day week arrived.

The Promise of Leisure

hroughout the 1920s and 1930s dozens of articles and books of a general nature were published by psychiatrists, psychologists, and social scientists on the perils of what was often called the New Leisure. There was a widespread feeling that the working class would not really know what to do with its increasing free time. The underlying theme was an old one: less work meant more leisure, more leisure led to idleness, and idle hands, as everyone knew, were ripe for Satan's mischief. This was precisely the argument advanced by the supporters of Prohibition, who maintained that shorter hours provided workers with more free time, which they would only squander on drink. Whatever the merits of this argument—and undoubtedly drinking was popular—one senses that this and other such "concerns" really masked an unwillingness to accept the personal freedom that was implicit in leisure. The pessimism of intellectuals about the ability of ordinary people to amuse themselves has always been profound, and never more so than when popular amusements do not accord with the intellectuals' notions of what constitutes a good time.

There were different views as to what people would do with their newfound freedom. Some economists hoped that the extra free time would spur consumption of leisure goods and stimulate the stagnant economy. Middle-class social reformers saw an opportunity for a program of national physical and intellectual self-improvement. The two goals of filling leisure time—the economic and the cultural—appeared to many to be incompatible. A 1930 article by Walter Lippmann, "Free Time and Extra Money," in Woman's Home Companion, articulated "the problem of leisure." Lippmann warned that leisure offered individuals difficult choices, choices for which a work-oriented society like America had not prepared them. Lippmann was concerned that if people didn't make creative use of their free time, it would be squandered on mass entertainments and commercial amusements. His views were among the most influential during a time when many books and articles of popular sociology were being published with titles such as The Challenge of Leisure, The Threat of Leisure, and even "The Menace of Leisure."

Much of this concern was based on the widespread assumption that the amount of available free time was greater than ever before, and that the "problem of leisure" was without precedent. Before the Depression an American working a fifty-hour week spent less than half of his 5,824 waking hours a year on the job—the rest was free time. In contrast, a hundred years earlier work had accounted for as much as two thirds of one's waking hours. But, as Hannah Arendt has observed, this reduction is misleading, because the modern period is inevitably measured against the Industrial Revolution, which represented an all-time high as far as the number of working hours was concerned. A comparison with earlier periods of history leads to a different conclusion. The fourth-century Roman, for example, with 200 annual public holidays, spent fewer than a third of his waking hours at work; in medieval Europe, religious festivals reduced the work year to well below the modern level of 2,000 hours. Indeed, until the eighteenth century, Europeans and Americans enjoyed more free time than they do today. The American worker of the 1930s was just catching up.

But not for long. Working hours bottomed out during the Depression and then started to rise. Job creation, not work-sharing, became the goal of the New Deal. The Fair Labor Standards Act provided for a workweek of forty hours. As Benjamin Hunnicutt, the author of Work Without End, observes, this marked the end of a century-long trend. On the strength of the evidence of the past fifty years it would appear that the trend has not only stopped but reversed. By 1948, 13 percent of Americans with full-time jobs worked more than forty-nine hours a week; by 1979 the figure had crept up to 18 percent. Ten years later the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that of 88 million Americans with full-time jobs fully 24 percent worked forty-nine or more hours a week.

Surveys of leisure habits often show diverging results. Two recent surveys, by the University of Maryland and by Michigan's Survey Research Center, suggest that most Americans enjoy about thirty-nine hours of leisure time weekly. On the other hand, a 1988 survey conducted by the National Research Center of the Arts came to a very different conclusion. It found that "Americans report a median 16.6 hours of leisure time each week." The truth is probably somewhere in between. Less surprising, given the number of people working more than forty-nine hours a week, was the National Research Center's conclusion that most Americans have suffered a decline in weekly leisure of 9.6 hours over the past fifteen years. The nineteenth-century activists who struggled so hard for a shorter workweek and more free time would have been taken aback by this statistic: what happened to the "Eight Hours for What We Will"?

There are undoubtedly people who work longer hours out of personal ambition, to escape problems at home, or from compulsion. The term "workaholic" (a postwar Americanism) is recent, but addiction to work is not—Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a compulsive worker, as was G. K. Chesterton—and there is no evidence that there are more such people today than there were in the past. Of course, for many people longer hours are not voluntary—they have to work more merely to make ends meet. This was particularly true in the 1980s, when poverty in America began to increase, but because the shrinking of leisure time began during the prosperous 1960s, economic need isn't the only explanation.

Twenty years ago Staffan Linder, a Swedish economist, wrote a book whose thesis was that economic growth caused an increasing scarcity of time, and that statistics showing an increase in personal incomes did not necessarily mean growing well-being. Linder observed that with increased productivity came the possibility of shorter work hours and a wider availability of consumer goods. People had a choice: more "leisure" time or more consumption. Only the wealthy could have both. If the average person wanted to indulge in expensive recreation like skiing or sailing, or to buy expensive entertainment equipment, it would be necessary to work more—to trade free time for overtime or a second job. Whether because of the effectiveness of advertising or from simple acquisitiveness, most people chose consumption over time. According to U.S. News & World Report, in 1989 Americans spent more than $13 billion. on sports clothing; put another way, more than a billion hours of potential leisure time were exchanged for leisure wear—for increasingly elaborate running shoes, certified hiking shorts, and monogrammed warm-up suits. In 1989, to pay for these indulgences, more workers than ever before recorded—6.2 percent—held two or more jobs.

There is no contradiction between the surveys that indicate a reversing trend, resulting in a loss of free time, and the claim that the weekend dominates our leisure. Longer work hours and more overtime cut mainly into weekday leisure. So do longer commutes, driving the kids, and Friday-night shopping. The weekend—or what's left of it after Saturday household chores—is when we have time to relax.

But the weekend has imposed a rigid schedule on our free time, which can result in a sense of urgency ("soon it will be Monday") that is at odds with relaxation. The weekly rush to the cottage is not leisurely, nor is the compression of various recreational activities into the two-day break. The freedom to do anything has become the obligation to do something, just as Chesterton foretold, and the list of dutiful recreations includes strenuous disciplines intended for self-improvement (fitness exercises, jogging, bicycling), competitive sports (tennis, golf), and skill-testing pastimes (sailing, skiing).

Recreations like tennis and sailing are hardly new, but before the arrival of the weekend they were for most people chiefly seasonal activities. Once a year, when vacation time came around, tennis rackets were removed from the back of the cupboard, swimwear was taken out of mothballs, or skis were dusted off. The accent was less on technique than on having a good time. It was like playing Monopoly at the summer cottage: no one remembered all the rules, but everyone could still enjoy the game. Now the availability of free time every weekend has changed this casual attitude. The very frequency of weekend recreations allows continual participation and improvement, which encourages the development of proficiency and skill.

The desire to do something well, whether it is sailing a boat or building a boat, reflects a need that was previously met in the workplace. Competence was shown on the job—holidays were for messing around. Now the situation is reversed. Technology has removed craft from most occupations. This is true in assembly-line jobs, where almost no training or experience, hence no skill, is required, as well as in most service positions (store clerks, fast-food attendants), where the only talent required is to smile and say "Have a good day." But it's also true in such skill-dependent work as house construction, where the majority of parts come ready-made from the factory and the carpenter merely assembles them, or automobile repair, which consists largely in replacing one throwaway part with another. Nor is the reduction of skills limited to manual work. Memory, once the prerequisite skill of the white-collar worker, has been rendered superfluous by computers; teachers, who once needed dramatic skills, now depend on mechanical aids; in politics, oratory has been killed by the thirty-second sound bite.

Hence an unexpected development in the history of leisure: for many people weekend free time has become not a chance to escape work but a chance to create work that is more meaningful—to work at recreation—in order to realize the personal satisfactions that the workplace no longer offers.

Sacred Time

eisure" is the most misunderstood word in our vocabulary. We often use the words "recreation" and "leisure" interchangeably—recreation room, rest and recreation, leisure suit, leisure industry—but they really embody two different ideas. Pecreation carries with it a sense of necessity and purpose. However pleasurable this antidote to work may be, it is a form of active employment, engaged in with specific end in mind—a refreshment of the spirit or the body or both. Implicit in this idea of renewal—usually organized renewal—is the notion that recreation is both a consequence of work and a preperation for more of it.

Leisure is different. That was what Lippmann was getting at when he contrasted commercial recreation with individual leisure. Leisure is not tied to work the way that recreation is; leisure is self-contained. The root of the word is the Latin licere, which means "to be permitted," suggesting that leisure is about freedom. But freedom for what? When Chesterton said "doing nothing, he was describing not emptiness but an occasion for reflection and contemplation, a chance to look inward rather than outward.

Bertrand Russell placed leisure in a larger historical context in his essay "In Praise of Idleness." "Leisure is essential to civilization," he wrote, "and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labours of the many. But their labours were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good." Russell, a member of the aristocracy, pointed out that it had been precisely the leisure classes, not the laborers, who had written books, invented philosophies, produced the sciences, and cultivated the arts. But he was not arguing for a continuation of the class system; on the contrary, he proposed extending to the many the leisure that had previously been reserved for the few. This was an explicit attack on the work ethic, which he considered a device to trick people into accepting a life without leisure. In his view, the trick hadn't succeeded; working men and women had no illusions about work—they understood that it was merely a necessary means to a livelihood.

Russell's underlying argument was that we should free ourselves from the guilt about leisure that modern society had imposed on us through the use of terms such as "idleness" and "doing nothing," which were intended as a provocation to a society that placed the highest value on "keeping busy." Both Russell and Chesterton agreed with Aristotle, who considered leisure the aim of life. "We work," he wrote, "to have leisure."

n Praise of Idleness" was written in 1932, at the height of the Depression, and Russell's proposal for a four-hour workday appears hopelessly utopian now. But the weekend's later and sudden popularity in so many societies suggests that leisure is beginning to make a comeback, although not as fully as Russell desired, not in so relaxed a way as Chesterton would have wished.

I cannot shake the suspicion that something more than mere functionality accounts for the widespread popularity of the weekend. Can its universal appeal be explained by a resonance with some ancient inclination buried deep in the human psyche? Given the mythological roots of the planetary week, and the devotional nature of Sunday and the Sabbath, the answer is likely to be found in early religious attitudes.

Mircea Eliade, a historian of religion, characterized traditional premodern societies as experiencing the world in two distinct ways corresponding to two discontinuous modes of being: the sacred and the profane. According to Eliade, the sacred manifested itself in various ways—how physical space was perceived, for example. The profane, chaotic world, full of menace, was given structure and purpose by the existence of fixed, meaningful sacred places. Not only space but also time was thus perceived. Profane time was ordinary temporal duration, but sacred time, the time of festivals and holy days, was primordial and mythical, and stood apart from everyday life. During sacred time the clock not only stopped, it was turned back. The purpose of religious rites was precisely to reintegrate the past into the present. In this way sacred time became part of a separate, repetitive continuum, an "eternal mythical present."

Is it fanciful to propose that the repetitive cycle of week and weekend is a modern paraphrase of the ancient opposition of profane and sacred time? Obviously, the weekend is not a historical remnant in any literal sense, since it didn't even exist until the nineteenth century and its emergence was in response to specific social and economic conditions. Nor am I suggesting that the secular weekend is a substitute for religious festivals, although it is obviously linked to religious observance. However, there are several striking parallels.

Weekday time, like profane time, is linear. It represents an irreversible progression of days, Monday to Friday, year after year. Past weekday time is lost time. School days are followed by workdays, the first job by the second and the third. Not only is weekday time linear but, like profane time, it encompasses the unpredictable. During the week unforeseen things happen. People get promoted or fired. Stock markets soar or crash. Politicians are elected or voted out of office. One has the impression that history occurs on weekdays.

The weekend, on the other hand, is, in the words of Plato, a time to take a breath. It is a time apart from the world of mundane problems and mundane concerns, from the world of making a living. On weekends time stands still, and not only because we take off our watches. Just as holidays at the beach are an opportunity to recreate our childhood, to build sand castles with the kids, to paddle in the surf, to lie on the sand and get a sunburn, many of the things we do on weekends correspond to the things we did on weekends past. Weekend time shares this sense of reenactment with sacred time, and just as sacred time was characterized by ritual, the weekend, despite being an opportunity for personal freedom, is governed by convention: mowing the lawn, grilling steaks on the barbecue, going to the movies, Saturday night out, reading the Sunday paper, brunch, the afternoon opera broadcast, weekend drives, garage sales, and weekend visits. The predictability of the weekend is one of its comforts.

Free time has always been partly a refuge from labor. The weekend, too, is a retreat from work, but in a different way: a retreat from the abstract and the universal to the local and the particular. In that sense leisure is likely to continue to be, as Pieper claimed, the basis of culture. Every culture chooses a different structure for its work and leisure, and in doing so it makes a profound statement about itself. It invents, adapts, and recombines new and old models. Hence the long list of leisure days: public festivals, family celebrations, market days, taboo days, evil days, holy days, feasts, Saint Mondays and Saint Tuesdays, commemorative holidays, summer vacations—and weekends.

The weekend is our own contribution, our way of dealing with the ancient duality. The institution of the weekend reflects the many unresolved contradictions in modern attitudes toward leisure. We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want the freedom to be leisurely, but we want it regularly, every week, like clockwork.

The attraction of Saint Monday was that one could "go fishing" whenever one willed; the regularity of the weekend—every five days—is at odds with the ideas of personal freedom and spontaneity. There is something mechanical about this oscillation, which creates a sense of obligation that interferes with leisure. Like sacred time, the weekend is comfortingly repetitive, but the conventionality of weekend free time, which must exist side by side with private pastimes and idiosyncratic hobbies, often appears to be restrictive. "What did you do on the weekend?" "The usual," we answer, mixing dismay with relief.

We have invented the weekend, but the dark cloud of old taboos still hangs over the holiday, and the combination of the secular with the holy leaves us uneasy. This tension only compounds the guilt that many of us continue to feel about not working, and leads to the nagging feeling that our free time should be used for some purpose higher than having fun. We want leisure, but we are afraid of it too.

Do we work to have leisure, or the other way around? Unsure of the answer, we have decided to keep the two separate. If C. P. Snow had not already used the term in another context, it would be tempting to speak of Two Cultures. We pass weekly from one to the other—from the mundane, communal, increasingly impersonal, increasingly demanding, increasingly bureaucratic world of work to the reflective, private, controllable, consoling world of leisure. The weekend: our own and not our own, it is what we wait for all week long.

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Copyright © 1991 by Witold Rybczynski. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1991; Waiting for the Weekend - 91.08; Volume 268, No. 2; page 35-52.