How The Clock Became Our Ubiquitous New Boss… And How The Weekend Controls Us

(Quartz) It took a century to create the weekend—and only a decade to undo it

We made up the weekend the same way we made up the week. The earth actually does rotate around the sun once a year, taking about 365.25 days. The sun truly rises and sets over twenty-four hours. But the week is man-made, arbitrary, a substance not found in nature. That seven-day cycle in which we mark our meetings, mind birthdays, and overstuff our iCals—buffered on both ends by those promise-filled 48 hours of freedom—only holds us in place because we invented it.

We abuse time, make it our enemy. We try to contain and control it, or, at the very least, outrun it. Your new-model, even faster phone; your finger on the “Close” button in the elevator; your same-day delivery. We shave minutes down to nano-seconds, mechanizing and digitizing our hours and days, paring them toward efficiency, that buzzword of corporate America.

But time wasn’t always so rigid. Ancient cultures like those of the Mayans and the pagans saw time as a wheel, their lives repeating in stages, ever turning. The Judeo-Christians decided that time was actually linear, beginning at creation and moving toward end times. This idea stuck—and it’s way more boring than a wheel.

Becoming efficient is a way of saying “I’m going to conquer time before it conquers me.” To slow down, to stop fighting time, to actually feel it—this is an act of giving in, which is weakness. Bragging “I never take a weekend” is a gesture of strength: I corralled time, I beat it down. Actually, taking a weekend means ceasing the fight with time, and letting it be neutral, unoccupied. Why isn’t this a good thing?

Not long ago, free time was a defining political issue. The first instance of American workers rising up in unity wasn’t about child labor, or working conditions, or salaries—it was about shrinking long work hours. Those who came before us fought—and died—for time.

As the industrial revolution changed the very nature of work, things got worse. The new machines required uninterrupted tending to avoid the costs of starting and stopping. Dickensian misery abounded. Windowless factories locked in darkness. Rats scurrying. The deformities of child laborers with soft, bendable bones and knees pointed inward from standing in the cotton mills. The “mill girls” who populated the factories of Lowell complained of working the looms in the dark at both ends of the day, their eyes strained by the candles that provided their only light.

The clock became the ubiquitous new boss. Previously, workers tended to complete their work organically, in accordance with natural laws: the sherman’s tasks beholden to the tides; the farmer’s to the seasons. But with industrialization, clocks now determined the task, and the measure of productivity was how much labor could be wrung out of a worker over a period of time. Time had a dollar value, and became a commodity, not to be wasted. “Time is now currency: It is not passed but spent,” wrote historian E. P. Thompson.

Clocks in factories would often mysteriously turn forwards and backwards. Bosses were stealing unpaid hours from workers, who feared to carry their own watches for, as one factory worker wrote in his memoirs in 1850, “it was no uncommon event to dismiss any one who presumed to know too much about the science of horology.”

Mondays were the original weekends

Before the weekend became official, many workers took it anyway. Between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries in England, vast numbers of employees didn’t bother to show up on Monday, playing the religious-holiday card by saying they were “keeping Saint Monday” (there is no Saint Monday, it turns out). Benjamin Franklin rather prissily bragged that as a young man he got promoted simply by showing up on Mondays for his job in a London printing house: “My constant attendance (I never making a St. Monday) recommended me to the master.”

Binge work leads to binge play, and many workers were hungover on Mondays, recovering from bar games at alehouses, outdoor dog fights, and boxing matches. They were paid on Saturday, and stuck in church on Sunday, so they stole that Monday to burn through their paychecks and have some fun. (The idea of the weekend as the time to blow the paycheck holds today: Americans spend the most money on Friday and Saturday nights, and the least on Mondays and Tuesdays.)

Low-paid workers were actually willing to lose out on a much-needed day’s salary in exchange for a day of freedom, so deeply felt was the need for two days’ reprieve. It’s a trade-off most of us make all the time: time versus money. Do I pay the parking ticket or challenge it and lose an afternoon to the process? The financial hit of that lost Monday was real, so when the paid half-Saturday was offered, most workers were glad to accept the compromise. Saint Monday faded from tradition, and the half-Saturday holiday became the standard in Britain in the 1870s.

Henry Ford’s capitalist contribution

One of the key agents in normalizing the weekend for the rest of American workers was actually a staunch anti-unionist, auto tycoon Henry Ford (he was also a well-known anti-Semite, which makes his championing of the Sabbath a little delicious).

In 1914, Ford raised the daily wage in his factories from $2.34 per day to $5.00. It was a radical move, and a PR sensation. Thousands showed up hoping for work, causing a near riot that was damped down when the police department turned firehoses on men in bitter winter. But the raise wasn’t exactly the Owen-style socialism it superficially resembled; Ford was convinced to go along with an increased wage only when his vice president, James Couzens, pointed out that not only would the move be great publicity, but more money would give the workers an incentive to spend—perhaps on cars. In 1926, Ford echoed this argument when he introduced the five-day workweek. “People who have more leisure must have more clothes,” he argued. “They eat a greater variety of food. They require more transportation in vehicles.”

Ford, probably by accident, articulated a contradiction that sits at the heart of the weekend as we have come to know it: It’s both a time of rest and a time of consumption. A Marxist might point out that the weekend is an act of corporate trickery, a dangling carrot that keeps workers tethered to their jobs.

As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith put it, the mission of production—and business—is to “create the wants it seeks to satisfy”—and the weekend is the time of satisfying wants.

All of which is probably true, but it’s just as true to say that the yearning for a weekend doesn’t arise solely from a desire to shop. With work quelled, space opens up in which to be with others, or in solitude with the self—or both. The clock that propels us all those other days is silenced (or quieted, at least), and time opens up, awakening our own desires, our thoughts and impulses.

It was less poetry than pragmatism, however, that finally cemented the two-day weekend. During the Depression of 1929, many industries began cutting back to a five-day schedule. In a tumultuous, underemployed economy, fewer hours for some would mean more work for others (an idea that still reverberates in some European countries: In Germany, the response to the 2008 economic crisis was to implement a nationwide work-sharing program called Kurzarbeit, meaning “short work”). Americans experienced what it was to work less, and—shocker—they liked it. Politicians noticed. Guided along by organized labor, with President Roosevelt signing off, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 enshrined the modern weekend: Americans were now promised the eight-hour day, and the forty-hour workweek.

Say hello to the weekend

The weekend skipped across the globe over the next several decades. By 1955 the two-day weekend was standard in Britain, Canada, and the United States, and short Saturdays were common across Europe. By the 1970s, no European country exceeded a 40-hour workweek—many worked less—and all observed the weekend.

In the Middle East, Friday-Saturday weekends became the norm over the last half of the 20th century, while some Gulf and North African countries booked off Thursday and Friday. But as economies have reoriented from local to global, the financial boon to a country that keeps hours in line with the West has altered the shape of the weekend. Oman switched from a Thursday-Friday weekend to a Friday-Saturday weekend in 2013. The same year, Saudi Arabia followed suit with a royal decree that looked a lot like an open-for-business sign.

The state of the weekend is an ongoing battle in Israel, where the official weekend is the day and a half that constitutes the Sabbath, from Friday evening through Saturday. But Israel’s weekend is changing, too—tensely. Some Orthodox Jews, appalled at Sabbath-breakers, have reportedly thrown stones at Israelis taking the bus on Saturdays. With Arabs and Christians to please, there have been calls for a full, two-day Friday-Saturday weekend to accommodate holy days for all groups.

Whether it’s motivated by the push of business or the pull of the soul (or some combination of the two), two days off is what feels normal and human. After hundreds of years of debate, bloodshed, and dogma, a weekend should be an enshrined right—yet that isn’t exactly what happened. It took a century to win the weekend. It’s taken only a few decades to undo it.

This is an excerpt from The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork by Katrina Onstad. Copyright @2017 by Katrina Onstad, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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