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The Canonical Weekend

A former boss of mine had a well-rehearsed response for any employee who complained they had too much work. There are twenty-one 8-hr workdays in a week, he would say; three in each of the seven 24-hour days. If you are only using five out of those twenty-one, you are clearly just lazy.

Although the 40-hour workweek would be a dream come true for many (unless you happen to live in Luxembourg) , there are few among us who could ever envision working the 168 hours suggested by this guy. The average full time US worker puts in 41.5 hours, making us a nation of slackers by my old boss’s standards. The hardest workers are found in Colombia, where the average work week is nearly 50 hours, still less than a 30% utilization of available time.

Like many averages, these numbers hide deeper truths. There are those who work several jobs in order to make ends meet and others whose employers limit their hours in order to avoid paying overtime. Much of the available data is based on self-reported hours, and who doesn’t think they work longer and harder than they actually do?

The very definition of work leaves a bit of wiggle room as well. The dictionary explains “work” as activity requiring effort to achieve a purpose, adding that it is something a person “has to do.” Our culture generally views work as something we are glad to be done with, hence the evolution of “Happy Hour” (for the consumption of adult beverages at the end of a workday), “Hump Day” (for the work week’s midpoint) and “Thank God It’s Friday – TGIF” (for the eagerly awaited end). All of this leads up to the weekend, commencing a two-day respite from having to do things requiring effort to achieve someone else’s purpose.

Most of us have never questioned the existence of weekends, having been trained since childhood to accept this ordering of our days. One company I worked for had a schedule of four nine-hour days, followed by a four-hour day that ended ostensibly at noon. The 2 ½ day weekend was much appreciated by those of us who could break away on Friday. Another popular variant is the 9/80 system, which effectively offers alternating 3- and 2-day weekends. I am sure there are other ways to carve up a seven-day block, but the basic idea of large chunks of work, interspersed with a smaller ones of time off, remains sacrosanct.

History reveals that we have not always had weekends. Primitive hunter-gatherers are unlikely to have had any days off, given that they were self-employed without benefits, unions or OSHA. We know enough about the early Romans to recognize that the week was not even a unit of time in their calendar. Months were apparently a thing in ancient Rome, but rather than numbering the days, they ordered them by their distance from various lunar phases. A farmer’s market was held every eighth day, but there is no indication of a day set aside for rest.

Records show that the Romans did schedule numerous fariae publicae, or public holidays, when politics and legal business were put on hold. These, along with numerous one-off holidays proclaimed by various consuls, may have been taken as an excuse to skip work. Still, life was ordered according to the earth’s trip around the sun and the lunar cycle.

When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 321 AD, he formalized the Biblical seven-day week, with Sunday devoted exclusively to worship for all but the farmers. Centuries later, Victorian factory owners began to add Saturday afternoons off for their employees, eventually leading to the two-day weekend as we know it today.

Years and months remain driven by the Sun and Moon and thus hard to change (until we colonize Mars) but seven-day weeks are basically a 1,700-year-old human invention. While the weekend as we know it has been in place for well over a century, a lot has changed and perhaps revisiting our allocation of time is not such a bad idea.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has no problem with the seven-day week but would like to see the work/play ratio changed from 5/2 to 4/3. Academics who feel we are working much too hard have suggested changing to an eight-day week, with three-day weekends (5/3). Upon closer scrutiny, Corbyn’s proposal would eliminate “Hump Day”, a loss our culture may be unwilling to accept.

From time to time, history throws us an unexpected change-up (say, for example, a global pandemic) giving rise to another oxymoronic “new normal.” Many of our typical reference points based on daily routines are suddenly gone. Meeting friends for Happy Hour, watching Monday night football, and dressing differently on workdays versus days off no longer provide the framework we are accustomed to. The ordering of our days has a profound effect on our lives, and psychologists worry about the mental health impact of disrupting that order.

Disrupted it is, and now is the perfect opportunity to revisit the centuries-old division of time and try something new. The 8-day week with 3 days off may very well be a better fit for today’s culture. The extra day could be named “Pasiday” (after Pasithea, the Greek god of leisure). As an added bonus, the scholarly 8-day week would have 24 working days. Just imagine what we could accomplish with those 192 hours...

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetWorkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.



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