“What’s a Weekend” – Is a 7Day Working Week a Fait Accompli?

One of the ‘in’ quotes doing the rounds of social media and websites this year has been a deliciously naive statement, delivered by veteran Emmy winning English actress Dame Maggie Smith (1934-), in the successful television series Downton Abbey. Featuring as the ever delightful Violet, ‘Dowager Duchess’ of Grantham, she overhears her son the current Duke (Hugh Bonneville) talking to his heir, the young dashing lawyer Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). She doesn’t understand what they are talking about. So she has to ask ‘What is a Weekend’?

In Violet’s era a ‘weekend’ wasn’t something those who lived an eternal life of leisure and doing good works like a Duchess ever contemplated.  The ‘workweek’, devoted to labour, and the ‘weekend’, devoted to rest, only became official in most western countries and mandated by law or custom according to faith and other traditions, during the early years of the 20th century. By then it had become a problem for commerce that the main religions of the world all observed their Sabbath on different days. Muslim people on a Friday, Jewish people on a Saturday and Christians on Sunday. This was a real problem for western economies and business leaders. In America Jewish people were also wanting a day off before their Sabbath to complete preparatory tasks that would permit them to not work at all on their day of rest. Declaring Saturday and Sunday a ‘weekend’ became a solution, that for over the hundred or so years since, people in the west have enjoyed and often taken for granted.

Interestingly in the contemporary age the United States does not have ‘national’ holidays like Australia. In the U.S.A. each state declares its own. Amazingly a holiday on the Christian celebration of Good Friday is only observed in 12 of its 50 states. As this is the most holy day of the Christian calendar (more than Jesus’s birth), this seems staggering in a country that many people in the world perceive as being ‘wholly Christian’. Globally cultures are currently evolving a greater understanding of each other and respect for sharing values. For both business and communities this is the way of the future, according to leaders and visionaries.

So what does that really mean in terms of weekends off and current public holidays, because some of these only coincide with the Christian calendar and do not respect anyone else’s faith issues at all? As with other customs like marriage, considered a fait accompli up until now, we would have to ask is that fair and equitable for all? In India they have a system that accommodates a vast number of holidays, reports a dear friend from Delhi. She says ‘ “to accommodate all religions, AND restricted holidays, of which you can take 2 a year, each state has its own holidays, vacation dates vary, some offices have weekends off, others give a holiday only on the 2nd Saturday of the month… much of our conversation consists of surprised “Oh, do you have a holiday today?” ‘

I am writing this at Easter in Australia, where we enjoy a four day Easter ‘public’ holiday weekend that been integral to life in our society, which has the principles attached to Christianity at the heart of its European establishment story, for a long time. This means to ensure it remains a society that is fair and equitable for all we must reflect positively, employ patience  and consider carefully on making changes to the working week, the weekend and public holidays because it will affect the way our country currently works. How do we re-shape a world working week in respect of all faiths and cultures? It’s a big ask you might say, and task.

Significant changes made for society should be about change for the greater good. Change is also about bringing to fruition ideas that surround concepts of freedom and liberty, which for people in the western world is at the core of their beliefs. Change won’t happen though unless it can be made attractive enough for people to change established behaviour patterns, which is very hard to achieve. Complex behaviour changes only happen when society believes passionately enough to change their personal habits for the greater or general good.

Much has changed since colonization by the British of America by settling first at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and at Sydney, New South Wales in Australia in 1788. In America from the time of the Civil War (1861 – 1865) through to the turn of the 20th century, just like in Australia, England and Europe the hours people were working were being re-assessed in light of the Industrial Revolution and they began to fall.

The success stories associated with wealth generated by the industrial age meant that a  great many former working class and middle class people had become very wealthy. Now they had time to play and wanted their families to join in. This coincided with the gradual acceptance of an idea that working people should be allowed to enjoy ‘leisure’ time. The idea of having more leisure appealed to a burgeoning middle class society and they embraced it wholeheartedly.

At the time worker’s unions began to demand much more of bosses, including addressing issues of on the job work safety. Images of building workers sitting on a girder chatting, while it hovered dangerously high over the city of New York, are eye opening. Unions were fast being established and strengthened during this time, and championed the improvement of working conditions so they could stop the high rates of deaths on the job. Unions wanted to also see a genuine reduction in the scandalous hours worked by children.

Women were also demanding emancipation, as well as the right to vote. The result of all this frenetic activity would ultimately change the face of the world forever, especially following two World Wars, where the old English and European class structure finally broke down as Lords found themselves in a trench endeavouring to survive alongside their former Butler, or being saved by him.

In the USA after World War 1 in 1926 Henry Ford began shutting his automotive factories for all of Saturday and Sunday. By 1929 the Amalgamated Clothing Workers were following suit. They were demanding a five-day working week and received it.

In 1940 in the USA the two-day weekend was declared official, while on the other side of the coin it did not happen in China until 1995.

Now less than twenty years later economists and business leaders all over the world are asking once again. Does a weekend have a future? The weekend for people in small business in particular, as well as for those who work shift work, has mainly become an anomaly anyway.

Time after all is money economists tell us. And so it is to the benefit of business that these questions are being asked. The economic system, which is based on ‘making money’ is how society works.

Now with technology enabling people to access their work and emails from home, or over a croissant and coffee at the local café, as well as international conference calls being held on line, and a huge amount of consultants offering a full 24/7 customer service already, the working week it seems is all over the place on a global scale.

The Australian Financial Review recently reported that major banks and finance institutions have applied to Fair Work Australia to extend ordinary working hours, after fighting so long to get them reduced.

Will an all new official seven-day working week follow?

Killing off the current weekend observation would be sure to have a huge impact and face much resistance. Aaaagh I can hear many people saying, but we could choose to view the whole idea as a positive as long as it offered viable and realistic alternatives.

The multicultural mix of Australia now offers respect to its indigenous people, as well as to all the people from many different creeds and cultures, who have settled here since World War II. That includes those who are devoutly religions and those who declare they are atheists, agnostics and sceptics on employment forms.

Change is constant, and in a progressive society happens all the time, although it has been proven many times that most people absolutely hate change. It is a paradox. On the whole we seem to be creatures, who mostly thrive in a habited routine, but once in it we hate to let it go. However to be truly ‘free’ we often must.

Some people when they are young have the motivation and strength to go against the status quo. They leave home and even the country where they grew up to go off to make their way in places where they are without family support, at least until they get some sort of professional or personal network in place. Yet in the interim they manage to thrive and multi task effectively. On the other side of the coin there seems to be a huge majority of people, even young people who work far better in a regime with a fairly rigid routine, plus the support of family and friends they rely on. They thrive in what some would perceive as its ‘ordinariness’.

A friend and I were discussing this subject recently. She’s just purchased a business n a country town, where she’s moving to live soon. None of the staff it seems, who all retained all their jobs, wants anything to change. However change must happen. She now has to employ her own talents and experiences to make it work and increase profitability, otherwise they will all be out of a job. Instead of stepping up to help her they are all resisting. While she is trying to take it slowly, she is frustrated beyond belief as she takes risks, upgrades equipment, renovates, as well as makes changes the menu to attract more people in the door.

Many of the people she is working with have lived in the town all their lives as did there parents and grandparents before them. Some have never been to the city either, which I found staggering. Why, because this is Australia where country folk are used to the tyranny of distance and travel all the time, well at least they did in my era. This idea of staying in one place for generations is very ‘English’. In England archaeology has proved some people are still living in the very same village their descendants first settled in thousands of years ago. And, a great many people have never visited a city.

Anyone currently watching current affairs programs in Australia would know that country towns need to embrace change and growth if they are not only going to survive, but also thrive. Times are tough everywhere and we all have to bring all our skills to the fore and help

So how do we please everyone with changes to the working week, weekends and public holidays. There would need to be major trade offs if some public holidays in Australia were to go.  Larger fully paid annual holiday periods, say six weeks instead of four, for the majority of workers might be one way, but with the proviso they were taken twice in a year. It would help workplace schedules, shift workers and give quality time to working parents for enjoying real family interaction.

Many might consider this would actually be a far better idea and benefit people’s general health and wellbeing. Tourist operators, resorts and their retailers, places where pampered leisure is a huge focus would be sure to thrive.

If we did have the more holidays outcome it would more than likely end the payment of penalty rates on ‘weekends’. This in turn would mean ‘small businesses’, many of whom are currently unable to compete on weekends and forced to remain closed because of double and triple time, will be able to remain open.

They would also be able to work more hours, employ extra staff and therefore able to provide a healthier level of competition for bigger entities and franchises. Surely this would be a good thing?

Many big companies do not work 9 – 5 hours any more. This seems to remain only the preserve of many institutional establishments, where it is very rare to see anyone work overtime. That is a reality.

Some companies however have two shifts of staff, one starting early and one finishing late. This means they can more easily hold telephone or computer conferences or trade internationally. Companies setting up in foreign countries often want to be in touch with their counterparts at home, and around the world, at any given moment. This means that big businesses operating 24/7 are becoming much more the norm.

More and more young parents with children are looking for flexibility in their working hours, so each can cover the other and keep the cost of childcare to a minimum. They would also probably approve of having their leisure time spread out over the year as it would have an impact on the quality of family life.

Childcare was not perceived as a problem prior to World War II when the majority of women stayed at home. A lot has changed in fifty short years. Women are now encouraged to think they should expect much more from life than just being at the beck and call of both a husband and children. It is also fine for them to expect that tasks and responsibilities should be shared. This is not even a thought process that would have ever entered my parent’s realm, although it intruded heavily on my own. The baby boomer generation certainly brokered and increased change, and the way business worked.

Today customer service is a huge priority for businesses, which will in the future be also driven by the success of social media, according to many experts in the field. Most people who currently run small businesses will tell you their working week is, and has always been in reality for centuries, seven days. So as the population of the planet explodes and competition becomes more fierce what will happen next?

The paradigm shift we are experiencing on such a massive scale only happens every 100 years or so. And, as history reveals, it is only those who bend with the strength of a bamboo rod in the breeze, and then spring back upright, that survive.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012


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