On May 1, 1886, in booming, industrial Chicago, at least 30,000 workers walked off the job in what would become one of the most famous rallies for a shorter workweek in America. The shutdown left the usually smoke-filled skies eerily clear. The “great refusal,” as it is sometimes known, ultimately resulted in a confrontation a few days later between police and protesters that left several people on both sides dead. In a courtroom spectacle, eight demonstrators were convicted of murder, and seven of those eight were sentenced to death. One killed himself in jail and four were hanged in public.
Still, protests continued, as did bloodshed, until the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 enshrined the modern weekend for all workers. Americans had finally achieved the promise of an eight-hour day and 40-hour workweek, a buttress against the Industrial Revolution’s crippling workload.
Less than a century later, however, the weekend has been eroded by overbooked schedules, pinging devices and encroaching work demands. It took decades for American workers to wrest a precious fraction of their week’s hours away from the iron grip of the factory boss. Yet for many of today’s workers, the concept of 48 work-free hours is an anachronism. The weekend as it was originally envisioned is being lost.
Importantly, while the weekend is a relatively new invention, the five-day workweek was not a solely altruistic creation. Henry Ford was an early adopter of the five-day workweek after realizing that a weekend could both keep workers happy and give them an incentive to spend — which might make him even more money. “People who have more leisure must have more clothes,” he said. “They eat a greater variety of food. They require more transportation in vehicles.”
For many of today’s workers, the concept of 48 work-free hours is an anachronism.
In that moment Ford, probably by accident, articulated a societal contradiction that continues to this day: The modern, Western weekend is both a time of rest and a tool of capitalism. A Marxist might view the weekend as an act of corporate trickery, a dangling carrot that keeps workers tethered to their jobs. But nineteenth century advocates held up the 40-hour workweek as a two-sided coin, a boon to both labor and industry. Shorter workdays would lead to the creation of jobs for those without them and leisure for those already employed. A higher standard of living for all workers would mean more consumption, and consumption would stimulate the economy, creating more jobs.
So why are today’s workers increasingly finding it so difficult to just stop working? In a fragile economy, performing busyness can seem like a necessary survival tactic. Taking a weekend off might appear disloyal or even weak — a risk when everyone feels replaceable.
Technology, too, has played a role in the loss of the weekend. Our ever-evolving smart phones and other devices mean that for many white-collar workers, leaving the office on Friday is a hollow gesture: they carry their offices on their phones. The modern employee is forever on call, and constant connectivity eradicates the line between leisure and labor. Meanwhile, the “gig economy,” the patchwork model that’s the new employment reality, chops time into ever-smaller pieces, divvied out among obligations.
According to Intuit, 34 percent of the American workforce is now freelance, a number expected to rise to 43 percent by the year 2020. When I was writing my book “The Weekend Effect,” I spoke to many contract workers about what their weekends looked like, and more than a few — especially those under 30 — would laugh really, really hard at the very idea of a “weekend.”
The weekend may be forever entangled in capitalism, but it’s also an opportunity to step out of the machine.
So at what point do we declare a world without weekends a public interest issue? Here’s a short list of the very real effects of being perpetually “on.” Our bodies literally release stress hormones when the email inbox pings. Too much time on our devices means we lose the ability to focus. Working long hours brings weight gain and increases anxiety levels.
Meanwhile, a study published in medical journal “Lancet” shows that the risk of stroke among employees who work 55 or more hours per week is 33 percent higher than those with a 35- to 40-hour week. And overworked and exhausted employees are less productive, according to decades of research, including a 2014 study by John Penceval of Stanford.
The weekend may be forever entangled in capitalism, but it’s also an opportunity to step out of that machine, even briefly. Taking the weekend off isn’t just about productivity — it also makes you a better person. Humans possess a deep, unassailable need for repose. Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists all exhort a day of rest. Islam’s Friday prayers and the Judeo-Christian conception of Sabbath — the scaffolding of the weekend — all ordain space in the week in which to be a person outside of work.
The weekend should be, and has been, a time of congregation and reflection, an edict that there will be neither working nor spending. It’s the time in the week to practice the art of being human. 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, our creativity.
Workers — and employers — must remember what their great-grandparents fought (and sometimes died) for. Taking a weekend off shouldn’t feel rebellious. It might upend our deeply held, work-first values, but we need to re-imagine a week where free time is considered as valuable, as sacred, as work.
Katrina Onstad is a Toronto-based writer whose award-winning journalism has appeared in publications including The New York Times, the Guardian, and New York Magazine.
This piece is an edited excerpt from Onstad's book "The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Effects of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork."