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(Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail/Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail)
(Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail/Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail)

The three-day weekend: a dream deferred Add to ...

Is there anything nicer than a weekend in spring?

Actually, there is - a three-day weekend in spring.

Seventy-two precious hours of freedom. Finish that book on the bedside table. Stroll the park, scour the barbecue, plant the garden. Or, if you're really ambitious, tackle the clutter in the basement.

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Canadians enjoy five or six of these brief furloughs a year. In fact, they savour them - tonics for the spirit - like bottles of vintage wine.

The regular weekend is like a speed bump. It slows you down, but doesn't last long enough to change your basic habits. Three days, on the other hand, is a legitimate rest. It allows you to reset the psychic thermostat.

So here's the real question du jour: Why aren't there more of them? What's so sacred about the five-day workweek, a regimen set in place in North America seven decades ago that has been virtually immoveable since (unlike in many European countries)? In an age of high-tech efficiency and higher productivity, why isn't the working world organized to provide us with more leisure time?

The benefits - social, economic, ecological - would be legion.

Certainly, we were promised it. For more than a century, a loud chorus of visionaries has lauded the fruits of science and technology, and the personal liberties they would confer.

It hasn't worked out that way. Indeed, as they embark on their annual Victoria Day weekend - National Patriots Day in Quebec - Canadians (tethered to BlackBerries, laptops and iPads) are more likely to be struck by a grimmer calculus. Our so-called work-life balance has lost its equilibrium. Increasingly, we are logging longer hours. Increasingly, we have less time for recreational pursuits.

The statistics confirm what, in our weary bones, we already know. According to one recent American study, the amount of leisure time per capita hasn't changed significantly in 105 years. To the extent that is has changed, it's for the worse. Although the time Canadians spent on leisure pursuits increased from 5.5 to 5.8 hours per day between 1986 and 1998, by 2005 it had reverted to the 1986 level, a decrease of 18 minutes per day.

In her 1993 book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Harvard professor Juliet Schor documents the steady annual rise of work hours after 1970. The uptick - about nine hours per year - applies to both men and woman, white- and blue-collar workers. The surprise factor derives from the productivity numbers, which doubled between 1948 and 1990. By then, Americans produced enough goods and services to have adopted a four-hour workday or a six-month work year. "Or," writes Prof. Schor, "every U.S. worker could be taking every other year off from work - with pay."

It never happened, of course. Theproductivity dividend was squandered. Leisure time became a casualty of prosperity.

Reclaiming the Utopians

None of this was expected. On the contrary, for more than a century, the West's reigning mythology of infinite progress promised a cornucopia of leisure.

In 1888, the third best-selling book in America - after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur - was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887. The central character in this utopian novel, Julian West, falls asleep in the 1880s and wakes up in the year 2000. The world he apprehends has been transformed into a kind of paradise. Working hours have been reduced dramatically. People retire at age 45, with full benefits. And, via technology, goods and services are delivered almost instantaneously.

In the 1920s, biologist Julian Huxley said a two-day workweek was inevitable, because "we can only consume so much." If only he could see us now.

Endorsing Huxley, economist John Maynard Keynes observed in the 1930s that society would eventually face a pressing social issue: "The great problem of what to do with our leisure."

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