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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."

Their fears were unfounded. Industrial society's ability to function with reduced work capacity was clearly demonstrated during the Second World War, when millions of men went off to the front. Had the same methodologies been preserved after 1945, argued philosopher Bertrand Russell, and "the workweek cut to four days, all would have been well. Instead, the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed." For Dr. Russell, "the morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery."

The post-war decades yielded a harvest of new labour-saving devices. By 1970, American writer Alvin ( Future Shock) Toffler envisaged an irreversible exodus from the workplace, precipitating a boom in leisure-time activities. These roseate forecasts achieved consensus as the computer era dawned and gathered pace, spurred by the development of the integrated circuit in 1958.

"From the ashes of the work ethic will rise the phoenix of leisure," trumpeted electronic engineers Alan Burkitt and Elaine Williams, in 1980. "People will have the opportunity of using more free time to pursue their leisure interests, and more money to spend on them." And computer scientist Christopher Evans maintained that the microprocessor would "at long last make the humanistic dream of universal affluence and freedom from drudgery a reality."

The cult of hard labour

So what went wrong? Ben Hunnicutt thinks he knows. "The problem is that work has taken the place of religion in our lives," says the American sociologist, who teaches at the University of Iowa.

"All the mythologies associated with work are the same ones associated with God. Except work is a false God. The notion that we can grow our economies forever, reach full employment - it's easier to believe in the resurrection of the body. "

The research of Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild verifies Prof. Hunnicutt's theory. For her 1997 book, The Time Bind, When Work becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, Prof. Hochschild interviewed employees for an American corporation that had put enlightened, family-friendly policies for work-sharing, flex-time, parental leave and sabbaticals in place. Yet the usage rate proved shockingly low - not because management subtly discouraged their adoption, or because employees were unaware of the programs, or because they could not afford them. Higher-paid workers were even less likely to use flex-time than lower-paid workers.

"What I realized," says Prof. Hochschild, "is that the village well has gone to work. If you asked these people where they felt good about themselves, where they felt supported, where they felt safe - it was always work. One man said, 'I've worked for the company 30 years. I get pink slips at home.'"

And for all its mega-pixelated marvels, technology itself now degrades the quality of our leisure. As French philosopher Jacques Ellul noted, our leisure time, "instead of ... representing a break with society, is literally stuffed with technical mechanisms of compensation and integration. ... Leisure time is mechanized time and is exploited by techniques which, although different from those of man's ordinary work, are as invasive, exacting, and leave man no more free time than labour itself."

It's time for a change - time to move, incrementally, toward a four-day workweek.

Utah implemented exactly that plan - four, 10-hour days, with no cuts to pay or benefit, for its non-essential public employees - in 2008. Half a dozen other U.S. jurisdictions are said to be studying it. The European community has gone much further. In Scandinavia, working parents have the right to insist on a four-day week, without salary cuts. In the Netherlands, that right applies to all employees.

The 72-hour gospel

So, how rich are the potential dividends of a four-day week? Let us count the ways.

Fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions: Let's assume there'd be about 20-per-cent fewer cars on the road for morning and afternoon rush hours. That would constitute a major reduction in crude oil usage. The same percentage decline would apply to chemical compounds spewed by cars and trucks - carbon monoxide and dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, ozone, lead and chloro-fluorocarbons. Global warming might even be reduced.



Disposable income: The 20-per-cent savings on gas, car maintenance and insurance would accrue to personal pocketbooks. The family sedan would last longer. Money otherwise allocated to these budget categories could be spent consuming other goods and services - so that overall levels of demand and consumption would not be affected.



Corporate incentives: Far from seeing the four-day week as a threat to productivity, the business world should welcome it. There would be significantly less absenteeism. With less stress on employees, companies would also be able to cut budgets for workplace stress-reduction and physiotherapy programs. Their own costs for heat, lights, security and building or office maintenance would also decline.







The well-being app: And finally, the three-day weekend's Killer App - call it the Well-Being App.

There'd be more time. Time for the family, a demonstrable, arguably urgent, need. And more time for the self. You could start that cottage industry you've been planning for years. Finish the screenplay. Take your kids on long hikes.

With more time, you would be able to cook more and eat out less (additional savings). You would watch less television. The habit is actually a reflex of exhaustion - European studies show that four-day workers are less inclined to park in front of the tube.

Instead of dropping your toddler at the day-care centre, you'd have one more day a week with him or her. Instead of missing the ballet class or the hockey game because of a corporate meeting, you would be there for it, video-camera in hand.

As a practical matter, "we need not adopt a one-size-fits-all template," says John De Graaf, who runs the Seattle-based movement Take Back Your Time. "We have to recognize that people have different needs."

But in dozens of ways, large and small, the three-day weekend would begin to repair the breach that has formed at the heart of Western culture - a breach in the quality of our lives.

Perhaps we need to become like Bartleby the scrivener in Herman Melville's short story. His boss repeatedly gives him assignments, to which the inscrutable legal assistant repeatedly says, "I'd prefer not to."

If Facebook and Twitter postings can inspire a revolution that topples a dictator in Egypt, a campaign for a four-day workweek should be a piece of cake.

You have the next three days - at least - to think about it.

Michael Posner is a feature writer for the Globe and Mail.

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