When they are under attack, or celebrating a big birthday, trade unions sometimes like to remind us about the historic fights they have won: holidays, sick pay and the big one, the weekend.

The weekend was the best of the battles, because the victory was the most audacious. It makes me swell with pride – albeit of the most hypothetical kind (somehow I doubt the National Union of Journalists freelance chapel had much input). Sick pay, one feels, would have been won eventually, by the arc of progress. Likewise, holiday pay: sooner or later, measures to recognise our shared humanity would have sprung into being with or without a workers’ solidarity movement. Two full days out of seven given over to leisure, to conviviality, not as a favour but as a right, however: this was a new kind of empowerment.

Yet today there are fears this is slipping from our grasp. According to a YouGov study in 2018, more than half of adults report working some weekends in any given year. It seems the idea of a weekend as a sacred space is fast vanishing.

For anyone without children, this is what the promise of a weekend holds: wake up in time to play tag rugby, get to the garden centre, mend your lightshade and still have time to rouge your knees and roll your stockings down (old-school parlance for partying). But it is also an opportunity to be formless, in every way: get up at noon, just about haul yourself out for a bacon sandwich, stop for a pint on a whim at a strange time, then arrive at nightfall having had no more than a third of a day, in real terms. Post-children, of course, it is all hanging round places you don’t want to be, such as soft-play centres or sports fields, but at least you are with the people you want to be with (until they are teenagers).

Sunday alone could not do this – saved as it was for Godliness or whatever phrase terrible people used before the invention of “family time”. It was Saturday that meant everything: that enabled football, that democratised cricket (a work in progress, but still …), that spawned hobby-gardening and all its many questions. And, of course, it couldn’t help but crack open the space for people to say: “Yes, I might just get pissed on a Friday night. What’s it to you?”

So how did they do it? From the beginning of when trade unions were legalised, in 1824, demarcated leisure time was a constant theme. Most of the 19th-century Factory Acts had provision for Saturdays to be slightly shorter working days, although at first this amounted to nine-hour days instead of 11. But unions had leverage in the form of “Saint Mondays”, which began back in preindustrial times and were basically a day of shirking by the self-employed used for insalubrious pursuits such as cockfighting and, of course, drinking.

By 1879, the word “weekend” had been coined and the concept of Saturdays and Sundays as the respectable face of leisure time was established. Nevertheless, it took until the 1930s for the full 48-hour weekend to be codified in general working conditions.

The earlier mention of gardening was not idle, by the way: the weekend was not won by the trade unions alone but by a rare, radical cooperation across the whole of civil society. And the coalition to create the weekend – between the unions, churches, temperance movements and commercial players – was partly held together by the notion that if people had leisure time in daylight, it would encourage wholesome pursuits. The Early Closing Association, a civil society organisation that was started by retail workers in the 1850s, called these “mental or physical improvements”. The sociologist Jill Ebrey says: “The idea of valuing conviviality was taken up quite broadly: and that’s what we seem to be losing now.”

A family on the beach at Blackpool in the 1950s



Trade unions were at the forefront of winning leisure time for Britain’s workers. Photograph: Getty Images

For it would be tragic if in all these rituals of commemoration we ignore a call to arms. In a whole host of jobs, from the low-skilled (which tends to mean low-paid) to the white-collar, the weekend as a block of leisure time has vanished. The YouGov study shows that only 6% of people work a traditional five-day, nine-to-five week. Some of the remaining 94% have chosen compressed hours or other flexible fixes. More than 5 million UK workers regularly work unpaid overtime. In many sectors, the idea of time-and-a-half – where, if an employer ate into your free time, they did so at a price – has also disappeared. For anyone in the gig economy, freelancers and zero-hours contractors, the idea of a weekend is laughable. When you are struggling to make up your hours, leisure is a prison.

Ed Cross, 53, is a delivery driver who is on a zero-hours contract for Hermes and is a union rep for the GMB. He describes how his 12 years of working without ever having a full weekend off have left him out of sync socially, which is true for many of his colleagues. “I represent lots of couriers who avoid going out unless they’re actually on holiday, because they know they’ve got to be at work the next day,” he says.

He describes single mothers who have to take their kids with them to do deliveries. “It might not be that they can’t find childcare; it’s that they can’t afford it. So it’s actually a relief to get back to the working week.”

Nearly a million UK workers are on zero-hours contracts where it is common to be asked to work anti-social hours; more than a third of them have been threatened with losing work if they turn down a shift.

In this way, the fight for the weekend has been leapfrogged by greater injustices: a carer who isn’t getting paid for their travel time, or isn’t getting minimum wage for staying overnight, is not going to start with the right to a Saturday as their muster point. Often it feels as though unions have to keep up the pressure just so working conditions only get slightly worse. For example, in 2015, Usdaw fought against Sunday trading – allied with the Church of England – because employers are insatiable. “If you gave them 24-hour trading, seven days a week, they’d be back asking for an eighth day,” its spokesman, Dave Williams, said.

It comes at a cost. Contracted retail workers have the right not to work on Sunday, but the employer has no obligation to make up for this with a shift any other time.

Yet weekends are not a right we should lay down lightly. It means more than the freedom to loaf, and symbolises more. Matt Cole, 32, is a post-doctoral researcher at Leeds University who, incidentally, feels plagued by guilt if he does not work all the way through his weekends. He is working on a side project, ironically to ensure the rest of us are not forced to have side projects just to get by financially. To counteract the “culture of being always on”, he is looking at a French law called “the right to disconnect”.

“I am trying to introduce this idea to the UK, to try to claw back some of the work-life balance, because it feels as if there’s a snowballing effect,” he says. “We’re going the way of the US, where everyone has their hustle, and their side hustle. There’s no time for leisure activity. It’s quite a dystopian vision for the future.”

It is, of course, partly a question of tech. We agreed to the convenience of the mobile phone, and did not notice how it subordinated our social selves. We thought it was about chatting to our friends; in fact it was just endless emails from work that could have waited for the working week. “But, from an analytic perspective, there are three aspects,” Cole says. “They catalyse one another and it’s hard to view them in isolation.”

First, the labour market is more precarious. It is impossible to overstate the impact this has: I spoke to a number of people, right across the payscale, from delivery drivers to corporate senior managers, who would not even give me anonymous quotes in case their employers could be identified. Next there is what Cole describes as the “pervasiveness of the market-based mentality of the self” – where even your private life and intimate moments are packaged as part of Brand You, and there is a pressure to maximise every minute. And last, “all of that is made possible by mobile phones, mobile technology and email”, says Cole. “It’s a trio of doom.”

In other words, a fundamental part of fighting for the weekend will be forcing ourselves to disconnect. Yet that puts the responsibility back with the individual. Martha Hampson is a 34-year-old researcher, working mainly on children in care, who herself works every weekend because it is the only time she does not have to pay for childcare for two pre-school children. (A huge element of changing work practices is down to punitively expensive childcare, but that’s another story.)

She points out that self-employed freelancers gain a competitive advantage through flexibility, which is often a pleasant word for working weekends. She says that when she was in full-time employment and commissioning freelancers herself, “I never really thought about the power dynamic that existed in that relationship. My assumption was that if it wasn’t possible to turn it around so fast, they’d say. But I didn’t understand how insecure their position was.”

Doctor and nurses in hospital



Anecdotally, the public sector seems to be the work area where people are happiest to work at weekends. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Anecdotally, the workplaces in which people are happiest to spend their weekends are in the public sector. Rebecca Mitchener, a radiographer, has been working weekends for 20 years, to coincide with her husband’s shifts also in the NHS. She describes quite an idyllic family life, in which the two of them get a lot of time together on a random Tuesday when the kids are at school and B&Q is empty. Working weekends and nights has “enabled me to keep my working hours down”, she says. “There’s quite a lot of extra money, especially if you do a Sunday; you get time and two-thirds.”

Without a financial incentive, most people who work at weekends are less happy, according to a study last year from Sheffield University. And even if people freely chose to work weekends, it found, no positive effects on wellbeing were observed among weekend workers.

A spokesperson from the GMB points out that: “If you drill down to the core of why the weekend was important, it was a battle to secure work-life balance.” Cultural and historical aspects then accrued around the weekend – behaviours and norms were created by the very concept of leisure as a right.

Here it is worth mentioning the drudgery of weekends; family time may be golden, but it isn’t always very leisurely. And Ebrey cautions against idealising it. “These structures we build around conviviality – the excitement of Friday nights, the ways in which people marked that through ritual – don’t always apply to women. I am 67. My mum didn’t like Sundays very much, because she didn’t particularly want to cook for everybody.”

We operate as individuals in a 24/7 economy and rarely think at the level of the community. But if we are not all having the same days off, what does that mean for participation, collaboration and solidarity? All over the country, local government research shows that a sense of community is very highly valued, and yet that belonging is in decline. It is hard not to see a connection between that and the decline of shared pockets of leisure time. Britons’ sense of belonging is falling.

The classic manoeuvres of union organising are not going to work in one warehouse in Barnsley, where employees are finding out about their shift by text the day before. Yet other avenues are opening up – Uber and Deliveroo drivers rarely meet one another, but still managed to organise by the same tech innovations that enable their exploitation in the first place.

It will take more than the union movement to fight this, and civil society cannot organise without a demand. We need to rediscover what we treasured in those regular 48 hours of untenanted time. We need to reanimate that strong separation between work and not work, which doesn’t end with turning your bloody phone off, but may well start there. We need to remove a significant proportion of our lives from the market before our own 21st-century equivalents of the committees for the establishment of the five-day week will spring up.

It is possible that the smart move is a bigger demand. Last year, the New Economics Foundation unveiled its proposal for the four-day week, an idea swiftly taken up by the Labour leadership, then added to the evidence pile, along with free broadband, that showed they were crazy. But maybe we have to shoot for the moon and ask for the crazy to remind ourselves what it is we need to stay sane.




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