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The Weekend – A Forgotten Ideal?

May 29, 2014

In the midst of all the clamour about the budget – which we won’t touch today – , a little story about the weekend drifted from the public view almost unheard. And this curious tale raises some very interesting questions indeed.

The Fair Work Commission two weeks ago decided to reduce penalty rates for casuals from 75% to 50%, in line with penalty rates for Saturday. The question is, why the change?

The theoretical argument of the restaurant lobby that more jobs will be added by the changes was largely rejected by the Commission. Instead, the Commission accepted only a limited link between productivity and employment. The basis of the commission’s decision is the idea that inexperienced casuals are most likely to be young, transient employees who only want to work on weekends anyway, such as students, and so the traditional rational for penalties – as compensation for working unsocial hours – does not apply. They need not be so handsomely compensated for working when it is in fact convenient for them.

And perhaps the casuals are happy to sacrifice their weekends. But, what if their preferences change? In effect, the decision somewhat eliminates the notion of ‘unsocial’ hours of working. Every hour is a working hour. Furthermore, obviously, the decision opens the gates to further cuts to penalty rates.

Frankly, I see this as an omen to be wary of. It attacks the fundamental ideas of the weekend, of socialisation. Now, working hard is absolutely necessary and should most certainly be the option of every individual. But one has to question what a good society consists of. Let me give you one voice in the debate:

“This is great news for operators and for staff as there will now be more hours of work available,” said John Hart, chief executive of the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association. “And it is great news for consumers, who will have more restaurants to choose from on Sundays. It’s a win for everyone.”

 

I’m sorry, but I cannot agree with Mr. Hart. It’s not a ‘win’ for everyone. I agree with Mr. Hart that consumers have greater options. Thats fine. But where goes traditional family get-togethers, for instance? Now, perhaps these rarely happen today – a relic of the past – but they’ll only ever happen if you create a framework that allows it. Secondly, Mr. Hart’s whole argument is based on the principle that increased consumption is ‘great news’. Research clearly shows that experiences give greater, longer lasting happiness than things. Furthermore, wouldn’t it be better to utilise rising real incomes (true, except for the past year) to, for instance, reduce financial stress? Isn’t this better than continually running faster on a hedonistic treadmill?

 

Now, of course, there are pesky details. A reduction in consumer spending will have economic impacts. And of course, you can’t avoid consumption, nor is there a problem with improving living standards. Being content is great, but there are benefits to money. Its just money and happiness only has a very gradual upwards gradient.

 

Another point is that its not like the weekend is in some overprotected state by 20th century standards. Research by the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre shows that over 3 times as many people are working on Saturdays compared with just 20 years ago. A 300% increase in 20 years. Research also showed that this work came at the expense of an hour of leisure with friends, an hour with extended family, and 2 hours with children. So its not like we’re in some non-working aberration.

 

Now, I did say before that individuals should be free to work. Perhaps the pleasures of working and the rewards money brings – financial stability, higher living, consumption – is worth all those losses to them. BUT, their work also impacts others. Organising a family get-together is tough when half the family is missing… and one’s absence means that the get-together, if it occurs, is less lively. The same with friends, or neighbours. The idea is that the ability to co-ordinate different schedules for a grand event depends firmly on everybody having similar periods of free time… which is destroyed by letting the weekend fade into obscurity. Its part of the reason that I occasionally question the notion of popularising ‘off-peak’ transport, though I understand its benefits. It too contributes to social fragmentation.

One other interesting point was that the penalty rates are now the same for both Saturday and Sunday. Its essentially a proclamation by the government that Sunday as a day of rest, a sacred day, a day for Church, a day with the family on some trip – all old, yet common refrains – is… no more. And that seems a tragic loss.

Now, I don’t profess that my family has utilised Sunday or the weekend in an old world manner. It hasn’t. Perhaps I am a hypocrite who is waxing lyrically about times gone by, while ignoring the benefits of the present system. Indeed, the following quote near 70 years old may suggest I am waxing lyrically:

I recall a certain rich man who boasted that in the eighty-eight years of his career he had not once taken a vacation or wanted one. Naturally his way was the right way, and he proceeded to show it. “What right,” asked he, “has a clerk to demand or expect pay for two weeks’ time for which he renders no equivalent? Is it not absurd to suppose that a man who can work eleven and a half months cannot as well work the whole year? The doctors may recommend a change of air when he’s sick; but why be sick? Sickness is an irreparable loss of time.” I am not misquoting this very rich man: his signed pronouncement lies before me — the sorriest thing that ever I saw in print.

But my view is that such a quote today would still be a sorry thing to see in print.

 

I want to conclude, however, by saying that we ought to leave open the option of discarding the weekend. People should have the choice to sacrifice their weekends. But we ought to be promoting a framework which clearly states the notion of sacrifice. For that is what it is. It is not a case of asking the public whether they think longer opening hours would be more convenient for them. It would be. But, as anybody knows, how you frame the question makes a big difference. A better question to ask is – do we think sacrificing time with family, friends, and time to pursue worthy causes and utilise public goods and amenities… is worth a little bit of extra convenience and money? Now, some people will think it is. But a lot won’t.

Let me ask a few more questions – what does the ideal society look like? What should progress bring us? I always remember the example that despite vastly better, more efficient cleaning devices, we spend identical amounts of time house cleaning as we did 30 years ago. Of course, our houses are cleaner. But that is not the progress we envisaged. The idea at the time was to cut down on the time of cleaning, to spend on other, more worthwhile causes. And think, think hard about what is worthwhile, and what we should be promoting as a good society – insofar as we can. Let me end with a quote from Faith for Living, 1940, by Lewis Mumford:

Man’s chief purpose…is the creation and preservation of values that is what gives meaning to our civilization, and the participation in this is what gives significance, ultimately, to the individual human life…

So, should we preserve the weekend as a solace, to spend with family and friends? Yes, we should.

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