The weekend was invented. The concept of a Saturday and a Sunday off is not encoded into the vast network of stars that make up our solar system – it was made up by the guy who founded Boots. In 1933, John Boot decided to shut his Nottingham factory for two days at the end of every week to avoid redundancies, thus establishing the greatest two-for-one offer of our age. Time off was no longer just for Jesus: It was for drinking and socialising and eating cold pizza inside the yellow glow of the fridge.
If you told a Victorian factory worker to dream of a whole two days off every week, they probably would’ve laughed at you through a mouthful of turnips. They would’ve been like, “‘Ere! Sally!”, gesturing to a grubby nine-year-old who is the only one small enough to reach into the whirring metal and untangle the threads (at least, the only one small enough after her sister got caught in the same machine), and say, “This church bell –” a historically accurate insult, I looked it up “– thinks we should get two days off!! What next, free broadband for everyone??”
I am telling you this because I have a proposal – a proposal that might make you choke on your turnips. It’s simple, really. I propose that every adult in the UK should get the summer of 2021 off.
Let’s establish the parameters of “off”. Off means off: six weeks without work, without emails, without “Have you got a minute?” meetings, without slowly disassociating as you stare at your nostrils on Zoom and then stare at your colleague’s nostrils on Zoom to figure out if nostrils have always looked that way (they have!). You only think my proposal is laughable – you only think I’m a church bell – because it hasn’t been invented yet.
“In France and Italy, it is very common that people take the whole of August and relocate to the seaside,” says Melanie Simms, a professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow. Though Simms notes that many of these relocators will still do some work remotely, “things certainly slow down and cities are less busy”.
Would it be possible to establish the same thing here, in a country that would rather get its limbs eaten by a whirring, greasy machine than ever “give” anything to a single person who didn’t “deserve” it? Simms says it’s very much a cultural thing.
“It would be perfectly possible to coordinate if everyone wanted it,” she says of my six-weeks-off idea. “But they don’t”.
(An aside, for the question “But what about hospitality workers?” that is pressing against the corners of your skull: They could make a ton on tips while we’re all off and then take their six weeks after the summer. “I grew up in a UK seaside town,” Simms says, “All my friends and their parents made their money in the 12 weeks of the season and then had downtime in winter. Some didn’t work at all in winter. Life goes on.”)
(A second aside: Hospital workers and bin men would obviously coordinate their six weeks so they weren’t all off at once. This also means more jobs for everyone. Keep up!)
Post-pandemic – or the middle part of the pandemic that I’m calling post-pandemic because I adore to be deluded – there is a greater argument for time off. Firstly, if you’re into the concept of “deserving” things (outdated, puritanical, unimaginative), then we deserve it. We’ve been through a lot, what with all the panic buying and social distancing and nostril-staring. Secondly, I’m sure if you asked an economist, they’d say something like, “If everyone has a big old holiday then people will spend more money, which is good.”
John De Graaf is a man with a great name and the founder of Take Back Your Time, an organisation that runs a “Vacation Awareness Campaign” to encourage employers and employees to understand the need for leisure.
“I do think it’s doable,” De Graaf says of the idea that we could secure more annual leave, though he is not certain it should be six weeks in the summer, to avoid beaches being overrun (good point, John!). “We will need to work together. We need to argue that we can create jobs by shortening working hours…
“There seems to be plenty of good evidence that vacation improves physical and mental health,” he goes on. “Vacation travel seems to improve children’s educational outcomes. Vacation does provide a boost to productivity, albeit a short-lived one. We need more of it!” De Graaf argues that Americans, especially, need legislation that guarantees paid time off.
(More asides: There is no greater mockery of the notion that America is the “land of the free” than the Wikipedia page entitled, “List of minimum annual leave by country”. A table lists each country’s paid vacation days, paid public holidays, and total paid leave. From A to U, the numbers look like: “30, 11, 41”, “18, 27, 45”, “20, 17, 37”. And then you get to the US and it’s “zero, zero, zero”.)
Emboldened by the idea of collective action, I ask the Trades Union Congress (TUC) if they’re currently campaigning for us all to have more paid time off. TUC policy officer Afzal Rahman says: “Everyone needs a break from time to time, but workers in Britain put in millions of hours of unpaid overtime every year and get fewer public holidays than their counterparts across Europe.”
Rahman argues that “as the economy recovers and businesses reap the rewards of new technology”, working people should also benefit. The TUC want to put an end to the “bank holiday drought” between August and Christmas and are pressing the government to introduce four more bank holidays every year.
I love it – they’re right. And if you think they’re wrong then you have less imagination than a man who made his family fortune by selling hay fever tablets and novelty mugs with a bit of hot chocolate powder and some marshmallows in. Academic Simms backs the idea of a full six weeks off, the kind we were granted and did not appreciate enough as kids.
“Personally, I like it,” she says. “For me, in a context of rabid capitalism, rest is a radical act.”