My favorite line from the PBS Anglo-fest “Downton Abbey” comes after a character mentions that he plans to visit on the weekend.
The dowager countess, played by Maggie Smith, looks at him as if he were speaking gibberish.
“What,” she asks in an utterly perplexed tone, “is a ‘week-end?’ ”
Having never worked a day in her life, she has no reason to suspect the existence of such a thing as a “week-end.”
It made me laugh and feel superior to these class-bound Brits until I realized something alarming: Millions of Americans today, for entirely opposite reasons, can only faintly detect the existence of the weekend. More than ever, there is no boundary between work and home, between office and personal time, between Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
When I say “no boundary between work and home,” what I really mean is “no boundary between checking your email at work and checking it on your Droid while the minister is delivering a sermon.” Because that, it seems to me, is the biggest reason for our Vanishing Weekends. We are no longer allowed to cut the cord from the office upon walking out the door on Friday evening – an act we once quaintly referred to as, “Knocking off work for the week” or, less quaintly, “Getting the hell outta this dump.”
Remember TGIF? It has been replaced with SWIIF, or So What If It’s Friday? Friday night is just a time when juggling life and work becomes even more complicated, since it requires you to answer a message from your boss using one hand, while holding a pint of Northern Lights Solar Winds Ale with the other. (It also requires you to concentrate even harder than normal, since it’s much easier, while holding a pint of ale, to accidentally punch in the word “bozo” instead of “boss.”)
No, with the invention of email, the cellphone and finally the ultimate shackle, the smartphone, millions of people are now expected to keep up with every work-related development all weekend long. To see if this applies to you, ask yourself this: If your boss sends you a message on Saturday morning – an uncivilized act bosses are more likely than ever to commit – will you feel compelled to answer it before you arrive at work Monday morning? If the answer is yes, then your weekend no longer belongs to you.
Meanwhile, for millions of other Americans, “the weekend” has always been strictly a theoretical concept. Do you work at a restaurant? Say goodbye to having a weekend off. Do you work in retail? Saturday’s just another day, except even more hectic. Are you a manager? A firefighter? A cop? The Spokane city worker who was standing in six inches of water trying to fix the busted water main in my street a few months ago? These jobs do not, and never have, respected the boundaries of the weekend.
In fact, about 35 percent of all workers in America work on an average Saturday, Sunday or holiday, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number goes over 50 percent for those who hold two jobs.
Here’s what these numbers say to me: Today, the people most likely to be unfamiliar with the concept of a weekend are not dowager countesses who have never worked a day. They are people who can’t afford a day off.
Meanwhile, there is another class of people who find themselves confused by the weekend. I bring this up with some trepidation because: A. Nobody will give them much sympathy and, B. I have recently become one of them.
These are the people who have retired from a regular job after many decades of work. They suddenly find themselves unshackled from the Monday-through-Friday routine. It is liberating, no question about it. Yet it’s also confusing. What good is a weekend when it’s just like every other day? What is the meaning of the once glorious concept of “Saturday,” when you can go fishing on a Monday?
And finally, there is one other growing class to whom weekends have ceased to exist, another class I have recently joined: The professional freelancer. These are writers, web designers, advertising professionals and business consultants of all stripes. They work on contract or by piecework and they are ruled by deadlines that do not respect weekends.
Just to take one completely random example, I happen to be writing these words on a Sunday at 1:30 p.m. You might wonder why I didn’t get this work done on a weekday.
I don’t know. What is a “week-day?”
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