Workin’ for the weekend: The history of the work week

Ever wonder why we work five days and only take two off? (We sure do.) We did a deep dive into the history of the work week and where it's headed.

Workin’ for the weekend: The history of the work week

Ever wonder why we work five days and only take two off? (We sure do.) We did a deep dive into the history of the work week and where it's headed.

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We’re going long…

If you’re anything like us, you’re probably waking up this morning thinking #TGILDW (thank goodness it’s Labour Day weekend) — our last sweet send-off to summer.

Whether you’re starting your morning reading the Long Shot in bed or drinking a mimosa dockside, you can rest easy knowing the weekend’s not over yet. 

But not everyone’s so lucky.

Did you know that the work week, weekend, and when each one falls differ worldwide? We’re bringing you all you need to know about the global history of the work week (and the beloved — and much too short — weekend).


From the worldwide web to social media, and everything in between, the global landscape and the way people work within it has changed drastically over the last few decades, never mind the last 200 years

The eight- and 10-day work weeks may be a thing of the past,  but what we might think of as the “standard” five-day week is actually longer than those in other areas of the world (though not many).

It’s still pretty common to see a pattern of five days on, two days off (or six on, one off in some places), with the days off varying depending on the prominent religious traditions in that area of the world. 

You can thank the working class of Industrial-era northern Britain, who just wanted to grab a pint and have a good time on a Saturday night, for igniting the concept of a weekend longer than a single day, and the United States for instituting the first two-day weekend back in 1908.

In order for the global markets to work together relatively easily, most of the rest of the world quickly followed suit, but it wasn’t until between the 1940s and 1960s that the five-day, 40-hour workweek became an actual thing

In case Saturday and Sunday aren’t working for you as your days off, here’s a list of places where the weekend falls on different days of the week. 

While things might not be perfect per se (it’s been argued that shorter workweeks would have economic, climate, and lifestyle benefits we’re not seeing today), we’re relatively better off than our ancestors (bubonic plague notwithstanding 😬). 

• Nun of Your Business

The Ancient Roman calendar can be a wee bit confusing. There were only 10 months (not including January, February, July or August) of 30 or 31 days each with a non-specified 51-day “winter” period between December and March. Each week lasted eight days, with the eighth day being the “nundinae,” or “market days,” which were days of rest.

Because the Roman calendar was all over the place, the nundinae fell on completely different days every year. The days were meant for religious observance, rest, and for market days (when the Roman monarchy would settle trade disputes and host fairs). Kids were let out of school, the public made merry, and slave owners were warned not to let their slaves get up to too much mischief. (Seriously.)

Much like our own Saturday nights, it sounds like what happened during nundinae stayed in nundinae (if you catch our drift).

• No Way, en Francais

Work nine days in a row? How do we say…non, merci.

When the French Revolution temporarily gave way to the French Republic from 1793 to 1805, the French spent the next 12 years royally diplomatically screwing things up, including the calendar and, by default, the workweek. They adopted a system of decimalisation wherein all aspects of time were divisible by 10 (10-hour days of one hundred minutes each, and 10-day weeks).
Needless to say, the system wasn’t too popular with labourers. The next time you think your Monday is going to hell in a handbasket, just think of the French.

• Avengers (Not Too) Far from Home

Slightly after the French Republic’s crazy experiment failed, business owners in NYCtried to change the 10-hour workday back to 11 hours, and the workers were having none of it. (Duh.) The Committee of Fifty banded together on April 23, 1829, in resistance and these efforts led to the formation of the Workingmen’s Party of New York.
Though short-lived, the fact that it was possible to organize a political party based on workers’ rights (mainly in terms of not being overworked) shook the scene and made the working man’s concerns political talking points from that point forward.

• Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

While the Industrial Revolution might have sucked generally-speaking, it got one thing right: an entire month off during the summer.

No, that isn’t a typo. Is it any wonder Florence Welch sings so passionately about the dog days of summer?

While it might seem to the naked eye that Europeans are slacking off, the tradition of taking July or August off is actually incredibly practical — a business can’t operate effectively with some of its staff on vacation, so they’re all given their vacation time at the same time. (We wish more businesses thought like that, tbh.) It’s also an opportunity to make repairs or upgrades to the business itself.

Ironically, while this tradition seems to hold firm ground, the Spanish siesta (where many businesses temporarily close midday so employees could enjoy lunch or take a nap to avoid the afternoon heat) is disappearing due to modern economical demands. Don’t worry, though — it’s still considered one of the top 10 European countries to work in.

If you’re dreaming of your own Euro trip, you should also consider these countries:

Why: 52 weeks paid parental leave for both moms and dads, plus being rated as the happiest place on Earth? Yes, please.

Why: With more than half the working-aged population employed in only part-time work, the Netherlands is leading the way in affordable living. Employers also dole out 8% vacation-pay right before the start of summer — on top of the employee’s salary. 

Why: Six-hour workdays. ‘Nuff said.

Why: German law requires that all employees receive 20 paid days off annually. (Are you reading this, Karen?)

• Making History

Here in Canada, the average full-time employee currently works around 1,708 hours annually. 

In China, it’s more than double that.

China commonly practises the 996 working hour system, which is where employees are required to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This requirement, practised particularly amongst a number of Chinese internet companies, is a direct violation of Chinese labour laws wherein Chapter 4, Article 36 states that employees cannot be made to work more than eight hours per day. 

In March 2019, GitHub led a mass online push against the 996 policy; employees wanted to resist their employers’ ridiculous demands without attracting the attention of the Chinese government. In April, the repository on GitHub was blocked by several Chinese browsers as “illegal and fraudulent.” Later that same month, Microsoft joined in on the support for GitHub and Chinese workers it believes are under attack by Chinese censorship; they teamed up and launched “support.996.ICU” to assist the campaign.


But it’s not all bad news for employees. And since we’re about good news, too, here’s a little something we can all look forward to: It looks like four-day workweeks will soon be the new normal.

Companies all over the world have been trying it with largely positive results. Even American burger joint Shake Shack is joining in on the fun as a method of attracting and retaining employees, which is kind of a big deal since the restaurant industry employs 10% of America’s working class.

And we’re happy to say that the trend has moved north of the border as well. 

Last year, the British Columbia-based Beelineweb made the switch to the four-day, 32-hour workweek, citing environmental impact, productivity, and employee wellness as the main reasons for doing so.

Amazon has also begun offering a 30-hour workweek option, and a 2018 surveyshowed that 68% of Canadians would rather work four 10-hour days per week than five eight-hour ones.

So the next time you’re taking your weekly crying break at the office, remember that change is on the horizon.

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