How the Five Day Weekend Works


A farmer engaged in the "worst mistake in human history"?
A farmer engaged in the "worst mistake in human history"?
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In his 1987 essay, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," anthropologist Jared Diamond discusses the amount of leisure time that was available to people more than 10,000 years ago when they lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers. After studying modern hunter-gatherer societies, Diamond found that they work between 12 and 19 hours per week. The rest of their time is dedicated to leisure.

With the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, however, humans' lives became more labor-intensive. People settled in one place to maintain their crops. This eventually allowed epidemic diseases to take hold, ruling classes to evolve, and systems of money (and debt) to develop. In short, Diamond postulates, becoming an agriculture-based species was "the worst mistake in human history" [source: Diamond].

About 20 percent of Americans made their living from agriculture in 2007 [source: American Farm Bureau]. In 2006, American workers in all professions logged an average of eight hours per work day, and 35 percent of Americans reported working on holidays or weekends [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]. All of this work created a gross domestic product (the sum total of the value of all the goods and services produced in a year) of more than $13 trillion in 2006 [source: Bureau of Economic Analysis]. That number reflects a lot of long hours, and Americans don't play as hard as they work. In 2006, Americans took only an average of 10 of the 14 vacation days given to them by employers. A Harris Interactive poll conducted for Expedia.com found that a total of 574 million vacation days went unused by American workers in 2006 [source: Expedia].

One group is fighting to change these statistics (well, sort of). Friends of the Five Day Weekend (5DW), a movement born out of the Asheville, N.C. Convention and Visitors Bureau, has created a petition asking the United States Congress to create a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a five-day weekend to American workers. Sound like a joke? It is -- somewhat.

The five-day weekend movement grew out of an April 2007 tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign to bring more tourism to Asheville. But the idea caught on, and by the following August, rallies were being held in cities around the Southeastern United States to support the proposed amendment. Sixty-five hundred people signed the petition, which was passed along to Congress for consideration. The organization also sent the petition to all of the presidential challengers in the 2008 election.

While it has its supporters, there are also plenty of critics of the five-day weekend. "This idea is ridiculous," wrote entrepreneur Donald Trump on his blog [source: Trump Blog]. Ridiculous or not, the concept is a far-out solution to a serious issue facing Americans: overwork. A February 2007 Conference Board survey found that fewer than 50 percent of Americans were happy with their jobs. This is in contrast to the 61 percent job satisfaction reported in 1987. A 2004 study by the Families and Work Institute found that one-third of American workers feel overworked.

The Asheville CVB says it has the solution to alleviate overwork and job dissatisfaction, but how would a five-day weekend work? Read the next page to find out the details of this grand plan.

How the Friends of the Five Day Weekend See It

Labor unions, like this student union in France shown striking in 2006, were instrumental in securing a shorter work week in industrialized nations in the early 20th century.
Labor unions, like this student union in France shown striking in 2006, were instrumental in securing a shorter work week in industrialized nations in the early 20th century.
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

So how would the Five Day Weekend work? Congress could pass an amendment creating a two-day work week, as it did when it with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). This bill established the work week Americans currently use -- five eight-hour work days per week, with Saturday and Sunday set aside for free time. This act abolished child labor, established a minimum wage and set the maximum work week at 44 hours. After nearly a century of debate and conflict between business and labor, the act served to end the incredibly long workdays and weeks of the Industrial Revolution. 

But after 70 years under the FLSA, the American worker is actually working more again. With three extra days of leisure time, Americans could conceivably engage in all sorts of higher pursuits. The 5DW also suggests more time off would result in higher productivity and job satisfaction. For the organization's vision to work, however, employees would have to complete five days of work in just two days, and employers would have to pay based on productivity, rather than hours.

Can people cram five days of work into two? Perhaps. British economist C. Northcote Parkinson says that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" [source: ­­Parkinson]. Parkinson's Law is an "unnatural law" like Murphy's Law and the Peter Principle -- these are observations, not actual laws of nature. Parkinson's Law is hardly scientific, yet anyone given a week to complete a one-day job is most likely familiar with its validity.

The 5DW also claims that the technology available to Americans is more than sufficiently advanced to allow them to work less. But while technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the World War II, Americans are working more. "Workers in the U.S. have been punching in more days each year since World War II," writes the organization, "but our free time hasn't expanded since the weekend was created in the 1930s" [source: FiveDayWeekend.org].

One solution may be to give American workers more vacation time. Harvard University economist Richard Freeman points out that in many European countries four weeks of vacation per year is often the norm, and workers all take time off together. “[Europeans] seem to be happy with it, and I can’t imagine they’re that much different than us,” he says. But many American workers leave their vacation days unused, as Harris Interactive poll determined.

Having extra leisure time away from work could have sweeping benefits for society. People don't use many of their non-working hours for relaxation -- they have to catch up on their personal chores first. Little time is actually spent engaged in "leisure" as economists Valerie A. Ramey and Neville Francis define it: "those activities that give direct enjoyment" [source: Ramey, Francis]. In a video on the Friends of the Five Day Weekend site, Roy McCrery, campaign director for the 5DW, says "People have forgotten that work isn't their lives. They've forgotten what their lives are" [source: FiveDayWeekend.org].

This kind of mentality actually takes a toll. A 2000 joint study between the University of Pittsburgh and the State University of New York - Oswego found that -- among middle aged men at risk for coronary heart disease -- less vacation time equals an increased chance of death [source: Gump, Matthews].

Interestingly, as new as the five-day weekend concept may seem, the Asheville CVB isn't the first to suggest that Americans should have reached the leisure life by now. So why haven't they? Read on to find out about the ever-elusive life of leisure.

Keynes and the Leisure Society

British economist John Maynard Keynes.
British economist John Maynard Keynes.
George Skadding/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Economist John Maynard Keynes is credited, along with Adam Smith and a few select others, with founding modern economics. Keynes provided the foundation for macroeconomics, the study of economies on the whole, including interest rates, employment, budgets and many other factors. Keynes revolutionized economics and its forecasts, and when he made the predictions in his 1930 essay, "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren," people listened.

In "Economic Possibilities," Keynes posits that by 2030, developed societies will be wealthy enough that leisure time, rather than work, will characterize national lifestyles. He uses a realistic estimate for growth -- 2 percent per year -- and pointed out that with that growth the "capital equipment" in the world would increase seven and a half times. With a world as wealthy as this, he said, "We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day [sic], only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines" [source: Keynes].

While Keynes was correct in his estimate of increasing world wealth, he missed the mark with his prediction of leisure time. With fewer than 23 years before Keynes' 100-year forecast is up, today economists wonder why we don't have the life of leisure Keynes envisioned.

In a HowStuffWorks interview, Cornell University economist Robert Frank explained his belief that Keynes' failing was his underestimation of the value of relative needs. Frank has contributed to "Revisiting Keynes," a book of economic essays exploring where Keynes went wrong in his prediction. In contrast to basic needs (like food and health care), relative needs are goods and services that people don't need, but want, and often because of rivalry with others. That could be why you feel that you need a bigger SUV than your neighbor or a better television than your brother.

Relative needs don't have to be frivolous, though. Frank says the pursuit of a nicer house in a better school district and a better suit for a job interview are also relative needs. While neither are necessary for survival, both may help people advance in society.

Another factor is the growing gap in American economic classes. This, coupled with equal exposure to the media (meaning both rich and poor alike are aware of the value of a good school district), and the ability to increase the chance of purchasing a nicer house by working longer hours, has resulted in more time at work, encouraging 21st-century Americans to put more time in on the job.

Harvard University economist Richard Freeman -- also a contributor to "Revisiting Keynes" -- believes Keynes overestimated the human desire for leisure. He says economists generally believe that labor and management reached an optimal arrangement with the establishment of a five-day work week and an eight-hour work day. This would certainly account for the boredom that sometimes comes with a lengthy break from work.

He also points out that the modern American workplace is designed to foster more time spent at work. Hard work can lead to promotions, which means more money. This, in turn, inspires them to compete with one another, even after they've left the office.

Could a five-day weekend even work? Or would it spell economic catastrophe for the United States? Read about the good (and horrible) economic impacts a five-day weekend would have on the next page.

Economic Theory and the Five Day Weekend

Due to the cost of imported materials, things like cars and houses would get smaller as prices declined to remain in step with falling earnings.
Due to the cost of imported materials, things like cars and houses would get smaller as prices declined to remain in step with falling earnings.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

If the U.S. government actually made the five-day weekend into law, what kind of effects would it have on the economy and society of the United States?

"In a system where everyone works two days a week, you'd have problems," says Harvard's Richard Freeman.

First and foremost, he says, he doesn't think employers would be willing to pay their employees the same wages for two days of work. People simply couldn't cram five days of work into two days, even if all of the fat present in the average work week were trimmed. Unless, of course, workers clocked two lengthy days per week. Even then, many sectors, such as those in the hospitality and entertainment industry -- the ones nine-to-five workers patronize on their time off -- wouldn't find the five-day weekend feasible.

So a five-day weekend would represent the American wage falling to two-fifths of what it is under the current structure. Freeman says this isn't necessarily all bad. Americans would have to scale back on their consumer spending, simply because consumers wouldn't have as much to spend, but the markets would eventually adjust back into step with what Americans earn. Housing prices would fall most significantly in proportion to the decrease in wages. But the size of new homes constructed would also decease. So, too, would the size of autos.

Prices for goods created outside the country (in other nations that chose to remain competitive globally) would skyrocket in comparison to Americans' lower earnings.  Rather than a five-day weekend, Freeman suggests that workers be given (and use) more vacation time each year.

Cornell's Robert Frank also agrees that a five-day weekend is feasible, but not necessarily desirable. "I'm not sure how many people would be interested," he said. He also points out that if Americans were to give up most of the money they currently make, the cost of many goods and services, such as health care procedures that require expensive technology, would be out of reach. As a result, statistics like the maternal mortality rate -- the percentage of women who die as a result of childbirth -- would rise again for the first time since the early part of the 20th century. Americans would retain their knowledge of medical science, says Frank, but they wouldn't have the technology to carry out some of the procedures. "Which would make it that much worse," he says.

Despite the potential negative impacts of instituting a five-day weekend, it could be done, Frank believes, because relative needs would decline proportionately with the work week. In other words, people would still compete with one another for economic and social status, but their efforts would be more on the scale of a two-day work week.

Considering that the idea began as a marketing ploy to gain the attention of out-of-staters, the five-day weekend concept has already served its purpose for Asheville. While its roots are found in tourism, the points it raises are worth examining. The studies concerning overworked labor and higher incidents of heart attacks among men who don't take vacations remain valid.

Ironically, instituting a national Five Day Weekend could prove to be the undoing of the Asheville Conventions and Visitors Bureau. The point to choosing a life of leisure, says Richard Freeman, is spending more time on higher pursuits like volunteerism and contemplation and less consuming goods and services. And that includes five-day weekend trips to Asheville.

For lots more information on economics, visit the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Diamond, Jared. "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race." Discover. May 1987. http://www.environnement.ens.fr/perso/claessen/agriculture/mistake_jared_diamond.pdf
  • Frank, Robert. Personal interview. December 3, 2007.
  • Freeman, Richard. Personal interview. December 3, 2007.
  • Grossman, Jonathon. "Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage." U.S. Department of Labor. http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/flsa1938.htm
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  • Parkinson, C­. Northcote. "Parkinson's Law." Montclair State University. http://alpha1.montclair.edu/~lebelp/ParkinsonsLaw.pdf
  • Ramey, Valerie A. and Francis, Neville. "A Century of Work and Leisure." University of California, San Diego and University of North Carolina. May 2006. http://www.econ.ucsd.edu/~vramey/research/Historical_Hours.pdf
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  • "Expedia.com Survey Reveals Vacation Deprivation Among American Workers is at an All-Time High." Expedia.com. May 23, 2007. http://press.expedia.com/index.php?s=press_releases&item=311
  • "Five Day Weekend movement launches in Asheville, N.C." April 17, 2007. http://www.fivedayweekend.org/press.cfm
  • "Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much." Familes and Work Institute. 2004. http://familiesandwork.org/summary/overwork2005.pdf
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