THE past few months, as the United States works through a recession, with its attendant concerns about employment, standards of living, and the overall question of what kind of progress people are making in their lives, have seen the publication of a couple of books that, taken together, throw some interesting light on these issues.
In her widely hailed work, "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure," Harvard economist Juliet Schor has documented what many of us have known in our bones: Much of America is working ever longer hours without a great deal to show for it. Productivity has doubled since 1948, but these gains have been taken in increased earnings rather than reduced workloads - and not necessarily by the workers' own conscious choice, Professor Schor argues. Because most white-collar employees do not pun ch a time clock or otherwise track their activity by the hour, what Schor calls their employers' "preference" for their employees to put in longer hours can be indulged at no additional cost to the employers.
This implicit preference for longer hours at a time of tight job competition (especially as the baby-boom generation works its way up the organizational ladder) leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of keeping up with the Joneses, of prices rising to what the market will bear, and of people running faster and faster just to stay in the same place.
Not every society that has made such gains in productivity has chosen to realize them in the forms of increased wages, however. As Witold Rybczynski relates in his book, "Waiting for the Weekend," when the Industrial Revolution led to a veritable explosion of productivity gains in 18th-century England, the masses benefited by increased leisure as well as more money. A whole popular cultural establishment arose, ranging from music hall entertainment to popular fiction: The new middle class was a natural m arket for, among other things, all those immense serialized novels of the period.
This nouveau leisure class also tended to less uplifting pastimes as well, including bear-baiting, cockfighting, and, of course, drinking. Workers often took unofficial Mondays off to drink cheap (because lightly taxed) gin or to recover from such indulgence. Employers having to deal with not only human factors but also the practicalities of startup and shutdown of steam-powered factories found it to their advantange to offer their workers what we might call a half weekend - Saturday afternoon and Sunday
off - on a regular schedule instead of running the risks of high Monday absences. Religious reformers supported the development, thinking that more people would get to church on Sunday if they had Saturday afternoon and evening, at least, for secular amusements.
The pattern of five days on, two days off, established itself somewhat later, and spread to other parts of the industrialized world.
The Rybczynski book, like Schor's, is satisfying for its confirmation of something we already know: There is a particular value in that distinctly human unit of time measurement, the week. The day and the year are rooted in natural phenomena unmistakable by even primitive peoples. Not so the week. And yet Rybczynski notes, "A useful friend, ... the seven-day cycle provided a convenient structure for the repetitive rhythm of daily activities; not only a day for worship but also a day for baking bread, for
washing, for cleaning house, for going to market - and for resting."
The week is the frame that binds the diverse elements of our human lives together: the spiritual, the cultural, and the social along with more mundane.
"Is it fanciful," Rybczynski asks, "to propose that the repetitive cycle of week and weekend is a modern paraphrase of the ancient opposition of profane and sacred time?"
Another way of putting it would be to say that if the week is the time to do, the weekend is the time simply to be. You can pick up the pace at the office if you need to, but you can't really have fun faster; you can't even tell a joke faster and have it come out right.
And sacred time, or "being" time, should be less cluttered than our weekdays. Careful pruning leaves a tree with fewer but sweeter fruits, because each gets more sunshine in which to ripen. So, too, our days of rest, at least, should benefit from the careful tending that eliminates what is needless, or less important, or not right in the present moment - which should lead to fewer things done but those few done better.