Everybody’s Workin’ for the Weekend

Like the line in the Lover Boy song, Witold Rybczynski asks in the book Waiting for the Weekend, “Do we live to work or work to live?”

This book traces the history of leisure and the advent of the all-important weekend that is commonplace in modern society.

The weekend is a temporal break from the mechanization and monotony of the typical 5 day, 8 hour work week. And it is also a spatial break from the office or wherever we spend our work time.

Work Week Space

On the weekends, we escape out of the city, go on retreats, to the cabin, to the beach, or simply sleep in and stay at home.

Weekend Space

On Mondays, we mourn the passing of the weekend. On Wednesdays, we congratulate ourselves for making it to the “hump” of the week. On Fridays, we look forward to the weekend. It is clear that the weekend structures much of our sense of time.

As a caveat to that claim, I would add that the significance of the weekend depends on one’s occupation – or lack of it. When I was a graduate student, the weekend was only nominally different from the work week. Sure, I might not have classes, but every day there was work to be done. The scenario has radically shifted now that I am finished and looking for work. Every day feels like the weekend because there is no mandatory work.

Or let’s take people that do shift work. If their days off fall on a Monday and a Tuesday, does that become their weekend? Or does the weekend only and always refer to Saturday and Sunday? Is the weekend meaningless without people to spend it with? Does this mean there’s something inherently social about the weekend? For the segment of society that actually works Monday-Friday, I’m sure the weekend does hold a sacred place, but how big really is this segment?

Speaking of the social nature of weekends, in one part of his book, Rybczynski analyzes the Impressionist painting by Georges Seurat called Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte (1884-86)

The painting depicts what was an increasing popular subject for the Impressionists – the nature of leisure in an industrial age. Notice that the painting depicts a Sunday – a weekend day. Multiple people of different classes, ages, and dress frequent this beach, but the question is are they here because they want to or because they have to?

According to a review by Alfred Paulet when the painting was first exhibited in the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition, the answer is the latter:

“The painting has tried to show the toing and froing of the banal promenade that people in their Sunday best take, without any pleasure, in the places where it is accepted that one should stroll on a Sunday.”

Paulet offers a strikingly negative commentary on the painting, implying that Seurat is mocking these Sunday vacationers, who, instead of coming to this island out of desire, are coming out of obligation.

This ties in with an interesting question that Rybczynski raises: Has the freedom to do nothing on the weekend become the obligation to do something? More specifically, have we heightened the weekend to such cultural importance that we feel pressure to go away and be seen in certain public places like beaches, parks, or campgrounds?

Seurat may have completed his painting over 100 years ago, but the nature of leisure seems to have changed little. As this Seurat look-alike photograph attests to, people still flock to beaches.

Friday Afternoon (or any day of the week) at English Bay in Vancouver

Where did all these people come from on a mid-afternoon weekday in September? Does this image go to show that the traditional Saturday-Sunday weekend is not as universal as we might think, or can this simply be explained by the fact that this is Vancouver, where there never seems to be a shortage of people at the beach?

So anyway, it’s the weekend. What space are you off to?

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4 thoughts on “Everybody’s Workin’ for the Weekend

  1. Very interesting. It reminds me of Mondays at work where the first thing people say when they see you is to ask you about your week-end, and what you did. I find that there is always some kind of pressure from peers to answer you had done something worthwhile over the week-end. Maybe it is my age category where we have no real responsibilities and therefore we should be make the best of this leisure time… leisure time with lots and lots of people.

    The point about the people in Seurat’s painting needing to be at the beach is interesting. We still see that phenomenon current day, in my experience, it seems to be space specific, age and social class specific. University students need to be seen at certain socially cool venues and need the Facebook photos to display the fun they had. There are some that need to be seen at the golf range to establish business network…

    Since I am currently working from home, I am one of those people who does get to take a morning jog at the beach and hang out in a cafe mid-day, and I too was surprised at how many people there were to join me. I guess our beach here in Toronto is different from yours, because it is not really a tourist beach and more of a beach for the neighbouring communities during week-day. Week-ends, we get people from all over. Week-day, it is populated with people of the community walking their dogs, and exercising. With cafés (in my neighbourhood, not campus-cafés), I’ve discovered it’s a huge meeting place for stay- at-home-moms-and-dads taking a break away from the play grounds. I guess, those who are stay-at-home need to get out a bit and interact with peers too.

    Loved this post! I need to start paying more attention to art, because I’ve seen Seurat’s painting many times, but never questioned it. :p

    • Something else came to my head. Our society also has a fear of engaging in certain leisure activities alone. For example, it’s okay to be at a café alone, but not a bar, unless you are there to pick people up. People avoid going to the movies, and concerts alone. Like Seurat’s painting, it’s as if there is a need to do those activities with someone.

  2. That’s a great question – “has the freedom to do nothing on the weekend become the obligation to do something”? I agree with Anna above – it’s the typical question at work on Monday morning and one feels compelled to say something that seems exciting/out of the ordinary/or at the least, worthwhile, (and that doesn’t mean housework or grocery shopping). Even for those of us firmly in middle age, I think social media feeds the same pressure to keep up with our peers who are (or seem to be) always out doing something. But we’re not created to keep going at such an insane pace all the time and not coincidentally, the number of people my age who don’t sleep well has become a major epidemic. Something’s gone haywire somewhere.

  3. Anna, that’s a good point you make about our fear of doing certain leisure activities alone. I also think there are some leisure activities that have the appearance of being social but are actually quite private. You think of going to the beach like in Seurat’s painting, and what you find is a bunch of people all occupying the same space, but not really having anything to do with each other. In fact, often times when you’re at the beach, it’s about finding (sometimes with much difficulty) your own little untouched spot of sand to set up camp, which preferably shouldn’t be too close to anyone else’s. This makes me wonder if we actually like having others around or if others aren’t more of a hindrance to what would actually be our preferred situation – a big, empty beach all to ourselves.

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