Almanac Life: The Weekend


I remember when I was young (That could be a song title!) there were people who talked of Australia being ‘the land of the long weekend.’ Though I lived through this time it was not how I remembered it. Anyhow whilst I’m on about the weekend, maybe I should put my finger to the keyboard recording my thoughts of the weekend.


Apparently, the word weekend commenced as the hyphenated week-end though somewhere in the past the hyphen disappeared. Over time the week, the ‘regular’ working week became what we now call the weekdays, followed the weekend, a time once/oft associated with leisure. This idea of the weekend was a version of what could be deemed as our free time, away from the requirements of work.


It seemed for a long time the working week, and what was deemed the weekend complemented each other. In Australia and many other ‘Christian’ nations the weekend was generally deemed as Saturday, and Sunday. Has that always been the case?


Going back through civilisations from the time of yore the concept of a weekend has been fluid. Though it seems rest days, days of festivities, existed, there was no real widespread uniformity of its implementation.


Weeks, weekends are likely linked to a mechanical counting of measuring time. Ancient Rome had a nundinae every eight days; these being in a period of eight-day weeks. The nundinae coincided with big festivals & markets, kids skipped school, with work being restricted to the lower orders as the better off partied and relaxed.  Prior to then a seven-day cycle including a day of rest may go back to the early Israelites around the 6th century BC.


For many of the Christians Sunday was deemed a day of rest, amongst the Jewish a Sabbath existed from sunset on the Friday until full darkness of the Saturday, whilst the Muslims apparently had a Thursday-Friday weekend. However, the concept of a week, let alone its weekend, is still debated. Some link it to ancient Egypt, others to Hellenic Rome, but whatever its origins it’s a format we’re well used to.


The concept of the weekend as we’ve come to know it in Australia seems to originate back to Northern England during the early 19th century.  Employers allowed their workers to finish around 2pm on the Saturday, giving workers a respite from their toil. One noticeable benefit was an increased participation in sport, especially soccer, as workers finishing work in the middle of the day could participate in sporting events. Soccer as a sport saw a major growth in both the number of clubs, as well as players.  The time also appears to be one of heavy intoxication, so employers hoped the workers would be sober, and refreshed: by Monday morning! Playing sport was indeed a healthy option to heavy drinking. Of course, as we know, England being a Christian nation, Sunday was deemed a day of rest. The Oxford Dictionary first recorded the term weekend in 1879. It Is important to acknowledge the introduction of the weekend was not given as a noble gesture but hard work, organising, and lobbying, especially by trade unions, sporting clubs and some liberal minded employers achieved this change.


Throughout the 20th century a weekend around the Saturday-Sunday, very much became a global ‘standard’ allowing industry/trade to continue with minimal disruptions.


Going back to the early days of European colonisation of Australia convicts were often given Sunday off to attend church as a way of improving their character. With the successful struggles of the English workers to gain reduced hours of work these actions, ideas, flowed to the colonies such as Australia. Movements such as the Chartists played a key role in campaigning for better working conditions, including a reduction in working hours, all this leading to establishing a weekend off from work.


Most of us should be cognisant of stonemasons in Melbourne winning the 8-hour working day. Yep, Australian workers led the world in reducing working hours. (Anybody old enough to remember the 8-hour day?) Prior to this achievement it was quite common to work 6 days of up to 12 hours.


Though we led the world it took until 1916 for the 8-hour day to be commonplace, however many workers still worked a half a day on Saturdays. Australia remained in front of much of the world, as other workforces slowly followed our gains. After 1948 the working week was reduced to 40 hours, generally Monday to Friday, of 8 hours per day.  This eventuated on September 8, 1948.  In 1983 the 38-hour week came in. The latter followed on from union campaigns originally aiming to reduce the working week to 35 hours, then compromising on 38 hours.


For those of us working unsocial hours penalty rates were introduced in 1947. Over time the weekend, Saturday, Sunday, saw those required to work on those days receive a higher rate of pay, as a reward for working what many considered anti-social hours, whilst others enjoyed their weekend relaxing.


In my youth most shops closed at midday on Saturdays, re-opening on Mondays. The weekend was thus primarily focused on leisure time, be it spending time with family and loved ones, attending sporting events as a participant/spectator, maybe going to the movies. All of these could take place on the same day (s). The only ones working were those of us, like my mother, in the health field. For working on the weekend, limiting time with your families, or being involved in leisure activities, you were paid a penalty to compensate. Saturday was generally paid at a time and a half, Sunday depended on where you worked was either time and half, or double time.


Yet where is the weekend many of us once knew it, that time from end of work on Friday until Monday morning?  It seems like a memory of my long-time ago childhood.


Back in 2017 we saw the Fair Work Commission cut penalty rates for hospitality workers working Sundays. In practice it meant a hospitality worker who was then on an hourly rate of $19.44 would be a $77 worse off after working a Sunday shift. In the somewhat convoluted language/ thinking of the Fair Work Commission, “for many workers Sunday work has a higher level of disutility than Saturday work, though the extent of the disutility Is much less than in times past”. They also said, “Sunday is more reserved for family time than Saturdays when spending time with friends and shopping is more preferred to Sundays.”


Around 4 million Australian work on weekends. I’ve worked in the health field most of my life, I also did a bit of casual crowd control when I was younger. My weekends corresponded with work, but the pay was different to the ‘ordinary working week’, reflecting community standards on how weekends differed from the Monday to Friday work week. Anyhow back to now.


Despite these cuts to penalty rates coming in as of July 2017, in May 2019 employment in the retail and hospitality areas hadn’t improved. In our Covid 19 world of April 2020 it certainly hasn’t helped employment in these areas. Further research in the distant, dystopian future may indicate more low paying, precarious jobs created due to this change, but in our rapidly changing world it remains to be seen.


In an ongoing period of low wage growth, a reduction in your take home pay is no steppingstone for an improved quality of life for us ordinary Australians. Can’t we have a reduction in working hours where we work less, whilst producing enough, or even more?  I mentioned earlier the gradual reduction of working hours in Australia. I remember the campaigns in the early 1980’s for the 35-hour working week, giving us more leisure time. Improvement in technology would have meant no loss of productivity, however a fierce employer campaign kyboshed the idea. None the less there are still examples of working hours being reduced with no loss of either income or productivity.


A firm in New Zealand tested the theory by reducing the working week to four days but still paying staff the wages for five. Twenty-four percent of staff later reported an improvement in their work-life balance. Seven per cent said stress levels dropped and there was no negative effect on productivity.


In our increasingly commodified world, in an Australia where only 12 % of the workforce are unionised, what does/will the weekend look like? Who can surmise what the shape/nature of our respite from toil will look like in the foreseeable future? Of course, experiencing a savage pandemic adds another huge variable in the process. Already the Federal Government is talking of ‘reforms’ in industrial relations, and we all know only too well these ‘reforms’ aren’t about enhancing the worker. Add to that I won’t hold my breath for their ideologically driven friends in the Orwellian named Productivity Commission to devise a new leisure friendly formatted spread of work hours post Covid 19.


To help put this article in a sporting context it’s important to touch on aspects of some popular sports, with their relationship to our weekends.


Cricket is an interesting one when you look at sport on weekends. For a time, cricket in Australia would/could bypass the holiest day of the Christian week: Sunday. As recently as 1968-69 there were no first class matches in Adelaide on a Sunday. There were players like Brian Booth, New South Wales and Australian batsman, who refused to play on Sundays. Test matches used to have the rest day take place on the Sunday. Nowadays, Sunday is a ‘normal’ cricketing day.


The predecessor of the AFL, the VFL, for many years could only play on Saturdays. The exceptions being Easter and Queens Birthday Monday’s. Though, there was a match played for premiership points  on a Sunday in April 1970, this courtesy of a Royal visit. Many years of lobbying, pushing, saw them finally gain approval for Sunday football in the early 1980’s. For those under 40 no AFL football on a Sunday may be considered a hellish trip to a dim dark era.


With the AFL’s 2020 season it was originally proposed nine rounds were scheduled to commence with a match on the Thursday evening; this included the opening five rounds. What’s happened to the Monday night matches? It appears now Monday’s reverted back to Easter Monday, and Queen’s Birthday Monday; the matches coinciding with the public holiday.  Is the weekend kicking off on a Thursday?  Then again in our Covid 19 world everything’s turned upside down, with weekends not being the same as we may have once known them. Is anything?


What did Bertolt Brecht say,

So Viele Berichte.

So Viele Fragen.



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. Thanks for this Glen. Interesting history lesson. While I’m most grateful to have my job, working from home and the absence of the usual markers such as footy and friends means the days and the weeks are blurring for me. I always had huge admiration for those working weekends, nights, shifts such as yourself. The sacrifices are many.

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