Enjoy this bank holiday weekend, because it could be your last

Taking the holiday weekend off? While the tradition of Whitsun or Pentecost is a Christian one, the idea that there should be festivals, times when people should break from their daily routine to celebrate, reaches far into pagan times. By contrast, the idea that working people should have a specific paid holiday allowance only goes back, in its present form, to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the factory. It was in response to the exploitation of workers that governments stepped in and required employers to improve conditions. Paid holidays was one such requirement.

But now all is changing again. It may not feel like it if you are stuck in a traffic jam on the M6, but the developed world is gradually shifting to an economic model where people take time off at different times rather than at the same time, and by choice rather than by statutory requirement – though that “choice” is heavily influenced by the need to earn money and serve customers. 

There are three main interrelated trends at work here: the growth of the service economy; the trend for self employment; and a complex shift in the nature of work that encourages employers to promote “flexible” work pattenrs, encouraging people to choose how much time they take off, and when.

The service economy story is widely known, though you still catch a feeling that many people somehow value manufacturing jobs more than service ones. Regardless, nearly 80 per cent of the UK economy is in services, most of which by their nature have to operate seven days a week – with a handful running 24 hours a day. The words you are reading now, for example, were written and edited on a Saturday. As a result a much higher proportion of the workforce operates on a rota, involving “holiday work”, compared to a generation ago. Remember the resistance then to shops being open on Sundays? Look at th resistance now towards more GPs working on weekends.

The shift to self-employment and to payment by output rather than by hours worked has also changed the pattern of holidays. Anyone who is self-employed, a sector that now forms 15 per cent of the workforce, will know the tricky juggling act between getting the jobs done, finding new work, and having an acceptable amount of time off. Working for yourself brings a huge freedom but also imposes a new burden. Customers determine when you work, and they may not want fixed hours.

But the most interesting new phenomenon is the practice of companies giving employees unlimited leave. It sounds a great idea, and unsurprisingly has been pioneered by high-tech companies on the west coast of America, such as Netflix and LinkedIn. Equally unsurprisingly, it is not the nirvana it might seem at first glance. People decide when they want to work, rather as they would if self-employed; in practice they find that a combination of customer expectations and peer pressure may mean they work for longer hours than they would were their working hours specified. One great advantage of unlimited leave, from the company’s point of view, is that it does not have to police working hours or pay people who leave accrued holiday benefit. 

In any case, US business practice compensates for the very short vacation (by European standards) it offers employees by offering quasi-work leave – including conferences where people bring partners, take place in plush foreign locations, and where the formal sessions end after a working breakfast. 

What is happening in the US is that the job contract is becoming more like a self-employment contract, a blurring between self-employment and employment. You can see that blurring more clearly in enterprises such as Uber, but it is also happening in more conventional companies. In Europe the pattern is slightly different, as many older workers are protected by strong labour regulation. But for many young Europeans, the pattern of employment has become more casual even than in the US. For example, there are some seven million Germans having to put together a package of mini-jobs – literally “minor employment” (geringfügige Beschäftigung) – rather than have a single full-time employer.

The trend towards a more fluid workforce, and with it more fluid vacation patterns, seems set to endure. Some rigidity will remain, notably school holidays. Weather will dictate that the summer remains the main holiday season, while some sort of mid-winter festival will doubtless survive, for these long predate the Industrial Revolution. Christmas will remain as important as it has for the past 2,000 years. But the idea that everyone should have a day off on the same day seems curiously outdated – especially for anyone caught up in holiday chaos this weekend.