I’ve just been reading a great article in the ‘Guardian’ by Katrina Onstad about what has happened to the concept of a weekend and it resonates. It has made me think, as I approach retirement in a few weeks’ time, about all the missed opportunities and how there is so, so much I need to put right. Better late than never I guess would be the slogan.
As a kid, just like Katrina, my weekends were unstructured. I spent a disproportionate amount of time doing nature diaries, walking country lanes, seeking out birds’ nests, lizards, newts and ladybirds. I bought back mice, one legged seagulls, hurt hedgehogs, and once, even an escaped ferret. My parents were very tolerant. Not many people would have put up with a one-legged seagull visiting her kitchen and perching lopsidedly on top of the electric cooker, but mum did. I’d ride my bike, roam the estate with friends and go down the playpark. We built a den out of an inverted abandoned septic tank on the building site. Great fun crawling on our bellies down a tiny hole beneath to squirm our way through the circular porthole into its cavernous interior. By ten I had walked, on my own, or with two friends, the Glyders, Carneddau, Crib Goch and the Snowdon horseshoe. What were my parents thinking? It would be child neglect now and parental diminished responsibility!! I loved gardening. My grandad taught me how to plant onions with carrots to avoid carrot fly plagues; how to cheat at growing supersized marrows by drilling into their storks and inserting a thread of wool back to a dish of sugar solution. Osmosis, apparently!! It seemed to work! I loved to draw and paint and was pretty good. I was imaginative, creative and able to occupy myself.
So, what happened? How did my weekend passions honed over years of childhood disappear? How has it become so ironic that the last time I walked on Dartmoor, properly walked on Dartmoor, was at least ten years ago? How have I ended up hating gardening, seeing it as a chore at weekends, tugging away on my precious down time?
The number of people working more than 48 hrs per week has risen according to Katrina and a TUC report, by 15% from 2010 to 2015. She calls it ‘Burnout Britain’. So too has the shape of employment with 1 in 10 people now on temporary contracts or self-employed with all the difficulties that brings. Most families rely on dual incomes to even begin to meet the bills and rising costs.
As a teacher completing his 34th year in the profession, I have worked an average 55 hr week from day one. A total of 73000 hrs or so. Some basic maths shows that I’ve worked in excess of 20,000 hrs over the top of a 40-hr week; some 12 additional years’ unpaid overtime. Ah, but we get the long holidays. True but basic maths shows that if I reduce that to 4 weeks per year, I’ve still worked an extra four years overtime unpaid.
But it isn’t the hours. Comes with the territory, although should it? I guess I had a choice – I chose the profession. (But then when I chose it, it was radically different). Anyway, it was the impact of my career choices. On my kids.
Term time dad and holiday time dad – two different entities they call it. Others call it ‘monsoonal parenting’. Those evenings when me and the missus juggled tea and homework and a family game so that we could each create time to do our three hrs preparation for the following day. Our weekends reduced to housework, gardening maintenance, food shopping – all because we hadn’t had time to do them during the week; a quick stroll or bike ride out of fitness necessity, if we were lucky. We lived for our holidays’ and travelled extensively during them. That’s when all our parenting came to the fore and our family became nuclear again. Our kids adapted. They say it taught them to be self-reliant and resilient; they understood. Ironic, I spent most of my working life worrying more about other parents’ kids than perhaps I did my own. Even when our kids left home and went successfully to university, our weekends changed little. We were exhausted from the week. Saturday’s pass in a stupor – shopping, housework, vegged out on the sofa. Sunday morning’s – a surge of activity, bike ride, brisk walk, coffee and the Sunday papers and then Sunday afternoon…..the dragging oneself to the kitchen table to do the four hours work needed to give yourself even the remotest fighting chance for the following week. I can’t talk about other professions and Sunday afternoon’s but any UK teacher reading this will so understand that fear, dread, the tightening knot n your stomach as the Sunday morning drags on. You can’t enjoy a Sunday morning….because you know what follows!
But what of the teaching profession today? Was it me? A perfectionist, a compulsive pathological need to do everything perfectly? A drive to give the best public service possible? Some colleagues would shout out a resounding yes. But I think that that isn’t all of the point or the truth of the matter.
There is a new expectation in the profession, one I suspect has creeped into may public service roles and probably the private sector as well. It is the norm to work a 55 hr + week; it is socially unacceptable if you don’t!
If you work in school, nonstop, five hours teaching, a working lunch, an hour before school starts and two hours after, then that would be a ten-hour day……a 55-hour working week BFORE taking any work home each evening and at weekends. Surely that is enough? Shouldn’t the teaching profession take steps to limit the hour’s teachers work? Yes, we have a relatively sound pension and the holidays…..but like other public services, the profession faces its severest recruitment crisis ever. I always laugh when I get from people ‘oh you are a teacher – all those holidays and pension lucky bugger!’ My reply as always is, ‘if it is so good, retrain, come join us’.
We have to throw training bursaries of £26,000 to recruit science graduates and many of them train, teach for a couple of years and then leave, burnt out, exhausted, destroyed, all creativity and joy sucked from them. Would it not be better to use the money from recruitment drives, recruitment advertising and forced academisation to actually do better teacher training and to improve class size, teacher welfare and resourcing? Is that so hard for a government to achieve? Apparently so because I can’t remember any government achieving that since around 1987!
What particularly attracted me to Katrina’s argument was her description of a typical weekend now, based on the Victorian, Protestant based working week ethic our society has. See if you recognise this………. we stuff a weekend full of getting our kids to sports clubs, recreational activities and enrichment courses. Unstructured play becomes something of the past! We fill our weekends with what she terms ‘consumption and diversion’ – shopping for the dopamine hit; binge viewing boxed sets – ‘decompressing mindlessly’ she calls it. So many of us remain glued to smart phones and laptops, checking work email, making sure, as she terms it, ‘we are making our employer know we are available and working hard in precarious job security times’
I am sure, positive in fact, that there are thousands of families who don’t recognise this weekend. Who get out on the moors; go to the beach; have unstructured play in the garden. But I also suspect, that many thousands recognise the description. It feels ‘familiar’. Maybe it is a ‘British thing’.
For me. Retirement brings an opportunity. To rekindle my love of gardening for joy’s own sake; to take up drawing again; to do all those walks across Dartmoor; to geocache; set up bird boxes in my woodland; put away Facebook forever and detoxify myself from technology. I’ll blog and vlog occasionally, for they are hobbies. I will take up new hobbies. I wonder if we have seen over the years the death of hobbies? I used to collect stamps, build model boats, build full sized boats, canoe, socialise with friends, fish, do photography, go camping, climbing, do letterboxing. The highlight of my weekend has become a visit to a garden centre, a cup of tea, a browse of the Sunday papers……what happened?
In the meantime, Katrina does offer hope. Her article attracted many critical comments. But actually, she was right to raise the issue. To stop and make us think about what we have lost; and what we have become at weekends; and what we need to perhaps focus on regaining. I am told that the French work a shorter working week; rarely take work home and have significantly higher productivity that we do…..if this is true………..what are we doing to ourselves?
I don’t agree with everything Katrina said in her article.
But she made me pause, reflect and think. And that was worth doing in itself. Thanks Katrina, appreciated.
If you want to read her article go online to the Guardian and search ‘Who killed the weekend?’