Once on a weekend afternoon, this small courtyard in Liverpool would have been full of drinkers clutching pints and cigarettes; now it is busy with children.

The Selwyn nursery, on the site of a former pub, opens its doors to kids of all ages on Saturdays. Three-year-old Leighton is walking on stilts made from red plastic pots and pieces of string.

Eight-year-old Evie likes the quizzes and chatting to her friends. At snack time they fold themselves into toddler-sized plastic chairs to eat breadsticks and fruit. The only downside for Evie is the toddlers. “I don’t like babies,” she says.

Evie and her sister Shelby, 12, come here every other Saturday, while their parents work as pharmacists. Today, there are 15 children in the nursery between 18 months and 13 years old, whose parents are busy working as nail-bar technicians, shop owners, sales assistants, postal workers and nurses.

Many do not have extended family nearby to help out. Some have come to live in Liverpool from China and Vietnam, some from other British cities.

The nursery is owned by the smiling and formidable Shubin “Sue” Wang. Originally from China, Wang, 42, lives above the nursery with her Bristol-born husband (and business partner) and two sons. Inevitably, she also now finds herself working on Saturdays, to cover staff sickness, serve lunch or ferry kids to football in the back of her minivan. “It is my business,” she says. “I’ve got to make sure everything’s running fine.”

Wang, a qualified childminder, initially offered non-traditional hours nine years ago, when she looked after children at home. The first was a baby whose mother worked at a takeaway until 10.30pm. Later, she looked after the offspring of an NHS shiftworker and a cleaner who would start her working day at 5am.

As Wang looked around at the beauty salons, shops and hospitals in Liverpool, she became convinced there were other parents who needed help. “My husband is English, so I totally understand Sunday is a rest day, because we’re going to church. But for me, I always think ‘I’m sure there’s people working the weekend, I’m sure there’s people who need childcare on the weekend.’ ”

When Wang and her husband started the nursery in April 2016, they included Saturday opening. There was no need to advertise the extra day: word spread fast.

Wang had spotted a gap in the market, accommodating weekend workers in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors. Up to one-third of the UK workforce now does some form of paid work over the weekends. Estimates range from 24 per cent (reported by the government’s most recent Labour Force Survey figures) to 33 per cent, according to Time Use Surveys (2015).

By most measures, a smaller portion of the labour force worked at the weekend in 2015 than in 2000 but the amount of paid work they did was larger — that is, represented a bigger proportion of their weekly working time (from 21 to 26 per cent for those aged 16 and above).

The rise is starkest for those on the lowest pay. Research by Pierre Walthery, at the Centre for Time Use Research at the Institute of Education, shows that workers in the caring and leisure sectors have most increased the amount of time they spend working at the weekends.

In general, men are more likely to do paid work at the weekend. So are the self-employed, whose ranks have grown rapidly in the UK over the past two decades, and who are much more likely to work on Saturdays and Sundays than employees, at 34 per cent versus 22 per cent.

As Walthery says, “It is easier to work at the weekend now than previously, as for more jobs this simply involves switching on your laptop and connecting to the internet.” (Time Use Surveys, which show how people spent every 10 minutes of their day, are more likely to record tasks such as catching up on emails from the comfort of home, than traditional Labour Force Surveys, which give workers the option to say if they worked on Saturday and Sunday but not how long.)

Over six months, the FT talked to workers, including those in professional salaried roles, the self-employed and those in low-paid casual work, to construct a portrait of weekend working in Britain at the start of the 2020s.

Some, such as Wang’s nursery manager Michelle Owens, who grew up in a home where non-traditional working was part of life (her father is an HGV driver and her mother works in retail), are happy to work Saturdays so they can have a day off in the week to catch up with personal admin. Others wish they could stop.

In these conversations, we tried to discover the impact of weekend work on wellbeing and family life, to understand the importance of work and leisure to our identity and sense of autonomy. How is technology reshaping the way we work and live? Has the idea of the weekend, once considered a vital time for rest and religion, changed for good?

Joe’s weekend

Joe Flett (not his real name) has worked six days a week in construction for as long as he can remember. The 36-year-old, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of being seen as a troublemaker, says: “The industry is quite tough — people are expected to work hard for long periods of time. If it goes well, it’s great. But if it’s bad, it’s the worst job in the world.”

The work is physically demanding and Flett is “annihilated” by the end of his weekend shift. On a Saturday he typically starts at 7.30am and gets home — after a 90-minute commute — to his wife and children by 3pm, though it can be as late as 6pm. “It’s almost like a full day. I don’t have a social life — just family. It’s called the ‘single man’s game’ because of the hours. You’re there so long, all the time. It drives you mad.”

Declan Murphy, a union convener in construction for Unite, says men in his trade tend to keep quiet about their work’s impact. “Working five hours minimum on a Saturday denies the body time to physically recuperate, the mind time to mentally recharge. But cruellest is the irreplaceable time it robs with loved ones. Missing out on a Saturday morning most people take for granted robs the family of the most special and relaxed time together. It also increases the stress on the parent who has to be at home.”

But Flett needs the extra money Saturday work provides and would swiftly find himself replaced if his supervisor thought he was unwilling to work six days. “For me, working Saturday is pretty compulsory. Everyone’s expected.”

Murphy agrees that weekend working is now seen as part of the job. “It used to be double pay, now it’s just time and a half. Some places it’s just the basic [rate]. When they are asking you to come in, they are telling you. When the work is so temporary, you need to make sure you’re brought into the next job.”

Flett says his father kept the same kind of hours. “Didn’t see much of him. He didn’t want me to go into the same work as him.” He would like to see his own kids become engineers rather than builders. He uses the phrase “norms, with their nine to five”, to describe people who work regular hours in desk jobs.

Katharine’s weekend

Things are changing for the “norms” in offices too, though. In particular at the very top, where lawyers, accountants and consultants are among those who now work longer. In a report published this month, George Bangham of the Resolution Foundation, an independent think-tank, found that “the longest hours are now worked by the highest earners and most qualified” (though it also showed many on the lowest pay would like to work more hours).

In 2018, the highest-earning men (the top 10 per cent), on average worked seven hours a week more than the lowest 10 per cent. For women, the gap was even wider at 10 hours.

Katharine Harle, a City lawyer who officially works a three-and-a-half-day week, estimates that in reality she does 45 hours or more. This includes five hours of weekend work. A partner in the regulatory, trade and investigations group at the law firm Dentons, her Saturdays and Sundays might see her emailing or getting on to a conference call for client work, reviewing pitches or reading articles for the week ahead.

When we meet, the 36-year-old recounts a recent weekend, which included checking her email while her husband drove their six-year-old daughter Abigail to gymnastics; and then trying to read while also keeping her three-year-old, Emily, entertained.

She often finds herself working in the car if one of her daughters has fallen asleep. “I try not to work when they’re awake . . . if it’s sending a short email or something, that’s fine but the idea of actually getting into some of the stuff I’m reading at the moment, it’s not the sort of thing I can do with interruptions.”

Like many professionals, Harle finds her ambitions to crack through a work backlog at the weekend can be easily derailed by demands at home.

The “always on” culture of modern work that knowledge workers complain about has been fuelled hugely by the rise of mobile technology. Most people literally carry their in-tray around with them. But there are other reasons why work might be taking up more of our leisure time. Laura Empson, the author of Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas, says: “If it is intellectually engaging or it’s fulfilling a sense of purpose and helping them feel worthwhile, then it makes sense that you’d want to do more of it rather than less.”

Indeed, according to the European Working Conditions Survey, 20 per cent of UK workers, who said they feel they can always apply their own ideas at work, reported that they often work in their free time (compared with 6 per cent of those who say they have no agency).

Harle fits this category. “I very much have autonomy about how and when I work, which is why I feel I have been able to progress and still have time with my children . . . My team has been very flexible . . . I’ve been trusted to manage my own diary and client relationships. [Over] the past few years though, [with aiming] for partnership and now being partner, it is a bit like having my own small business which I want to be successful.”

She also wants to show women in the firm that it is possible to be part-time, do interesting work, make partner and have children. She knows she is lucky. “I definitely know there are some jobs where you wouldn’t be able to leave, to dictate your own hours,” she says. If anything, Harle says, it is time alone and as a couple that suffers.

Is she ever in control of her workload? “It’s interesting, I don’t know what you mean by control. Every now and then when the balance is a bit wrong and there’s too much work [and] not enough of the other stuff, then I think it feels less like a choice and more like a burden. But most of the time I feel happy with the choice I’ve made.”

Recently, Harle started working with an executive coach. Her career goals included reducing the amount she does on weekends.

The weekend is a human invention, says Andrew Bryce, at Sheffield University. “As far as we know, no other species on earth obeys weekly cycles. So nothing marks out Saturday and Sunday as being different except for social [and religious] convention. The only benefit of taking the weekend off, as opposed to any other days, is that everyone else is also taking the weekend off, so you are less likely to have to spend your leisure time alone, which is arguably bad for wellbeing.”

A Soviet experiment in 1929, which replaced factory workers’ five-day working weeks with four days on, one day off to keep the production lines going and reduce the Orthodox Church’s influence, misfired. “Workers found they had no time to spend with their friends unless they happened to be on the same shift cycle,” says Bryce. “So the idea was quickly abandoned.”

Yet the notion of taking two full days off to recuperate is a relatively modern phenomenon, only catching on in the UK after the second world war. The term “weekend” was in fairly widespread use by the end of the 19th century, says Brad Beaven, professor of social and cultural history at the University of Portsmouth, but it was used to apply to the start of Saturday afternoon.

It was not until 1945 that a full weekend started to become routine. That marked “the era of factory jobs at their high-water mark. This type of work was often monotonous, which necessarily made the weekend a prized goal to work towards.”

20% Proportion of UK workers who said they often work in their own time and that they felt able to apply their own ideas in their job

Beaven notes that, in the 19th century, the spread of the weekend encouraged a very public form of collective entertainment through going to football matches and music hall, while the post-1945 weekend signalled a more privatised form of leisure.

“Football and Variety — which replaced music halls — continued but the growth of housing estates and the widespread adoption of TVs by the late 1950s saw the weekend become more home-centred.”

The very concept of the weekend was initially a source of anxiety to the ruling class. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, says Beaven, the concern was that the time would be used for political radicalism. This was later replaced by anxieties that passive entertainment such as the cinema and radio would make the working class susceptible to extreme ideologies such as fascism and communism.

It wasn’t until much later that the notion of too little leisure became a worry. When Sunday trading was introduced in 1994, Michael Schluter, the director of the Keep Sunday Special campaign, told The Independent newspaper: “The domino effect is happening. We are in danger of becoming like California, with children being checked for guns as they go into school, as a result of the social and moral breakdown that could result. Sunday trading is another nail in the coffin that contributes to social fragmentation. People won’t be able to spend as much time with their children, and surveys show Sunday is the day when people visit an elderly person.”

While supermarkets opening on Sundays has not triggered weapon detection at the school gates, the creep of technology into leisure hours has prompted fresh worries about fragmentation of family time, loneliness and wellbeing.

Yet, what often gets overlooked, says Oriel Sullivan, professor of sociology of gender at University College London, is that technology is also liberating. “While being available for email on the weekend is a pressure for those exposed to it . . . online shopping reduces the burden of weekend grocery shopping.” And in the past, people would sometimes have to go to the office at weekends to deal with their workload.

Nevertheless, in recognition of the blurred lines between home and work fuelled by technology, a group of City law firms and banks has introduced a Mindful Business Charter, which contains a series of pledges, including telling recipients of weekend emails they do not need to reply. Even if the rhetoric sometimes falls short of the reality, ideas of wellness and work-life balance are rising up the corporate agenda.

Adam’s weekend

For some, the idea of firing off a few work emails from home at the weekend would feel like luxury. When I first spoke to Adam Davies (not his real name), he was on a zero-hours contract and had worked for the past three weekends as a security guard in London. The lack of control over his hours was the thing that most frustrated him. “As a family man, it is difficult. It is hard to plan anything. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll be doing. They treat us like they’re ruling our life without our own consent.”

Working so many weekends meant he missed out on family life with his wife and four children. “I don’t have a normal weekend. The nature of the job just killed my social life. I do not have friends.” The Sunday shifts also meant not being able to attend church. “It makes me feel I’m not close to God.”

Davies describes the unpredictability of this way of working as miserable. “It’s beyond happiness. I can’t see any happiness at the moment. If I know I can plan my schedule, then I can plan stuff with my family. Before, we used to go for dinner with the kids and the missus. In the past year, I’ve not been able to do that. If I had the opportunity to plan the weekend and I had enough money, I’d do something amazing like go for a meal.”

Happily for Davies, he has recently secured a job from Monday to Friday, with weekends off. “I know what I’m doing. The kids are happier as they get to see [me],” he says. He has also been able to go to church.

A study last year found that men who worked weekends were slightly more likely to experience depressive symptoms but only if they had little control at work or were dissatisfied with their job, whereas for female weekend workers the same symptoms were likely to be because they were working low-pay service jobs.

Both issues have been increased by the growth of a gig economy that is trampling over historical distinctions between work and leisure time. Tim Strangleman, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, notes unions used to argue that “once you make [weekend working] normal, it would erode the enhanced pay — and this seems to be the case. There seems to be a collective generational amnesia that this was even a thing let alone an important principle.”

Kathryn’s weekend

On a rainy Saturday lunchtime, Kathryn Pierce is at home in Bracknell, south England. Three small dogs are racing around the house, and her five-year-old son Fletcher is playing with Lego. A sandalwood and mandarin candle gives the place an illusion of calm.

Having worked at Marks and Spencer for 20 years, Pierce decided to strike out on her own as a virtual assistant 18 months ago. She got the idea after visiting a friend’s house and seeing the husband’s paperwork in a state of disarray. “I said, ‘You need to get yourself in order . . . let me see what I can do.’”

He was so pleased with her work that he recommended her to others. Now she works for 26 clients, paying bills, organising their shopping, managing their property and business emails.

Pierce reckons she works between 50 and 70 hours a week, of which at least five are at the weekend, sometimes starting at 7am. She enjoys the flexibility of her new arrangement, even though she estimates that she is paid only about 45 per cent of her old salary and has lost all her previous corporate benefits. But she says: “I’m at home. I don’t have childcare costs. I can be there for [my son]. I’m chair of the PTA at school. My time is my own. I’m not sure I could go back now. I am my own boss.”

For those choosing to work for themselves, flexibility is typically one of the goals. IPSE, which represents the self-employed, says: “For many, that means moving away from the traditional nine-to-five working week. They may choose to start and finish later or even work weekends to keep weekdays free. It’s about being able to work the way they want.”

It doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t the risk of an “always on” culture in some areas of the freelance sector. A recent IPSE report found that four out of five freelancers would like to take more time off and feel compelled to work while on holiday.

Although Pierce is meant to charge double for weekend working, she has yet to do so. She laments that even if she is sick it is difficult to take a day off but says she is less resentful about working weekends than she would be for an employer. “I don’t mind doing it as it’s my job. There’s something less stressful, less annoying, working for yourself.”

She has stopped putting work ahead of time with her son. “When you’re busy it’s really easy to say, ‘I’m busy.’ I’ve tried to stop doing that. In 10 years’ time he’s not going to want to be in the same room as me.”

Whether her son will see weekends as a normal part of his working week by the time he enters the labour market remains to be seen. During last December’s election campaign, the Labour party pledged to reduce the working week within the next 10 years.

Its defeat probably puts off the idea of an extended weekend but some predict that the growth of AI and machine learning will squeeze jobs, raising the prospect of workers dealing with the problem of too much rather than too little free time.

In Liverpool, as parents arrive to pick up their children at the nursery, Sue Wang says she hopes the future will include weekend working — and not just because her own business benefits from it. Single parents or those without local family are often deterred from applying for work that demands availability, she says. “If parents know there’s Saturday childcare available, they probably would step into employment instead of waiting at home.”

Not that she’s in favour of people working too hard. “We advise parents, ‘Don’t do too long, too many days.’ If they have six days, with every day 12 hours, we would say ‘Probably, that’s not good for the children.’”

Emma Jacobs is an FT feature writer. FT data research by John Burn-Murdoch

Some names have been changed

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