With an average of four weeks holiday, plus bank holidays and weekends, today's employees have 136 leisure days a year - part-time work when compared with the past.
Holidays - time set aside from the drudge of everyday work - have been around in some form or other since the Stone Age. Archaeological evidence suggests that our nomadic ancestors held regular feast days to mark lunar or seasonal cycles. Similarly, most of the great civilisations reserved a significant fraction of their time for rest or religion. Egyptian superstition left one day in five free; the Roman calendar stipulated that no public business was to take place on 108 days of the year; and, in pre-Christian Tarentum, feast days outnumbered work days.
For much of Britain's history, however, free time has been strictly rationed. The holidays in a medieval labourer's calendar could, Sundays excepted, be counted on the fingers of one hand. Those who belonged to guilds - effectively the trades unions of the day - fared somewhat better. As early as the 14th century, many guild statutes prohibited work 'on Saturday or the eve of a double feast after the noon bell has been rung'.
The next few centuries saw a progressive improvement in the working man's lot. By the mid-15th century, 46 feast days made for around 40 holidays per year (the remaining six having typically fallen on a Sunday). This rise had petered out by the 16th century and, by the next century, had turned into a sharp decline. The Puritans gained power and, after an abortive experiment with monthly fasting which increased free time, set about implementing their work ethic with characteristic zeal. Most feast days were abolished - the Puritans saw them as vulgar, with no standing in the eyes of the Lord - and the work schedule reverted to that of three centuries earlier.
For the next few hundred years any time off an individual might receive depended largely on his social standing and employer's whim. Any 'holidays' taken were often unpaid, with employees working overtime during the year to make the time up. Official holidays reappeared in the 19th century, when the 1850 Factory Act paved the way for the general adoption of a half day on Saturday. Later legislation, such as the 1871 Bank Holiday Act, took the count higher still. Momentum continued to grow in the early 20th century, with a small but growing minority of enlightened employers viewing paid holidays as self-financing in terms of employee morale and productivity.
By the 1930s the subject was of sufficient importance for the proposal of a legal minimum of paid holiday entitlement to be tabled at a meeting of the International Labour Conference, where the British Government - perhaps with an eye to the future - effectively 'opted out'. This was a brief setback, however, and the Holidays with Pay Act was passed in 1938, after which entitlement rose steadily. The social upheaval of the post-war period meant that two weeks paid holiday was soon the norm.
Holiday entitlement continued to rise throughout the union-dominated 1960s and '70s, before levelling off in the last decade. Recently a retrograde trend has emerged, with a slight - and probably recession-related - fall over the past few years. Today, taking into account weekends, bank holidays and just over four weeks annual vacation, the average Briton works 229 days per year, leaving a theoretical 136 days for leisure. Those who bemoan the brevity of their free time might reflect that what most of us do today would look, to our forefathers, like a very well-paid part-time job.