When a holiday is a job, and work is an education

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How long, ideally, should our summer holidays be? Our elected representatives believe that they should be three months, for this week Parliament breaks up until the end of October, the longest summer recess that veteran MPs can remember for a quarter-century. Senior US executives, on the other hand, seem to reckon on about three days: a recent survey of America's largest companies showed that the majority of chief executive officers were planning on taking less than a week, while one CEO revealed that his vacation would be a three-day hike in the mountains - but that would be over a weekend, and he would carry a mobile phone with him.

One could be sour and point out that this simply reflects the different disciplines on these two activities: top US executives are under continual pressure by shareholders to perform, while our MPs cannot be sacked by voters for five years unless they do something really dreadful. But it surely also reflects different perceptions of how people ought to be spending their time. The Puritan work ethic runs more strongly in America than it does here: two-week annual vacation time is quite normal, with three a luxury for the especially favoured. The four weeks plus of Europe is unknown. In Britain we do not even fully acknowledge our good fortune, for a survey by Barclays Bank this week revealed that 59 per cent of Britons reckon a holiday as a necessity, not a luxury - a position that our MPs would doubtless support.

But all this will change, won't it? It is going to change because there are powerful global forces at work that will blow away the whole idea of a fixed holiday entitlement which is pretty much the same for everybody.

For a start, there will be a sustained rise in self-employment. I have no idea whether Bill Gates's prediction will prove right, that in 2050 half the workforce will be self-employed. It is certainly plausible that technology will increasingly liberate workers from working fixed hours in large groups. In future not only will more and more workers operate in small groups, but many processes will be continuous, 24 hours a day, round the time zones, on the lines of to-day's financial markets. So the efficient way of giving people breaks will be to spread these out as evenly as possible through the year. The farther we get from the factory system, the farther will we move from the fixed holiday in the summer.

You can already see, all around, evidence of more flexible work practice. There is not only a rise in self-employment, but also a blurring of the distinction between full-time employment, part-time employment and self- employment. More people are employed on part-time contracts, giving them time to build up a private practice, or take on another part-time job. This is being recognised by banks and building societies, which now increasingly accept that someone in a part-time job with some freelance income is in fact more secure than someone in a full-time job who can be "let go" tomorrow. For all these members of the flexible workforce, holidays are not the fixed and rigidly scheduled things they used to be. People fit in some time off as and when they can. For some this does mean very long summer holidays; MPs are technically self-employed, and fix their own hours.

But the impact of the flexible workforce on holiday patterns is only one aspect of the seismic social change we are beginning to glimpse. The other is that the very distinction between work, leisure, education and family life is blurring, too.

One prototype of this sort of blurring is the conference. In May and June, before the holiday season gets under way, and in September, as it begins to wind down, the lush hotels around the Mediterranean fill up with conferences. These are work - companies do not spend all that money for nothing - but they are also leisure, because time is invariably scheduled in for some R & R at the casino or on the golf-course.

They are also a form of education. The teaching may be ultimately designed to encourage people to sell more computers - a long way from archaeology or ancient Greek - but it is education none the less, for they usually try to find things that will take people out of their normal working thought processes. Finally, these conferences also frequently contribute to family life: there is invariably a spouses' programme.

Now, that is just an early example of the way in which leisure will blend with education and with work. There are others: the growth in numbers of the energetic semi-retired has created a new category of voluntary workers in the US. Sometimes called docents, they are people who give their time free to not-for-profit enterprises. A desert zoo near Tucson, Arizona, for example, runs an educational programme that is staffed largely by these voluntary workers.

In another 25 years' time a third of the adult population of most developed countries will be past retirement age. Yet not only will many of these people be vigorous, and eager to carry on some kind of paid-for activity; they will be needed in the workforce just to keep the economy on the road. In a world like that, the formal holiday entitlement will become an irrelevance. Indeed, the cleverer that companies - and countries - become in tailoring work contracts to meet the choices of these cohorts of vigorous elderly people, the better they will weather the difficulties created by demographic change.

So what will the typical holiday of the future be? I think it will be lots of different things for different people. Wise employers will encourage their staff to use holiday time in a way that helps them increase their human capital, and will naturally help with the cost of this. The self- employed will blend holiday with work, mixing and matching, picking and patching, as they do now. More people will be able to turn their holiday hobbies into paid activity, building businesses out of their leisure. Some people will continue to want simply to escape from daily life and lie on a beach with a trashy book. But for many, education, or at least an educational element, is going to become a more important part of the package. Maybe, just maybe, the over-developed work ethic of the US will become more rounded, so that top executives come to be rewarded by their output (how well they do) rather than their input (how long they work).

As for our MPs, well, I suspect that the House of Commons is not at the forefront of social or economic change. So do not expect our legislators to alter their habits. But it is strangely comforting, is it not, that the country can go on perfectly well for three months without all these people turning up in Westminster and making their points of order, shouting "hear, hear"?