Roughly 60 years down the line, the boundaries between work and leisure have effectively dissolved, and the 8-hour workday has made way for the 24/7 workweek. Now, the notion of 9-to-5 work, once the emblem of a dull and boring life, is worth reclaiming as an empowering symbol—one that could help reinstate the temporal boundaries that once protected life from work.
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The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 institutionalized the 40-hour workweek and for a time it was seen as an improvement over the harsh days and long hours that many could still recall.
But the mood changed by the 1950s and 1960s, as Hippies and the Beats came to the cultural fore. In Jack Kerouac’s semi-fictional 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, one character imagines “refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming all that crap they didn't really want anyway.” Earlier that decade, Allen Ginsberg, feeling trapped in a market-research job in San Francisco, told his therapist, “I really would like to stop working forever … and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends.”
The utopian visions expressed by the Beats were heard from shouting crowds in the years that followed. In Paris, protesters adorned walls with anti-work slogans, such as “You will all end up dying from comfort” and “Never work.” In The Revolution of Everyday Life, the situationist Raoul Vaneigem launched an attack against the conformist life, likening the concepts of work and leisure to “the blades of the castrating shears.” After the revolution, he fancied, strikers would demand 10-hour weeks, stop picketing, and start making love in factories and offices.
By the late ‘70s, the more cunning employers changed tactics. If what these workers cared about was freedom, autonomy, and authenticity, then why not give it to them? This marked the beginning of the corporate culture that the sociologist Luc Boltanski and the management theorist Eve Chiapello tracked in their 1999 book The New Spirit of Capitalism. Some employers began recognizing that the old demands about solidarity, equality, and security had an ugly Communist sound to them, and the more creative corporations were quick to pick up a whole new language. Board members and CEOs would talk about autonomy, creativity, empowerment, liberation, and networks. Anti-work slogans had been washed away from the city walls, only to reappear in corporation’s annual reports.
Meanwhile job security, imperceptibly, began to erode. Dolly Parton may have been signing, “Workin’ 9 to 5/ What a way to make a living,” but during the ‘80s, under Ronald Reagan, long-term, stable, fixed-hour work grew rarer, and millions began relying on occasional jobs, short-term contracts, fluctuating hours, and unpredictable pay. In 1981, after 13,000 air-traffic controllers went on strike to demand better work conditions, Reagan responded fiercely, firing nearly all of them. During his time in office, Reagan also tried to lower the minimum wage for young people and encouraged federal agencies to employ temporary workers.