The 9-to-5 Workday as Liberation

As work bleeds into leisure time, employees should embrace the once-square schedule and its clear-cut boundaries.

Issei Kato / Reuters

Charles Bukowski was never really a billboard for good health. But it was not just the long nights spent drinking in rundown bars that were to blame. It was work.

In 1969, at the age of 49, he could finally stop working by the hour. In a letter to his publisher John Martin, who, by offering a monthly salary of $100, had made this transition possible, Bukowski described the terrible blow work had dealt him: “The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes.”

Bukowski wondered why anyone would agree to such humiliations, and was not alone in his skepticism. In his time, working 9-to-5 was a symbol for the inauthentic life, a constant and pointless shuttling between the office and the television set.

But Bukowski’s main concern was not what the 9-to-5 workday symbolized, but that it always turned into something else. “They call it ‘9 to 5,’” he wrote in the letter to his publisher, already predicting that there would be worse things than an eight-hour workday. “It's never 9 to 5, there's no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don't take lunch. Then there's overtime and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there's another sucker to take your place.”

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.

In the years since, perhaps the worst development, from the perspective of the Beats, is that people do not seem to be working any less. On the contrary, after a century of steady decline in annual hours worked—from about 3,000 in 1870 to about 1,900 in 1973—this trend came to an abrupt end. From 1973 to 2006, the average American worker added 180 more hours to their annual working schedule.

One shift fostering this increase in hours was the new technologies of the last couple decades, which allow people to work from anywhere, at any time. Unproductive pockets of life are increasingly under threat: A few years ago, an IT-worker wrote a moving essay about finding himself working in his dreams, explaining that his only true vacation was the rare occasion of getting ill. Relatedly, one recent survey on remote workers showed that 38 percent wake up at some point during the night to check their email.

And a study this year shows that even though as many as 86 percent of office workers report to be “very happy” or “somewhat happy” with their jobs, 53 percent of these people nevertheless feel burned out. “Do what you love,” as Miya Tokumitsu argues in her new book with the same title, has become a euphemism for exploitation. Hiding behind this mantra, employers are able to squeeze even more work out of their employees.

All of these are reasons to embrace the idea of the 9-to-5 workday, with its firm distinctions between work and not-work. More daring voices call for shorter workweeks, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask for in the face of being overworked, but first it is important to embrace the liberating boundaries of a well-defined workday.