The Fading Art of the Summer Friday

Manhattan's media world loves Summer Fridays. But where did this longstanding ritual come from? And can it survive the intensity and ubiquity of the 21st century digital workplace?

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So, it’s Friday morning. Soon, it will be Friday afternoon, and if the weather holds the outdoor tables of bars and restaurants will be crowded with beer drinkers and lazy lunchers who have taken off from work, in a ritual known as Summer Fridays.

In case you are unfamiliar with this complex behavior of the delicate species known as Homo Manhattanus, it works something like this: summer can be hot. Hot weather makes people unproductive, even if most office buildings are now air-conditioned. But the mere thought of all that humidity out there slows the mind. So, people are allowed to leave work early on Friday under the assumption that if they stayed around until five or even six, they’d just while away the hours looking at videos of cute dachshund puppies. (That’s what I do, at least, duties be damned). Although the practice is a de facto rule of the publishing industry, it has spread to other parts of Manhattan's white-collar sector.

Nobody really knows when, exactly, Summer Fridays started, though a study commissioned last year by Ultimat Vodka — I had no idea those guys had a sociology research department — posited the following:

Starting in the 1960s, New York advertising agencies began to realize that employee productivity on Fridays was close to zero when the summer sun was shining and beach houses beckoned. And so the unofficial weekly "Summer Friday" holiday was born, and soon quickly spread to other industries in offices across the country.

The New York Times, writing about the trend in 2010, quipped that "the media world seems particularly fond of summer Fridays. Maybe there’s something about a postprandial jitney ride that gets the creative juices flowing."

Yes, perhaps. Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke, a media reporter for The New York Observer who used to work for the publisher Henry Holt, told The Atlantic Wire that the “very nice perk,” as she calls Summer Fridays, is probably “a holdover from the old, glamorous days of publishing when people had to leave early to beat the Hamptons traffic.”

But those glamorous days of publishing certainly are distant, with Amazon nipping at the industry’s heels and consolidation leading to a loss of both jobs and enthusiasm. Sure, the likes of Paris Review founding editor Peter Matthiessen can spend as much time as he likes in what Vanity Fair calls an “endangered Sagaponack preserve” for the aging literary set. But for many younger media professionals, summer Fridays are a cruel reminder of how busy they are the rest of the week, how even a few hours of freedom on a Friday could, in turn, translate into a hectic Monday morning.

Matthiessen’s distant successor at The Paris Review, Sadie Stein, said that Summer Fridays at the legendary literary magazine, where she is a deputy editor, start at about 2 p.m. She loves “the luxury of daytime movies” and recently took a trip to the American Natural History Museum during her afternoon off. But as Stein also noted of the weekend’s early start, “it usually doesn’t make sense to leave that early,” since she maintains the Paris Review Daily blog.

And there lies the problem: for your average Manhattan media yupster of 2013, the workload is so great, she might as well stay at her desk through the weekend. As a Bloomberg Businessweek article on Summer Fridays noted:

survey by Captivate Network found that summer hours are bad for companies, hurting productivity and increasing stress if workers make up for lost hours Monday through Thursday. This might explain the 41 percent of Ultimat’s survey takers who say they often forfeit their Summer Friday benefit because their workload is too heavy.

Miranda Popkey, an associate editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, agrees with that assessment. “I often find myself working a more or less full day (I will allow myself one of those long lunches publishing used to be famous for),” she said, “though that probably has something to do with the air conditioning, which makes the office more appealing than my stuffy fourth-floor walk-up.”

Several of those who discussed Summer Fridays with the Wire expressed an obvious nostalgia for the days when the publishing resembled Mad Men bravado, when a long night at Elaine's or a boozy lunch at Michael's passed for all the social networking you'd ever need. When writers like Jay McInerney and Donna Tartt were stars, selling millions while exuding cool. When there was no iPad or Kindle Fire or Breaking Bad. That's no longer the case. Obituaries for the literary life have become a sort of cottage industry, while the tumescent growth of Amazon threatens the survival of the printed book. In the face of that, it's hard to justify taking extra time off. Besides, Elaine's is gone.

These days, then, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Stay in the office, and you might end up just waiting for the time to pass, doing nothing much. Truncate your Friday, however,  and you could be facing a mountain of emails on Saturday morning. Not to mention the tacit disapproval of co-workers who chose to soldier through the day instead of getting a head start on margaritas. Explains Sarah Weinman, news editor of Publishers Marketplace: "The secret is that Summer Fridays means people are at the offices longer the rest of the week. And everyone has email access on phones. So 'extra time off' is an illusion."

In addition, the rise of the digital workplace makes the middle-of-the-road solution the most likely one: stay home on Friday in your pajamas, but make sure to do your work. Some companies, though, explicitly look down on the practice. Three years ago, News Corporation head Rupert Murdoch posted the following notice to his employees: “It may be summer but work on Friday is just as important as it is in other seasons.” Tell that to the young gentleman spotted by the Wire exiting Ed's Lobster Bar in SoHo on a recent Friday afternoon, gleefully telling his lunch partner that, during the warmer months, every day of the week was Summer Friday. As Hemingway once wrote, it would be pretty to think so.

Additional reporting by Allie Jones.

Photo of woman in Central park: AP Photo/Gregory Bull office desk: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters; Elaine's: Frank Franklin II / AP Photo.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.