It seems inherently contradictory that that most mundane of social institutions, the 40-hour working week, should have served as muse to country darling Dolly Parton, and it is especially ironic that the classic song ‘9 to 5’ was written by a woman who had probably never worked an ordinary day in her life. For the rest of us, however, the nine to five working day is an ubiquitous reality, whether to be avoided, dreaded, or, perhaps grudgingly, accepted.
Increasingly, though, with ever-greater numbers of entrepreneurs and freelancers, the arbitrariness of measuring productivity in eight-hour blocks is being questioned. For a start, it hardly seems to be the most effective approach; studies have reported that the average worker gets less than three hours’ worth of work done in a typical eight-hour day. Why, then, when we freely accept that some people are afternoon burn-outs and others do their best work when they need a desk lamp to see by, do so many businesses continue to insist on a homogenous approach to time management?
The short answer is capitalism. Supposedly, the motor manufacturer Henry Ford switched his employees’ work schedules from a six-day to a five-day work week in 1926 because he understood the importance of leisure time in encouraging spending and allowing time to use consumer products. Whether these were his exact intentions, or he was just bowing to pressure from trade unions in an attempt to attract the best workers from other companies, the clear division between work and leisure is often accepted as perpetuating the capitalist cycle. We are willing to pay much more for entertainment and leisure activities, because we have much less time in which to do them. A clearly-defined leisure period is essential for the sort of casual, careless spending that is the lifeblood of most corporations, as we only have evenings and weekends to build the life – or the image of it – that we aspire to.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps slightly hysterical to suggest, as this argument does, that we are monitored and controlled by the capitalist machine of which the 40-hour week is an essential propeller. There are obvious benefits to the employee; long before Ford effectively invented the nine to five, trade unions had been calling for a limit on working hours at a time when many people were still working 12-hour days, with leisure time virtually non-existent. Further, many people prefer the clear division between work and play, allowing them to ‘switch off’; although, in our tech-drenched society, maintaining these clear divisions is becoming increasingly impossible.
The rise of technology, in fact, is a key factor in why we are starting to see the nine to five a little differently. Being tied to your desk for eight hours a day made sense in a world of landlines and face-to-face communication, but now that the desk-and-filing cabinet model has been subordinated to the laptop, the need to physically travel into an office is becoming antiquated. This rejection of rigidity at work is reflected in the desires of current graduates; a Millennial Branding report found 45 per cent of millennials would prioritise work flexibility over pay.
Why, then, does the 40-hour week structure persist? The continued sanctity of this kind of scheduling is reflected in the recent legislation that punishes parents who take their children out of school for family holidays, often because it is cheaper during term-time. In this way we are conditioned into the nine to five lifestyle early, and much of its persistence is probably due to habit. We accept it as a marker of success and financial stability, and on a day-to-day basis rarely give it much thought. There is nothing like the student lifestyle, however, to throw light on the 40-hour week. Depending on your view, the student schedule, which rarely follows a clockwork approach to time management, reveals the nine to five either as arbitrary and constraining, or as a logical and comfortable way of working to which we can only aspire. Despite the increasing prevalence of the former view, it seems unlikely that the 40-hour week will be thrown completely out of the window any time soon. However, it certainly seems that, when standing on the precipice of a career, increasing numbers of graduates might turn their backs on a traditional way of working and look for something that better enables them to design their own work-life balance.