I was sitting in traffic the other day. Sitting in traffic, by the way, is something I would prefer not to do. It’s a supreme waste of time, particularly on this island which is only twenty-one miles long. And a question bubbled up to the surface of my mind. It was this. Why am I sitting in traffic?
The answer, on the face of it, was so simple one would have to be simple not to get it: Because it’s a quarter to nine in the morning.
It was far too simple an answer for me, I can tell you. My mind is an unruly thing. Another question came burbling up. But why?
The answer came from Out There, wherever That might be: Because people work nine to five.
My response was: no, they don’t. And I meant it.
Now, I’m not talking Sting-time here, though I could be. No; what I mean is this. People’s brains don’t simply turn on at nine in the morning and turn off at five. Thinking isn’t something that knows the hours on the face of a clock; thoughts come when they come, and there’s not a lot one can do about it. Contrary to what we’ve been trained to think, work â€” and particularly twenty-first-century work â€” is not best done in eight-hour blocks, with an hour in the middle for lunch.
So why do we insist that work involves reporting to a building at nine o’clock and leaving it at five?
To answer that fully, we have to have some idea of the origins of the twin concepts of labour and production, which incorporate the idea that a person can exchange what he or she does with hands or brain for money. Now, the thought that what I produce is separable from me, something I can sell at a price determined by someone else, has the kind of peculiarity that becomes greater and greater the longer you examine it, but never mind that.
Quite simply, it’s an idea that became current during the industrial revolution, when the creation of factories and mass production changed the way that work was regarded. In a factory, you see, individuals are hired for the use of their hands and for their presence, and very little beyond that. Especially after the production line was invented, the only purpose for employing human beings in a factory was to make sure the machines did their jobs as they should. But in economies that rely on other kinds of production, labour is not something that you can separate from people. One carpenter is not just as good as another, nor are two masons alike; you pay for the quality of the work produced, and not for the body that produces it. Even in an agricultural society, labour is only saleable during periods in which it doesn’t matter who does the work, such as harvest time; during the rest of the year, skills matter.
In short, the creation of factories created the concept of work as being something separate from the human being. Before that time, one did one’s work where one found oneself; work spaces and home spaces overlapped, and workdays were determined by the projects one had to complete. On the farm, for instance, an eight-hour day means very little at all. You work till you finish what you have to do! If you finish it in four hours, good for you â€” and if it takes you twelve, well, there it is. Similarly, for an artisan or an artist, work is measured by the completion of a job. There’s no value in sitting down from nine to five in one’s workspace if it produces nothing at the end of the day.
Now this makes sense to me. Work should be measured by achievement, by what is accomplished in a sitting, not by how long one spends on the job. Thing is, our society appears to believe the myth that a job is something detachable from a person. Someone asking for “a job” is more often than not asking for a place to be sent for eight hours a day, five days a week, with a pay check coming every now and then. What that job is hardly seems to matter. If one reports on time, leaves on time, and pushes the requisite amount of paper or cement around then that pay check just keeps on a-coming.
Now this, I submit is odd. Even odder: far too many of these jobs appear to have to start at nine in the morning and end at five at night.
What I don’t get is this. It’s perfectly possible for a person to be present in body between nine and five and doing no work at all â€” and it’s equally possible for a person to be in traffic, or in bed, or in the shower, and to be working harder than the person at the desk. Inspiration doesn’t know hours; anyone who has been woken up at three in the morning with an idea that just won’t quit knows that this nine-to-five deal is a scam, an artificial set period that make it easier for accountants and bosses to deal out the dollars, but which really has very little to do with work.
I have been a bureaucrat, a hotel worker, a writer and a teacher in my life. There’s nothing magic about nine to five beyond the magic imparted by traffic jams, stress, and air pollution. I had the great fortune to have been employed in a twenty-four hour service industry at the beginning at my career, and so learned early that even working eight hours a day doesn’t mean you have to work nine to five; I worked every shift my position allowed, from seven-to-three to four-to-twelve. As a teacher, I learned that being in the classroom for six hours a day is no measure whatsoever of how hard one works. People who believe that teachers have it good (they get off at three/they have long vacations) should try it. During those six hours, there is no downtime; you’re lucky to get to sip some tea. Even when one leaves the classroom, one continues to work as long as one is awake, preparing, marking, thinking. And as a writer, I know that my brain does not turn off when I leave the office. Oddly enough, it seems to turn on.
The thing is this. We no longer live in the industrial age. In this country, we never did. The age of the internet erodes all boundaries. Nine to five is obsolete. Isn’t it about time we recognized this fact, and gave some thought to changing the horrid nine to five?