“On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Adamson Act, which established an eight-hour workday, with additional pay for overtime work, for railroad workers.”—The Opportunity Agenda
“…as late as a century and a half ago [from 1995] the Japanese day was not divided into twenty-four hours. Instead it was broken down into six equal periods whose lengths varied according to the seasons of the year. Even after they were imported, in the sixteenth century, Western clocks had to be mechanically adjusted to suit the old system of time.”—Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture
I’ve been working from home for a long time. Years before this Covid-19 quarantine. The promise of working from home is that you have unlimited freedom. You can schedule your day however you like, you can work from a beach hut in Aruba (if travel to Aruba is allowed).
Like a lot of workaholic tech bros and desk-chained jet fuel fetishists, I read Tim Ferriss’ fantasy memoir The 4-Hour Workweek. I did the math on dental holidays in Vietnam and Indian virtual assistants, but I couldn’t get it to add up.
That’s not entirely true. I do work just four hours some weeks — if “work” doesn’t count the work of creative writing and art-making and reading and learning and exploring the random ideas I might incorporate in to some creative project one day. Art doesn’t work on a railroad worker’s schedule.
Work for my paying clients comes in waves. Several projects might have deadlines the same week. Several clients might take December off.
The problem is that I can’t pay my bills if too many of those four-hour workweeks stack up. So I structure my day around the traditional nine to five, even when I don’t have a lot of work to do. I get up early to write before I feel guilt over not answer my clients’ workday emails. I put away my writing and focus on paying projects around 9 or 10 a.m. I rest midday with lunch and books or podcasts.
I quit around 5 or 6 p.m. and shift thoughts to fun and friends and distractions and dinner.
I don’t know that I’ve ever had a real 8-hour workday — at least not for more than a few weeks at a temp job. When I worked in politics and advocacy campaigns, the business hours were nine to five, but the culture was more like 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Working less showed you weren’t committed to the cause.
When I worked in coffee shops and restaurants, the hours were highly irregular: four hours one day, ten hours the next. Sometimes I was looking for a forty-hour workweek and couldn’t get it. Other times I had two or three jobs. Twenty hours at an art gallery, ten at a restaurant, six in an odd job cleaning up a new gallery space or designing a website.
With unemployment skyrocketing and more and more jobs being automated, will there be eight hours of work, five days a week, for all who want them? As it stands, those with connections and schooling and privilege can get high-pressure jobs that demand sixty or eighty hours per week. Those without used to be able to cobble together two or three ten- and twenty-hour low-wage jobs to work the fifty or sixty hours needed to get by. What would it look like if the sixty hours at the high pay, high-pressure job were split in to two jobs? What would it look like if low-wage workers could get by on thirty hours instead of sixty?