The Past and Future of Our Work and Leisure Time
By now, we’ve all heard accounts of how Americans are continuing to leave the traditional one-job, 40-hour work week behind or vice versa.
Whether because of remote flexibility, the rising ‘gig economy,’ flat wages, or other labor and tech disruptions, data suggests we increasingly are bringing our work home, or making homes at the office, or breaking up the work we do into many different pieces. Understandably, results vary.
At the same time, workloads often seem to be growing, and — in some fields — the expectation that workers should keep up or stay late (or both). In recent years, polling has found that the average full-time U.S. employee spends 47 hours a week working or more, and that many part-time and gig workers spend even longer. Smartphones can make us ‘always on,’ and on call, too.
As our culture moves away from its prior distinctions around work, play, and ‘private life,’ then, it’s seemingly up to us to reconsider what we deem time well spent, and why—and whether the ways we currently organize our time are worth the cost to our health, planet, and productivity.
For that matter, as iconic as punch clocks and water coolers may be, the ‘nine to five’ job has never been every worker’s daily reality, or their preference. It’s also quite a recent invention. For millennia, most people conducted their business at where they lived, whether it was farming, smithing, preaching, or giving medical care. Over the years, certain kinds of work drew people together out of necessity or authority.
A brief history of modern work
As researchers Agustin Chevez and DJ Huppatz explained for The Conversation last year, “The origins of the modern office lie with large-scale organisations such as governments, trading companies and religious orders that required written records or documentation” (likely making monks and other scholars the first-ever cubicle dwellers). In Europe, for example, offices didn’t really start to take hold until the 17th century, when lawyers, clerks, and other “new professionals” began spending their days at established headquarters from Amsterdam to Paris.
With the Industrial Revolution, Western workers also began filling in assembly lines at new urban factories and slaughterhouses—which, due to businesses’ wide abuses and exploitation, soon drove workers to fight and die for better treatment. It also led to the creation of the 40-hour week, which labor advocates have sought to maintain, and to extend to all workers, ever since.
By the 1960s, offices were looking a good deal more like they do today, but most opted to put managers in private offices and seat the rest of their desk workers in open “bullpen” layouts. Around that time, the American design company Herman Miller asked the inventor and artist Robert Propst to investigate design solutions for offices outside of the realm of furniture. After exploring various concepts and tools, Propst developed a series of vertical panels that could be used in numerous configurations to break up the bullpen layout, establish meeting spaces, and offer “both privacy and a view,” The Economist explained. Propst also thought workers should be able to sit, stand, or even nap throughout the work day, and suggested his partitions be used in 120º angles for maximum effect.
“But his customers realised that they could squeeze more people in if they constructed cubes. A rigid 90º connector was therefore designed to join a panel to one, two or three more,” The Economist noted. “Thus was born the cubicle, and Propst came to be known as its creator. He was horrified.”
In the decades since, many companies have sought to ‘disrupt’ the modern office and explore ways of making it a nicer, more productive place to work. In that time, researchers have also been able to pin down a number of problems with most workplaces, as well as their very real impacts for workers and work itself.
The health impact of modern work
Despite Propst’s intentions, few indoor workers currently have a view, or, in many cases, good access to sunlight. According to research cited by the Economist, these kinds of conditions have been shown to have negative impacts both workers and hospital patients, who show better health outcomes and more productivity when given natural light and a view. Workers also don’t have much privacy, given the light- but not sound-proof nature of cubicles and other common layouts.
And the prolonged physical inactivity required by most ‘seated’ jobs, we now know, can have many detrimental effects.
For years, research has also suggested that eight hours in an office simply will not yield eight hours of work, anyway (it may be closer to three). It’s further shown that, for workers individually and as a group, certain periods of the day are always busy, and others a total wash.
Our health, diet, sleep, and other personal factors will affect how hazy, or on, or over it we feel throughout the day, of course. But scientists have also found numerous indications that our brains simply work better — or, perhaps, just work — when we give them breaks, and changes in activity type, and generally the time and opportunity to sort through very complex tasks and huge amounts of data that they handle.
Whether we’re in the shower, on a walk, or asleep and dreaming, time spent letting our minds wander not only helps us feel better and have ‘lightbulb’ ideas, but seemingly allows our brains to form or access literal connections that determine our comprehension of the world.
Flexibility and its consequences
Increasingly, the desire to improve employees’ health and their productivity has motivated companies to let employees with remote-compatible jobs stay home, or even ask them to. As Everyday Health reported in 2015, working from home seems to have a number of health benefits, though remembering to eat well, take breaks, and get exercise remains important. In several surveys, remote employees have also indicated that they need companies to provide more of the support and equipment they need, which can include a decent desk-and-chair setup.
Inc. also pointed out last year that working from home appears to make people “happier and ‘massively’ more productive,” according to researchers. Despite the on-site gyms, meeting plazas, and climbing cafes that some of the biggest firms have incorporated, the site concluded, “Companies that are forcing employees to come into their glitzy but noisy and distracting open-plan offices would be much better off if they instead let their employees work from home most of the time. To which I say: duh.”
Doing work at home (if you’re lucky enough) or splitting it up between different times and locations doesn’t solve all our ‘work problems,’ however. Data suggests that workers with more flexibility actually end up working more hours than time-regimented workers, and being more stressed about their performance — sometimes a lot more.
Heejung Chung, a senior sociology and social policy lecturer at the University of Kent, told the BBC in 2016 that her research found that flexible workers both put in more hours and, in some cultures, were increasingly worried about job stability. "On average, employees with working-time autonomy work the longest overtime hours,” Chung explained.
“In general, if you have more control over your working hours you tend to worry more when you are not at work – and this is especially the case for those workers with most control over when and where they work,” Chung said. “This increase in tendency to worry seems to be highest in countries with high unemployment rates, less stable labor market conditions, and if employees have a lack of negotiating power.”
Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at U.C. Santa Barbara, pointed out for CNBC earlier this year that non-employees can also see the worst of the equation. "Contract workers work 100 hours per week with no overtime," Lichtenstein said. "Today, the eight-hour day is falling apart from both ends."
In the U.S., unemployment rates are fairly low, but the labor market is swiftly changing, and sudden diversions in tech and policy have affected all industries. Many full- and part-time or contract employees have also indicated they’re feeling the pressure, whether because their wages and protections are too low, employers’ demands have gotten too high, or they feel company strategies are just headed in the wrong direction. And as helpful as pajamas and flexibility can be, at-home workers definitely show signs of strain.
As Monster.com reported in 2014, a range of serious health issues are attributed to stress and what’s called job strain, defined as a combination of high job demands and low job control. Some studies have suggested that job strain can raise workers’ risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by a “whopping” 45%, and still holds a real risk for people with a normal BMI.
Meanwhile, the CDC has found that long-term stress can lead to chronic health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, psychological problems, and musculoskeletal issues, and that injury and disease rates rise when employees see longer stretches of stress at work. It has further stated that health care costs for people under high levels of stress go up by 50%.
As it happens, our latest generation of workers may be headed down a path of job stress and overwork already. A recent survey found that millennials are more likely than gen Xers or boomers to identify themselves as “work martyrs” who sacrifice themselves for the job, while nearly half of them considered it a good thing.
It also found that, while 37% of millennials get 10 or fewer vacation days a year, compared to 20% of gen Xers and 18% of boomers, 24% of millennials are likely to give up those days, versus 19% of gen Xers and 17% of boomers. As Forbes reported, however, “Taking time off is linked with better productivity and higher work performance. It also puts money back into the economy: if workers took off an extra day, it’d benefit the economy by $73 billion and reflect back into the workplace.”
The future of our work and leisure time
At the end of the day, this massive pool of data on workers’ lives offers a lot to think about.
We know that nearly all workers should sleep more, and spend more time with children and family, and exercise or get out more often. Many would also love the chance to travel, or study, or do the work of trying to eat well on a budget, or to vote regularly.
Plenty of workers want to find a better job, too (and often try while ‘at work’). After all, everyone wants to be good at what they do, for a living and with their time generally. But it takes practice, and often training. And certainly food and rest.
Given technology’s rising ability to fill some of the most strenuous, repetitive, and even perilous jobs out there — and its inability for certain tasks, at least in the foreseeable future — many economic and social thinkers have been pushing for greater focus on optimizing humans’ unique abilities. That includes providing training and support for new caregivers, teachers, medical practitioners, and a wide array of science- and tech-heavy roles that require ample human insight and agility.
As the The Guardian explored this year, some experts and analysts have even started imagining a future when our needs may be covered without our holding down any jobs to this end: in other words, perhaps, a world where time no longer equals money. There seems to be plenty of money and sustaining resources in the world now, after all, if people (and their advanced tech) can just sort out how to manage them.
But as past and present workers will tell you, time is always in shorter supply than we think — and while we can’t take it with us, we can still make plans to protect it, for ourselves and people to come, before it’s too late.
Illustration by Sergio Membrillas