September 04, 2001

work and too little time

I skipped going to the gym this morning because it wasn't open as early as I
usually go, a fact Rudder verified by heading over there at 4:30 or so. (I usually
don't get there until well after 5.) So he came back home and we went back to
sleep, together in our wonderful soft warm bed, prolonging our holiday weekend by
two more precious hours.

I always find it almost offensive that I spend more awake time with my assigned
coworkers (or at the moment, with my cats) than I do with the husband I chose and
with whom I spoke my vows. This to me is one of the prime indicators that there
are serious flaws in the modern model of work, at least in the office sort of job
where I've spent my career.

We heard something on the radio the other day about the introduction of the eight-
hour day, a radical idea for its time. The slogan was "Eight hours to work, eight
hours to sleep, eight hours or recreation." That still sounds like an ideal
proportion until you consider how that eight hours is spent. A typical proportion
might be:

  • one hour to wake up, shower, and dress
  • 2 hours getting to and from work -- loading the car, driving, parking
  • 1 hour for lunch -- breakfast is grabbed on the run
  • 1.5 hours for dinner -- cooking and eating it
  • one hour for exercise
  • 0.5 hours to get ready for bed

This adds up to 6 hours out of that "recreation time", and so far this
hypothetical person hasn't so much as played a game of solitaire -- and notice I
haven't even included time to take care of pets, much less children. Add in time
to dress and feed the kids, take them to sports practice, music class, or
playgroup, and forget about having any "quality" time left over. Having two days
off for every five we work sounds like a reasonable compromise, until we have to
spend our weekends catching up on the chores, errands and housework we have no
time for during the week.

And so we rush. In the attempt to snatch a few more minutes of discretionary time,
we compress our morning routine, eat lunch at our desk while working, grab takeout
food for dinner that can be eaten while standing and doing something else. No
wonder we all feel flurried; no wonder I'm still enjoying being unemployed.

Part of this imbalance is because the idea of designating time for work and
recreation is fairly new and we still haven't worked out all the bugs. To the
working class in more agriculturally-based times, the only time adults dedicated
purely to recreation might be a neighborhood dance, held once a month or so. The
compensation for this, before the rise of factory work, was that more of the work
itself might be combinable with pleasure. A group of women doing the family sewing
might gossip or take turns reading to each other; shopkeepers living behind the
store might have their children with them, helping out or being watched over
according to age; farmers mending tack in the long winter evenings might tell
stories or sing with their families. (The decline in attention span can be
measured in the decreasing length of the songs people sing. Older ballads might
have run to 50 verses, with some being made up to fit the story to local

As office and factory jobs -- that is, work outside the homestead -- grew to
consume more of the population, other balances evolved. In Jane Austen's Pride
and Prejudice
, Eliza Bennett's uncle, though in "trade" seems to have plenty
of time to travel with his family. But what of the poorer men who worked for him?
Dickens shows that no care was given to the recreational time of the poor -- Bob
Cratchett barely has Christmas Day off to spend with his family; his wife
shoulders all the care of the house and children (and probably earned a few bob
whenever she could, working at home). The labor movement, among other factors, has
improved the lot of the Bob Cratchits. His 21st century great grandson and
granddaughter at least get to eat dinner with their families -- if the kids aren't
out at soccer practice, that is. Now it's the bosses and the professionals who
work the 12 hour days, sometimes to make more money, sometimes just to keep their

There are people whose work is a vocation. Sometimes, if it's a noble enough
vocation, we even sympathize when they spend less time on other obligations. No
one says Nelson Mandela should have renounced his principles in order to stay out
of jail to bear Winnie company. But these are rare exceptions. The ideal would be
to combine a true vocation with the time for family an friends -- this is the
solution Louisa May Alcott finds in her recently resurgent book Work. For
the rest of us, though, where true vocations are not obvious, we need a better way
to combine work and pleasure, so that we can all have some of both, without
waiting for the weekend.

Posted by dichroic at September 4, 2001 04:59 PM
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