Sean McHugh | Eclectic Autodidact: 'Traditional' workday woes


With the start of the New Year, a strange conjunction occurred. As my 10-hour holiday shifts dropped away, my work schedule subtly altered to a more "traditional" American 9 to 5 work day. Simultaneously, my lady wife secured a new source of employment that also follows this schedule due to her years of hard work and one of the fairy gifts bestowed on her at her birth (there was also a curse, but recent OSHA regulations pertaining to garment manufacture took the teeth out of that one).

The net result is that for once, I'm living in the waking world, and I have mixed feelings about that. The problem, I've discovered, is that the real world has other people in it. The grocery stores have lines when you go at times other than midmorning or late at night. When I go to movies on the weekends, there are other people in the theater so I have to be quiet. Museums have crowds. Phone lines are busy. And for some reason, traffic is really bad for like an hour on the way to and from work. Has that always been a thing? Is there a name for that?

A lot of my preconceptions about work hours come from the fact that growing up, both my parents worked Monday to Friday, more or less from 9 to 5, so that always appeared to be the hours for "grown-up jobs." This view was buoyed by the clich├ęs of the 20th-century sitcom, which only depicted alternate working hours as part of a single episode plots in which a character would have to take on a preposterous job in order to raise money to pay off an equally preposterous short term expense, usually incurred through shenanigans.

But when you examine it, our "business hours" concept is one of those collective belief things that we all have to buy into for it to work, like money, or the latest faux celebrity. But in this case, a naked emperor is still the head of state, and just being aware of the fakeness of it all won't end it. However, experiencing this shift has led me to look at the structure of the American employment system in a new way. Our society is stratified into different groupings based on which hours a person works.

If you work the "standard" (note to self: going over budget on air quotes this week) Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work week, then you are part of World One. Things like restaurants and weekend festivals exist for your pleasure. They will however be jam packed with all the other jerks who share your schedule. You'll have to plan both recreation and responsibilities weeks in advance, but since your workdays don't move around as much, you can get away with it.

World Two is occupied by support industries to World One. It is occupied by the people who work in restaurants and bars, movie theaters, and evening shifts at stores, providing the outlet for the disposable income inhabitants of World One. Life will be like living in a beach town in the winter. A lot of places will be closed, but you get your run of the place without having to put up with all the tourists and you can just show up places without having to call ahead.

Both worlds are interlocked in an eternal paradox. The dwellers of World One can't interact with each other, only with the denizens of World Two and vice versa. Office workers have to take time off to go to doctor's appointment, or run errands on lunch breaks. Waitstaff don't get to go to restaurants or evening movies.

(There is a World Three as well, of course, which occupies those professions who cannot be allowed to go silent, even in the dead of night, lest the world crumble. Much like the actual third world, we don't think about them very often, unless we suddenly find ourselves low on gasoline at an inopportune time.)

At some point we'll reach a point where urbanization, globalization, and layers of smog blotting out the sun will push all human industry and commerce into full 24 hour rotations: A series of parallel existences each waiting on the one before without any taking precedence. After a long work period we can kick back with our shift two friends and complain about how the service is terrible during shift three, and be glad that the candidates for Shift Two president aren't as crazy as the ones running for Shift One president.


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