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15 November 2023

The tyranny of the 9 to 5

There’s a better life.

By Sarah Manavis

Can you remember the worst part of your first 9 to 5? Was it the reality of commuting, grim cubicles, office politics? Mine was that it was actually an 8 to 5 (“I’m not paying you to have lunch”) conducted in a windowless basement, caked in dust, with colleagues who made sure to always have an eye on my screen. This, coupled with a long commute and my eager-to-please punctuality, meant beginning my day at 6:30, being glued to my screen, and getting home, at best, 11 hours later.

This routine – no doubt compounded by the dullness of the work – meant for an entire summer at 18 years old I was always exhausted. Outside of working, I did little else, even on the weekends: I was constantly trying to catch up on rest. Later on in my working life, things weren’t especially different. The mantra of the impossible triangle – that you can only ever have two of three things: success at work, good health and a happy social life – applied not just to me but to almost every person I knew working an office job.

Which is why it was surprising to see the backlash to a video that went viral on Twitter and TikTok at the end of October – accruing tens of millions of views across both platforms – of a young American woman talking about the reality of her first 9 to 5. Visibly tearful, but caveating her upset with the words “I’m probably being so dramatic and annoying”, she described her shock at how unrelenting working life was turning out to be. Her routine sounded like a typical day for most office workers: a long commute keeping her out of the house for nearly twelve hours each day, exhaustion by the time she got home, with little energy to do things beyond household tasks and eating dinner before bed. Even though she liked her job, she felt at a loss. “How do you have friends… How do you have time for dating?” she said. The solutions to these problems were out of reach – she couldn’t afford to spend substantially more to live nearer her job, and didn’t have the option of remote work. “I don’t have time for anything,” she said to camera. “I’m so stressed out.”

The viral Twitter caption read “Gen Z girl finds out what a real job is like”, which generated more than four thousand largely unsympathetic, mocking replies. This woman needs to get over herself. There are worse jobs out there. An airconditioned office is better than minimum wage in a factory. A consensus formed: this is just how things are.

[See also: WeWork’s bankruptcy proves no one wants to work in a utopia]

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Conversations about work-life balance have become especially pronounced in the last few years – often pitting in-office work against remote work. Anti-office sentiments have grown sharply after experiencing a small renaissance after the peak of the pandemic, a YouGov poll last week found that, since December 2021, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who would prefer flexibly working from home to full-time office work (now more than seven in ten office workers say they prefer to be at home at least some of the time). But while some remote work can blunt the hard edges of a 9 to 5, it doesn’t resolve the intense demands of the 40-hour work week, nor is it synonymous with a healthy work-life balance. Many workers are still left with only a handful of hours off the clock, and little room for sleep, exercise and chores – let alone leisure. The rigid five-day, 9 to 5 working pattern still reigns supreme.

Despite increasingly ample evidence of the personal and corporate benefits of getting rid of the 40-hour work week, the dominance of the 9 to 5 is hard to resist. As the response to that Gen Z-er’s video shows, many people simply refuse to imagine an alternative. Even when the evidence suggests that scrapping the 9 to 5 or implementing a four-day week has no negative impacts on productivity, plenty of people simply don’t buy it, accusing advocates for reform of being workshy and lazy. And for every video shedding light on the harsh realities of our working culture, there are a dozen more glamourising it. On TikTok and Instagram, a trend has emerged for pre- and post-work “5 to 9” routines, which almost exclusively show young women cleaning their homes, heating up a pre-prepared dinner and watching Netflix while they eat before heading to bed – framing this as aspirational, rather than austere and grim.

This persistent belief that all life, for ever, must mould itself around a five-day 9 to 5 might be seen as deep-seated pessimism – or even an active preservation of capitalist power structures. But I suspect for many people, it is a kind of blindness or resignation: while many people may be aware that they will never thrive under this way of living, they don’t believe it’s possible for these systems, which seem so concrete, to change. Being confronted with the quiet truth – that it’s hard to live a full life outside of full-time work, even if you do manage to log off at 5pm – is deeply uncomfortable. It’s easier to reinforce these deeply ingrained societal structures than to resist them.

But the way we work now does not help us lead the lives we want to live. For things to change, we have to believe that they can. With the rise of the four-day week, condensed hours and flexible working, we are inching towards an improved version of the 9 to 5 office job. But we’ll never get there if we continue to cover our ears and shout that this life is the best we’ll ever get.

[See also: CEOs are hugely expensive. Why not automate them?]

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