Resolving The 9-to-5 Paradox

Making New Year’s resolutions about work/life balance? If you want to tilt the scales towards either more working or more living this year, how much control does your household have to make it happen?

Work/life balance conversations inevitably get framed in terms of work quantity. Are we working too much, or too little? How well are we getting compensated for the hours that we do work?

Here and in Europe, employers are typically the ones calling the shots about total number of hours their employees work each week, with some government intervention. There’s almost always a minimum limit for full-time work—40 hours in the United States and United Kingdom, 35 to 40 in Germany, and 35 in France. For our purposes, I’m going to use the term 9-to-5 as a thumbnail for the particular brand of full-time employment that dominates our working culture here in the United States.

What about maximum limits for working time in a week? For E.U. nations, 48 hours of work per week is a mandatory maximum designed to establish a cultural standard that “protects people’s health and safety.” The United Kingdom claims an exception to this rule that legalizes 48+ hour weeks but requires additional compensation for hours beyond the 48. For France, the full-time 35-hour week is also a mandatory maximum.

In the United States, a maximum limit on weekly working hours is rarely articulated, much less legislated, as a cultural value. Instead, we look to tacit, organization-specific mores to determine where the line of reason gets drawn. Employees take their cues from high-achieving peers and executives on what the work week should look like (at least, in order to be successful in a particular work environment). For some, particularly wage earners, working hours get tracked and treated according to time-and-a-half policies, and the extra pay required may force an organization to articulate a maximum. For most of the salaried class, while hours may be tracked, compensation doesn’t directly correlate to hours (beyond the required minimum).

From a worker’s perspective, the great part about the 9-to-5 job is supposed to be that it’s measurable, clear cut, and predictable: 40 hours of in-the-office, real-time work. When you’re on, you’re on. Those other 128 hours each week are that thing we call “life.”

So why are so many of us making New Year’s resolutions about work/life balance? Therein lies the 9-to-5 paradox. In modern working culture, work and life aren’t mutually distinguishable from each other. There’s a whole lot of livin’ happening at work, and a whole lot of workin’ happening during life.

Though we still use the metric of hours to evaluate balance, it’s tougher than ever to actually track Real Hours Worked (or Lived, for that matter). Who doesn’t know the family in which the 9-to-5 looks more like the “most-hours-between-9-and-5-plus-after-the-kids-go-to-bed-until-the-work-gets-done”? This phenomenon is endemic enough that we could call it the “MHB9&5PAKGTBUWGD,” if it didn’t make for such terrible shorthand.

In Germany, where worker burnout is the highest in Europe, a few employers have started to combine company policy with technological constraints to limit “off-hours” work time for employees. Reuters is calling it “the backlash against 24-hour connectivity,” reporting that employers like Volkswagen are actually disconnecting corporate email on mobile devices during non-working hours, at the behest of unions (although the new constraints don’t apply for executives).

These are clearly well intentioned moves aimed at favoring the “life” part of the equation. But the basic premise—that individual worker behavior is the problem, and that workers need to be protected from themselves—is troublesome. At the same time that work/life balance enthusiasts like me applaud this sort of strong move by employers like Volkswagen, we have to question what’s flawed with the basic model of work culture itself.

The 9-to-5 paradigm is convenient and problematic because it perpetuates the myth that employees can police worker behavior—both under- and over-performance—by enforcing a certain quantity of hours worked. It sets as its currency the standard of “face time,” whereby what’s important is to show up in a physical office during regular business hours in order to be monitored. This “presenteeism” makes it difficult for employers to imagine other ways of evaluating employee performance that might be more meaningful than number of hours clocked, or even who was up late at home sending work email.

And it makes it difficult for us to measure our own work/life balance in more meaningful terms, too.

Thankfully, modern work culture is evolving, albeit slowly. Flexible work practices are heralding a new era of work in which employees have much more control over how much, when, and where they work, causing Time magazine to recently hail the beginning of the end of the 9-5 workday. Gen Y is coming of age, and demanding flexible work practices as critical to their conception of work/life fulfillment. (For the record, although I’m on the cusp, I’m one of those Gen-Y types recently studied by Cisco who believe that they have a right to work remotely with a flexible schedule, and that being in an office regularly is unnecessary.)

These signs of change give me hope that we won’t always define balance using the crude scale of hours. Creating a new work culture will necessarily involve developing a vocabulary for talking about quality. From an employer’s perspective, this might look like measuring employees based on their output and their results, irrespective of how much or how little they work. For us as workers, we’ll need to find new ways of inspecting the complex intersection of different types of work and what is meaningful to us in the overall matrix of our modern lives. Perhaps we’ll seek out a new metaphor beyond the “balancing act” for talking about work/life dynamics.

For now, in 2012, what ways does your household have to structure and evaluate your work/life mix? And what controls do you have to help you strike the right balance?

Misty McLaughlin edits the Family section of Role/Reboot. She is a parent by vocation, a nonprofit web consultant by trade, and a writer and seamstress by fits and starts. Among other topics, she’s passionate about exploring issues of gender and generation, helping other households to find cultural loopholes that allow them to make their own models, and promoting institutional support for rebooting our roles. Follow her on Twitter @mistymclaughlin.

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