Why the breakdown of the 9-5 job is making us lonelier

21st December, 2023

Why does nobody have spontaneous fun any more? You can blame the economists for this one, if you like. Specifically, blame the Soviet economist Yuri Larin, who in May 1929 proposed the idea of nepreryvka, the “continuous work week”.

At the time, most people in the Soviet Union lived according to the rhythm of a traditional seven-day week, with Sunday a day of rest for all and Saturday a second day off for some. Larin’s plan, enthusiastically backed by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, would change all that. Larin’s idea was to move to a five-day cycle, with four days working and one day of rest. Workers were handed a slip of paper, yellow, orange, red, purple or green. On this arbitrary basis, their rest days were allocated. Yellow workers all got one day off at the same time; green workers all had a different rest day. The yellows and the greens would never again take the same day off.

You can see why an economist proposed this idea: as long as you don’t think too hard about real people, it has much to recommend it. Many workers would get a day off more often, and everyone would get an equal allocation of time off. Valuable resources from machines to roads to shops would no longer stand idle for one or two days a week but would be used all year round. Since your rest day was shared only with a few, it would be easier to access services on your day off — anything from a haircut to a doctor’s appointment.

But the problem was obvious enough. How could a sports team meet to play on a rest day morning? Or a choir get together to sing? What if one spouse was a yellow and another spouse a green? “What is there for us to do at home if our wives are in the factory, our children at school, and nobody can visit us?” complained one worker. (His complaint is recorded in Mapping Time, a history of calendars by EG Richards.)

And while some Soviet officials rather liked the disruption to people’s ability to gather together, the system was soon regarded as a failure. A collective day of rest was reintroduced in 1931 and, as Stalinist excesses go, nepreryvka is little more than a curiosity.

Yet it is a curiosity that has attracted the attention of contemporary writers. Writing in The Atlantic magazine in 2019, Judith Shulevitz pointed out that many low-income workers had their hours set unpredictably, and at short notice, by a capricious-seeming algorithm. The hours might be too short to pay the bills, or exhaustingly long, but they might also be nepreryvka hours: reasonable enough when viewed in isolation, but desynchronised. This desynchronisation makes it impossible for people to socialise with friends, to join clubs or participate in community activities, or even to see their own partners.

A couple of years later, Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks pointed out that people at the other end of the economic ladder might be trapped in a nepreryvka of their own making: the hybrid workers, the freelancers and, above all, the digital nomads of Instagram. All had unprecedented control over where and when they worked. They could write code in a Bermuda beach-house. They could handle their emails from a Scottish glen. Or, on a mundane level, they could take a yoga class instead of the morning commute. All very pleasant, but one risk is that they end up doing all these things alone.

When we all worked 9-to-5 at the office, we could bond together in the canteen, meet up for a drink after work on Friday, and feel confident that not only would we be free on Sunday but that all of our friends would be free too. Now everything is out of step: you can do what you want, but good luck finding someone who happens to be free at the same time to do it with you.

The hybrid knowledge worker is in a vastly more privileged position than the zero-hours contractor who could have their social life, education or childcare thrown into chaos by sudden, random demands to show up and start working. Still, both problems are real.

Even Stalin only let the nepreryvka disaster last for a couple of years. Is there any prospect that modern capitalist societies can fix their own problems too? For workers in precarious positions, there is some hope that enlightened self-interest will prevail. For most jobs, it’s surely preferable for a large employer to deal with the cost and hassle of fluctuating business requirements than it is for employees to cope with relentless uncertainty.

As MIT professor Zeynep Ton argued in her book The Good Jobs Strategy, employers who figure this out will get better, more experienced and more committed staff than employers who offload all the costs of uncertainty on to their workforce.

The rest of us may have to rely on some time-honoured traditions. A decade ago, a team of researchers led by the psychology professor Terry Hartig examined the effect of vacation on people’s demand for antidepressants — but they took an unusual approach. As well as asking whether taking a vacation made people feel less in need of antidepressant medication — it does — they also found that the more people were on holiday simultaneously, the happier everyone was.

As Burkeman explains, there’s nothing strange about this: it’s easier to enjoy your holiday if you have other people to enjoy it with.

Which brings me to Christmas. For the Harford family, figuring out who would be where over Christmas and New Year started in July and hit overdrive in October. Such long-range diary planning seems onerous and absurd. Why can’t we be a bit more spontaneous? But if advance planning the Christmas get-togethers is what it takes to escape our self-inflicted nepreryvka, advance planning it shall be. There is a season for spontaneity; Christmas isn’t it.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 24 November 2023.

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