What I Learned from My 9 to 5
On Labor Day weekend, I’m usually at Dragon*Con, a massive gathering of fellow geeks replete with B-list celebrities, extravagant parties, and people-watching galore. This year, I’m too broke to go.
In March of this year, I gave up a salaried position with a great benefits package to pursue a new opportunity in a bigger city. My new job was a contract position with partial benefits, but it paid a higher wage and was promised to have opportunities for promotion and growth.
Four months later, I learned I’d been lied to: there was no opportunity to move up in this workplace. A month after that, the door was slammed in my face by a petulant supervisor.
This Labor Day, I’m reflecting on what it means to be one of the American workers we’re supposed to be praising. As we celebrate the achievements of unions, I’m reminded that I’ve never had the chance to be part of one. I’m reminded that I live in an at-will state in which I can be fired because someone doesn’t like the color of my shirt. I’m reminded that wage growth has not kept up with cost of living, and that I, as a millennial, will likely never recover from my years of lost wages.
Labor Day essentially began as a long strike on the first Monday of September 1882. New York’s Central Labor Union was seeking to mobilize workers of different industries in pursuit of one goal: to shorten the workdays and workweeks. In time, the 9-to-5 workday and 5-day workweek became solidified, and with it an illusion that those characteristics define a “real job.” This structure was heavily endorsed by business owners who wanted people to have time off to shop in their stores. Naturally, those stores needed to be open outside of the 9-to-5 hours, and so the retail industry has never had such hours for its workers. This, along with the myth that retail requires no skills, has led to a pervasive and problematic idea that retail is not a “real job.”
I worked these “not-real” jobs throughout my post-college years, unable to find employment in my field as the national economy was plagued by layoffs. At times, I imagined that retail was the career path I’d stay on. And indeed, I didn’t have a 9-to-5 schedule until late in my twenties, when I accepted a temp position at a local government. It was a strange feeling to have the same work hours every day, to have predictability in my schedule, to know how much I’d earn each week, although I quickly learned that getting to the doctor or bank was challenging when they held the same hours as my shift.
Not that I really needed to do such things when I was bouncing between healthcare options and saving a paltry $350 for retirement through Acorns. Having graduated college during the Great Recession, I’d never known job security or decent pay. I’d had exceptionally low standards for my career, once citing a $300/week gig at a local theatre as my “dream job.”
As we celebrate the achievements of unions, I’m reminded that I’ve never had the chance to be part of one.
My first salaried position was hard to come by: I started out as a part-time employee who was ineligible for overtime or holiday pay — and my employer shut down from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day every year. My boss, truly a remarkable woman, championed for me to be made full-time with benefits. I’d never had a salaried position, and I had no idea what to ask for in terms of pay. Looking back, I know I should have asked for more.
When that workplace turned toxic and my exceptional boss was let go, I sought my escape. And so when an opportunity to move to a larger city emerged, I jumped upon it. I abandoned security and salary in hopes of potential and promotion.
In my new 9-to-5, I was eligible for overtime, but I was quickly slapped on the wrist for working more than 40 hours per week. I realized that I’d been used to doing so; in my salaried position, I’d regularly worked all hours of the week without really thinking about it. Having to quantify my time made me anxious. I started to think of my work the way I had in retail: in terms of my hourly rate. I couldn’t help but work off the clock because my projects were important to me, but I also started to feel icky about it.
Ironically, it was because I avoided incurring overtime that I was let go, for “not taking ownership” of my projects by staying late at the office. I certainly would have stayed late and been paid more had I known this was expected, but I’d already been yelled at for staying late a few times too often and instructed by my boss to work my assigned hours. As soon as I did, they turned that against me.
As they faux-scolded me for “wanting to get off right at 5,” I was reminded of my retail managers who pretended that I was simply undedicated to my career, “in it for the money” rather than any sense of fulfillment. Those same managers would write me up for incurring overtime, even if I was helping a customer by staying a few minutes late. I was once blamed for the store going over budget because I clocked out two minutes late.
In my salaried position, I’d regularly worked all hours of the week without really thinking about it. Having to quantify my time made me anxious.
Although I knew that this was an excuse and that it was really my supervisor’s intense dislike of me that allowed her to end my contract in an at-will state, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed by the 9-to-5 scheme. Studies show that 9-to-5 workers are productive less than 3 hours out of the day. As a bonafide workaholic, I often worked straight through lunch and skipped my breaks. I get so passionate about my work that I eat, drink, and breathe it. Wasn’t I giving them more bang for my buck by being productive for the full 8 hours a day?
I always wanted a job where I could lead and pursue worthy projects, without fear that I’d be penalized for working too much or judged for wanting my time to be valuable. My 9-to-5 job promised security and fulfillment, but I never got that sense. I wanted to be valued for my time, but I also didn’t want to be reduced to it.
And so I began my career as a full-time writer and freelancer. Now, I set the hours and pay rate. I may not get paid holidays, but I can rest easy knowing that no one is judging me for taking time off. I can work 12-hour days if I want (although I can’t condone that). Most importantly, I can maximize my productive time rather than trying to make it through the afternoon slump.
The United States workforce may no longer comprise factory workers who work 70 hours a week, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. People need flexible schedules and better rates of pay. A shortened workday and workweek are in order. People should be able to pursue their career goals without being held to an arbitrary definition of a 9-to-5 as a “real job.”
This Labor Day, let’s talk about our labor instead of barbecues and sales. Let’s champion for a flexible approach that compensates people fairly and acknowledges all work as valid. Let’s break free of the 9-to-5 trap and look for ways to empower everyone to have the career they want.