I continue to think about the issue of declining Labor Participation rates: the proportion of working age adults who are not employed or looking for work. I fall in that category and I have my own reasons that I’m pretty sure are unique to my circumstances. I wonder about what could explain others for dropping out of the market.
One thing that occurs to me is the changing nature of the culture of work. By culture, I refer to everything about the workplace that is not specific to doing the tasks of the job description. Such a topic is too big for armchair blogging, but I’ll dabble around the edges any way.
For this discussion, I want to focus on the office job type of employment. This job is characterized by official office hours when one is expected to be at his desk or at least reachable by colleagues or managers. I want to focus more specifically on the type of job were these hours are strictly accounted in time-keeping for pay and for billable purposes. This is still a majority of office jobs, but I want to exclude the exceptional cases where there is more leniency on accountability.
The nature of office hours has changed a lot over the past several decades. While we still expect a set work-week number of hours, we treat these hours differently now than we did earlier.
One of my earliest memories, usually from the TV and movies, was the idea of a 9 to 5 job with a one hour lunch. The job started promptly at 9, ended promptly at 5, and everyone left the office (the entire premise) for lunch for exactly one hour. That’s a 35 hour work week.
I even had the pleasure of working for such an employer in my first job in Arlington (ours was a satellite office of a New York City based firm) and I found it to be very agreeable. Everyone showed up to work at the same time. On occasion I arrived early and the office was virtually empty. On occasion I would linger during lunch or after 5 and found the office essentially evacuated. It was just that we didn’t individually work outside of office ours, we collectively didn’t conduct business outside of office hours. I’ll come back to that point later in this post.
The work hours were measured on a daily basis. You dedicated 7 of your hours to perform your duties each day. The 35 hour work-week was an artificial concept, a mathematical calculation of multiplying the working days by the 7 hours each day.
As usual with my life, I usually get in at the last days of something that was about to change drastically. I mentioned earlier about enjoying legal-age drinking at 19 for 3 months before the age was raised to 21. I also recall being in the last freshman computer class that was required to use punch cards for programming. In life, I ride the caboose. Such was the case with my 9-5 job.
As a business were being beat up by competition because of our expensive billing rates. Again the math is kind of simple: a weekly wage divided by 35 results in a higher hourly rate than the same wage divided by 40. We had to adopt 40 hour work week to continue to permit our clients to enjoy our services.
That was a very long time ago but I remember the multiple all-hands meetings of managers explaining the need for the change and rationalizing why it was good. I recall most people not being sold on the arguments.
It turns out the real problem with this particular company was that its value was primarily from the very senior experienced staff. They had a large staff of very smart people who have been around for a long time. Part of my luck of joining when I did was that they needed cheaper labor to bring down their average billing rates. What was good for me was not necessarily good for morale. Reading the unspoken vibes of the place, there was a sense of adding inexperienced people like myself and demanding that they spread their work over 40 hours instead of 35 somehow cheapened their brand and devalued them personally. To be honest, it is my nature to be paranoid about being unwelcome, but to the extent there was some truth to it, I can’t blame them.
The company was doing good work thrilling the client with its access to knowledge and experience. The only complaint was that it was too expensive compared to other contractors. Actually, that the stated reason may have been cover for the reason of resenting that we get away with a 35 hour workweek. They couldn’t pressure us on that point directly so they went after the hourly rate instead.
The company changed over to a 40 hour work week so we could be just like everyone else. I can’t imagine that it made that much of a cost difference on future bids, but I’m sure it gained some good will by normalizing our definition of a workweek.
I had a short tenure at the company and left during a rocky period of a lot of different stresses. I sensed a big change in morale and I suspect it had to do with this change in work culture. There were other work-culture changes that had to end as well but they can all be summed up as giving up on the old ways of doing business and joining the new ways.
Part of the rationalization of the longer workdays was that it was not much of a change after all. By cutting lunch to a half hour and by noting we usually arrive and leave a quarter hour beyond office hours, our time in the office may not change much at all. It was hard to argue the change on rational grounds. But there was that irrational element of the forced change in office culture.
One of the deal sweeteners was to adopt other modern concepts such as flexible schedules and weekly time accounting. Instead of demanding a set 7 hours per day, one could have varying hours during the week as long as the total week added up to 40. We still required a commitment to office hours, but the hours were set individually instead of office-wide.
This sounds very reasonable. This is about the time when the ideals of work-life balance were getting traction. We were finally recognizing the demands of life outside of work. I’m not sure how much we recognized that doing so demolished an older culture of work. I don’t know what happened to the company after I left. I do suspect many opted to shorten their careers. Younger people took their places, lowering the average billing rates, and these newcomers would be generally happy with the new culture. Life goes on.
But what about that culture that was left behind?
Today we have greatly expanded the flexibility. We enter and leave offices whenever we choose. We have only vague ideas about when our colleagues will show up. If someone comes by to ask about a colleagues schedules, it is always asked politely along the lines of “when does he generally show up”. Lunch periods are effectively eliminated. People eat at their desks while working with some legitimate claim of not needing to take time off for lunch. The very concept of gathering a group to go out for lunch is usually a special occasion that needs advanced notice and coordination. Such coordination also implies by invitation only. It is rare that colleagues would bump into each other during lunch off site.
The concept of the organization’s hours of business have evolved if not entirely vanished. Generally there is someone in the office at virtually any time of the week, getting in their hours. General practice is to require period of core hours where everyone is expected to be present but it is nearly impossible to enforce in part because it is in the middle of the day where many of the hours could be consider a good time to break for lunch.
Today we also have compressed work schedules allowing a person to work 9 hour days so that 80 hours is achieved in 9 days instead of ten. Every two weeks, a person enjoys an extra day off free from any work demands. Sometimes this can be an extra day off each week by working 10 hours per day.
We also have generous allowances for telework, doing work from home instead of being physically present in the office. Technology gives us the promise that not only is teleworking as productive as being in the office, it is more productive because of the lack of office distractions.
Despite this flexibility, there remains more calls for even more flexibility to accommodate life outside of work. These concerns are discussed opening by management. They accept as one of their tasks to find ways to be more accommodating to needs. If they fall short, it is not because they aren’t trying.
Compared to the rigid 9-5 work culture, the modern work environment should be exceptionally attractive. In fact, it is not hard to find applicants for any openings. It is hard is to find qualified applicants.
I think back to the abandoned work culture. A work force of highly qualified experienced individuals who were dedicated to their jobs, weren’t looking for jobs elsewhere, and perhaps not even contemplating retirement. I specifically remember the pleasure of working with a person whose experience made me wonder why he wasn’t already retired. He enjoyed his work.
I think that enjoyment went beyond his specialty. He enjoyed his job. The company worked hard at creating a broader culture of fellowship among the workers. One wanted to be part of that fellowship. Perhaps part of the reason I left was that with only a BS degree and with nearly no experience, I felt I could never join that fellowship. I left specifically to return to full-time graduate studies.
That era ended.
Earlier I tangentially questioned the idea that the 9-5 was strict working hours. It is true the office opened at 9, closed at 5, and effectively closed from 12-1. But consider that lunch hour. It was an full hour. No running back at the office after the last bite. The culture of the work went out to lunch. People regrouped at lunch. We had the luxury of working in an urban high-rise area so lunch wasn’t some vehicular expedition. We walked down the street to one of the various eating places that were suited for hour-long lunches. This wasn’t fast food. It was inevitable that you would run into co-workers already there. They would invite you to join their table, moving tables if needed to accommodate. At the same table will be colleagues from other nearby businesses, or clients of either group.
This was strictly lunch, you see. Nothing important was ever accomplished during lunch. After all, how could it? It was not billable. Sometimes alcohol was involved. Part of the reason for the hour was to give time for the before lunch drink to wear itself out.
And what about that 5 o’clock closing time? There was definitely a rush to vacate the office premises at 5. The rush was to get an prompt start at meeting at a bar, happy-hour specials or not. As with lunch, it was generally within walking distance, and generally with the same encounter possibilities as lunch. The only time limit was closing hours of the bar or restaurant, and often that was what it took.
Actually this was well recognized at the time. It was part of what needed to stop. Perhaps it was even more important to stop this unofficial business than it was to conform to the 40-hour rule. Whatever happened in these gatherings was unfair to those who weren’t present or those who would be excluded. The gathering were social gatherings of people who enjoyed their shared friendship as well as their work. This offered benefits of working out some disagreements that would not be possible in the office.
The nature of outside of work gathering was also exclusive of those who weren’t part of the social circle. While this socializing can never be forbidden, we can make it more inconvenient by demanding more hours in the office (putting the squeeze on lunch breaks) and by allowing generous flexibility in work hours (putting the squeeze on mutually compatible after-hours meet-ups).
The alternative to shutting down this informal aspect of doing business is to build a culture that builds a sense of inclusion. The rigid schedules not only made informal meet-ups possible but they also built a sense of fellowship with all colleagues. The people who may have felt left out where more likely than not to have exempted themselves from the culture. To permit work-life balance without any disadvantages we needed to discard the older culture.
In any event was a different time entirely. I’m sure some vestiges of this occur in some downtown offices, but I’ve never encountered that kind of culture since that early-career job. Overall, we’ve moved on. We come and go as we please, we eat at our desks, any gathering for lunch or happy hour are coordinated far in advance and usually at some remote location. Generally after work we go straight to the life side of the work-life balance.
Coincidentally, labor-participation rates steadily decline.