21st century work schedules

For as long as I remember, I was uncomfortable with the standard definition of work schedules as 8 hour days 5 days in a 7 day week, with exceptions that exceed these numbers needing some type of special compensation or arrangement such as comp-time.  In addition, I question the value of delaying eligibility for wage-earning until after 18 years old or after attaining a high school degree.

For clarification, my suspicion comes from the perspective of knowledge work, where the primary duties involve desk-jobs, phone calling, or attending meetings.   I don’t have any experience with manual labor, jobs involving activities that lead to physical exhaustion or risk injury unless given adequate recovery times.   For these jobs, I will grant as valid the standardization of an 8 hour day and 5 day workweek with two days off.   Even here, though, I think people should be allowed to work beyond that, with or without additional compensation such as time-and-a-half or double-time wages.   Such excess work should not be expected of everyone, and when performed there is reasonable confidence that the excess work will not lead to long-term injury.

The modern labor laws were established during a period when most people worked in physically exhausting or hazardous jobs.   The week was defined as 7 days based on well established calendar traditions.   As a result, the objective for setting working schedules involved dividing up the calendar week into working hours and non-working hours.   Work days are defined by integer number of weekdays.   Work hours are integer number of hours available in a day.

Exactly where to establish a standard is debatable, but the necessity of the standard itself seems beyond debate.   A 40 hour work week divided into 5 days of 8 hours is one standard.   Others may range from 30 hour work weeks to 60 hour work weeks with varying number of work days.

The justification for this definition of a work schedule is a traditional adherence to a historic standard.   We defined the historic standard out of necessity to accommodate the demands of industrial work whether that was factory work or industrial scale field work such as in agriculture, construction, mining, etc.   At that time, the alternative work environment was the family or sole-proprietor business or farm where work-schedules are more easily negotiated with the involved parties.   Once workforce extends beyond the family, there is a need for some standard to assure fairness and to prevent injurious exploitation.

Today, a large portion of the workforce experiences a very different kind of work environment that bears little resemblance to the past industrial models.   The Internet and the widespread acceptance of powerful smart phones have changed the nature of work.   In particular, these have erased the defining nature of the solar cycle for defining a day, and these have erased the defining nature of the historic definition of a 7-day week with a weekend consisting of a Saturday and a Sunday.

The information technologies have fragmented the work day so that we work in spurts of time scattered over 16 hours of the day.   Some days may accumulate more than 8 hours of effort while others may accumulate to much less (although not as frequently as the longer days).   The difference today is that the work is fragmented across the day so that there are intermediate periods of leisure filled either by impromptu socializing, game playing, or other hobbies delivered by personal versions of the same type of portable computing devices we use for work.

Given the irrelevance of the daily solar cycle, the work day is no longer specifically defined by 24 hours.   The workday may not even be consistent from one day to the next.  Some days may include multiple sunrises, and other times we may get multiple workdays into a single solar day (for example when working with colleagues in different timezones).

The concept of a standardized workday becomes a meaningless tradition bearing little relevance to how we actually do our work.   This is obvious as we attempt to enter our timesheets into the boxes that presume a regularity of work schedule that simply doesn’t match reality any more.

Similarly, the definition of a week of 7 days has lost its meaning as our efforts may stretch over ragged intervals that may span multiple weekend days or may split a week into two depending on the priorities present at the time.

I acknowledge that there remains some utility for the historic definition of a week and day.   Primarily, this remains useful for arranging future or recurring meetings with reasonable confidence that all the needed participants will attend.   Calendaring remains useful for coordination of large groups.    However, it is not needed as much for coordinating with small groups that can meet on an impromptu basis based on their mutual announcement of being available on their status in the social media applications.  Even for large groups, the majority of the priority topics of any particular meeting more often than not involves a conversation between just a couple people who could have met privately in an impromptu manner — the group meeting may be a wasteful way to provide necessary incentive for those few people to work together, though.

Given the opportunities presented by modern global Internet communications and near universal access to computing/phone connections to that network, there is emerging a new model of work described in terms of a sharing or a gig economy.   In general terms, individuals are defining their own work schedules based on a combination of their availability and the demands of the market.

Compared to the traditional workweek model based on industrial-era standards, the new work patterns may not always be in the best interests of the individual worker.   Some workers will work better in a more structured environment but opportunities for such structure are disappearing.   Also, it is not clear whether this always is beneficial from a macro economic perspective.

In any case, the trend seems to be an erosion of the concept of working hours and working days.   Increasingly, people work when they are needed and only when those times coincide with when they are available.   People are taking tasks when they should be off.   To compensate, they are taking off during the times corresponding to when they previously would be expected to be sitting at a desk waiting for something to happen.

There is conflict and frustration with management that continues to cling to the outdated notions of committed office hours and working days.   Even when people attempt to adhere to these old standards, this does not excuse their not being available when the task demands work outside those hours.

The modern reality of always-connected workforce is presenting us with a new dynamic that I think is comparable to what caused the labor unrest of over a century ago.   In both cases, the management stubbornly clings to outdated working schedule expectations.   In both cases, there may be good historical justification for the outdated schedules, but those historical conditions no longer represent the current reality.

In the industrial-era labor market (that still exists for many jobs, by the way) there are physiological and mental justifications for limiting working hours and working days, providing adequate time for rest and recovery to assure steady employment to reach retirement eligibility.   The mechanization led to a continuous and often absolutely repetitive strain on workers that risked physical or mental injury.   There needed to be some default expectation of a reasonable work-week we typically define as 40 hour, 5 day work week.

The modern era is very different, especially in the non-manual knowledge or information work spaces.   Work is more unpredictable both in intensity and duration.   Meanwhile, there are more relief options delivered by the same technology used for work: people can use their smartphones to connect with friends or arrange impromptu getaways during slow times knowing that they may be called back to work at any time.  Alternatively, they may use these same devices for recreation (watching videos, or playing games) or hobbies involving computer software.

Given the instant scheduling of work and leisure, people and their managers are frustrated by the processes that demand defining their hours spend into neat little categories of calendars with consistent hours worked per day.

One of the work-around tactics is to require time accounting in a pay-period (weekly, biweekly, semi-monthly, or monthly) so that the entire period accounts for the expected number of hours that may be scattered haphazardly over the period.   Even with that compromise, there remains the inevitable task that spans pay periods and this problem appears to be occurring with increasing frequency as tasks become more dynamic in size and complexity.

Looking ahead, I expect that eventually the calendar based on historic definitions of days, weeks, and months will become irrelevant to how we do our work.   We will increasingly work in gigs of varying intervals, filling just-in-time staff requirements when we are available.   Correspondingly, we will be passing up multi-week opportunities due to an existing commitment to a task requiring just a day or two more work to complete.

The end result will be a very random work schedule.   In the near future (if not already), we will replace the concept of a work week with the concept of a gig or short-term contract.   We will replace the concept of a weekend with the gaps that separate these gigs or contracts.   It is unclear whether what will happen with the concepts of holidays or vacations.   I think it very likely that vacations planned far in advance will become a luxury that a decreasing population will be able to enjoy.   People will instead take instant vacations based on the immediate lack of work, and even then they will need flexibility to cut the vacation short if a new opportunity does come up.

This change in work schedules will change the hospitality and travel industries.  It will be harder for them to schedule reasonable occupancies given the more instantaneous demand, unless they scale to attract a sufficiently large customer base to fill those rooms or seats consistently.   Larger resort-type locations will survive, but they will struggle to deliver a unique experience to their clients.   Smaller operations will struggle more especially if they are in inconvenient locations for quick arrival or departure to accommodate leisure and work opportunities respectively.

At a more local scale, local establishes face the challenges of the loss of standard hours for breakfast, lunch, dinner and standard transition hours of empty seats needed to convert from one service to another.   In particular, people will demand early lunches to occur during what used to be considered the end of the breakfast hour, or late lunches coinciding with what used to be the start of the dinner hour.   People will want dinner dates in the very late night / early morning hours when normally establishments expect to be closed.

Some larger chains have been accommodating these new demands with things like all-day breakfast menus, or all-night dinner service (at least in the form of drive-through or deliveries).   This is not very practical for smaller establishments, so they will either go out of business or adapt to fewer customers or less predictable busy periods.

The future I see is one where there will no longer be any widely shared notions of day, night, weekday, weekend, or other notions of schedules.   We will still meet our needs for socialization but our socialization circles will change rapidly according the reality of mutual availability.  Meanwhile, we will be expecting services from others at all times of the day, week, or year.

I expect that most of these challenges will be solved with larger businesses.   Our leisure options will be limited to large establishments able to accommodate a continuous demand for any service instead of one defined by set schedules.   Our socializing options will be limited to large communities in the forms of social media friends or followers, or in shared meet-up applications like those used for dating apps.   In both cases, it will be difficult to establish lasting relationships where people can remember each other from earlier times.   We will probably adapt to just expecting that strangers are likely to be friends and then return to being strangers never to be seen again.

It is in this context of a vision of future work and leisure schedules that I envision how a future spending patterns will change.   While I expect a continued expansion of options available for us to consume, I expect we’ll get them from a fewer number of sources.   We see this today where Amazon.com dominates in delivering a near endless variety of products.

I expect the needed transformation of the consumer market to accommodate the new definitions of work and leisure schedules will likely transform the nature of money (both compensation and payment) into units of consumption.   I discussed this before as the alternative to the idea of a universal basic income or UBI (presumed to be a cash payment) with a universal basic expense account consisting of standard units such as 1 breakfast, 1 lunch, 1 dinner, 1 overnight accommodation, etc.   UBI is specifically available independent of employment, but I expect a similar compensation model may appear for work as well.   That’s just my hunch.

I anticipate a future where we redefine a work-week as the duration of a specific just-in-time gig, a weekend as the gap between gigs, vacations as opportunities presented by anticipation of long gaps but subject to sudden termination when new opportunities occur.  The day itself will have break times that will vary day to day and may arise with no advanced notice, leading us to arrange social encounters with near-strangers who happen to share something in common including the fact that they are free at the same time.   Service industries will then adapt with customers arriving at all times of the day expecting different meal-types where the dining and kitchen facilities must accommodate a mix of breakfasts, dinners, or lunches.   Vacation locations will consolidate along easy access routes to facilitate quick scheduling of arrivals and departures and appear to a large enough population to keep enough business to stay in business.

This future undermines the opportunities for maintaining lasting relationships.   This is almost certain for coworkers and friendships due to the unpredictable nature of mutual availability.   I expect the same to be true for partnerships, particularly marriages and families.   Keeping a marriage intact if both parents are working gigs will be nearly impossible.   If one parent stays home, they will similarly have difficulties with arranging stable environments such as consisting schooling and play-periods for the children.  Just as it may be near impossible for the father and mother to remain together for the raising of the children, it may be near impossible for the children to remain attached to either of the parents.

We are entering an era with no shared notions of standard schedules.   Work and society will adapt.   The resulting society will be unrecognizable to our grandparents.  I suspect much of the current social turmoil is a consequence of this already occurring.   We are becoming a hive.

Addendum (same day):

In terms of the overall population, I suspect the majority of people will continue to participate in traditional life patterns on daily and weekly intervals.   The majority will continue to observe the daily cycles measured by traditional meal times of breakfast, lunch, dinner, etc.   They will also continue to observe the weekly intervals with specific expectations for different weekdays and especially those related to the weekend.

The above discussion is probably relevant to a small minority, perhaps comparable to the minority who live these alternative timelines today.  That population may grow a little bit in the future, but not a lot.

The vast majority of the population will continue the traditional time lines.

What will change is that this majority will eventually see their ability to earn income lost to automation.   Automation will take over many of the standard jobs, including those we associate with knowledge fields or information technologies.

The future work opportunities will be of the saturation variety requiring long duration of devoted attention on a specific task that is requires excessive adaptability and flexibility that is cheaper to deliver with human labor than with automation or robotics.  Part of what makes humans competitive against automation in these jobs is the ability to work over an extended period that presents numerous challenges often with the need to react to unpredictable circumstances from surprises.

It is these saturation jobs that will experience the irrelevance of traditional schedules based on clocks or weekdays.   The analogy is the saturation divers working at great depths where the daylight is insignificant and the sequences of weekdays don’t matter.

For this kind of work, the work-week is the duration of the mission.   For the saturation divers, the work-week is a month long.   The weekend is several months.   The day is defined by a 12 hour shift that may drift day to day as individual shifts end earlier or later than their scheduled times.

I visualize that this is a model of all of the remaining work that will be available to humans after all the better defined and constrained jobs are automated.

This will be a small portion of the population who will experience this type of work week.   The remaining large population will go on to experience daily, weekly, and seasonal patterns in traditional ways except for one key point: they will be unemployed.


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