“People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does”.
Does this sound familiar? A long day looking in front of the computer screen causes an aching feeling behind the eyes. Your legs turn to jelly after spending a long shift behind the cash register. Your skin becomes pale and grey with too much time under fluorescent warehouse lights. The 9-5 continues to diminish our morale and humanity. Why are we doomed to this unsustainable way of life?
These were the same questions posed by writer Charles Bukowski in a famous letter to his friend John Martin. Born in Germany and raised in 1930s Los Angeles, Charles Bukowski faced a rough childhood marked by abuse, poverty, and bullying. His hardships fostered an early dependency on alcohol. Bukowski attempted to pursue a writing career in New York after high school, but financial struggles forced his return to LA where he reluctantly spent almost a decade as a postal clerk. His detest for the 9-5 lifestyle became a barrier to his creative aspirations.
After his career with the postal service, Bukowski wrote an autobiographical novel about his working years aptly titled Post Office. Its publication launched his career, and he became a literary sensation at age fifty-one. Fifteen years later, in his famous letter, Bukowski wrote of how 9-5 work empties the body and drains the worker of any essential life.
It’s hard to believe that the eight-hour working day came to be through activism. Between the late 1700s and mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution transformed the working world. Instead of working in the home and sustaining their family off of small trade loops within their community, people started selling their labour to companies. Let’s use the textile industry as an example. Mechanization meant clothing was now a good to be bought and sold instead of made in the home. And labourers were required to work the factory floor.
They would then use their work money to buy the required goods and services. Working outside the home for a company was a massive economic shift, and it resonates in the modern day. Income and population rose as this change significantly increased global living standards. But an average working day at this time could range from 10-16 hours, and children were not exempt from the labour force. Rumblings of dissent reverberated among workers as fatigue, sickness, and injury were common in the workplace.
So, in the early 19th century, activist Robert Owen proposed standardizing a ten-hour workday. By 1817, an even better proposal of an eight-hour workday gained popularity. Labour activists believed that eight hours of the day should be dedicated to work, eight hours to rest and eight hours to recreation. This revolution improved working conditions and also productivity. Foreman and managers realized that happy, healthy workers were more productive.
But how much of your time off each day, or supposed recreation time, is used to prepare yourself for work the next day? Does this tidy division of time work in reality? Your allotted eight hours for recreation per day quickly dissolves when you add meal prep, commuting, laundry, housework, childcare and errands into the mix. And at the end of all that, do you even have quality recreation time each day? You spend your evenings in front of the TV, doom-scrolling or playing video games, which is OK in moderation. But the demands of your work life and the activities that require you to be an optimal worker tire you out. You feel too drained to partake in hobbies or activities that would otherwise fulfill you.
Also, with the dawn of smartphones and wireless file sharing, it’s easy for your work day to extend into the night. You’re expected to be on the clock, checking emails and finalizing presentations, even in your pajamas on the couch. Your work time bleeds over into your rest until you cannot see where one role ends and the other begins. Worse, the extra time you’ve put in at home does not exempt you from clocking back in the following day at 9.
Even the self-help movement disguises its motives to sneak its way into making you a better participant in capitalism. You’re only creating a more productive worker by moulding a better you. Things like atomic habits, overcoming supposed laziness and manifestation promise to lead you to your professional goals while creating a happier, healthier you. Self-help gurus teach you how to do more with less instead of reassessing the root of why the system has left you broken. Writer and cultural critic Jia Tolentino takes this further in her essay “Always Be Optimizing.” According to her, every aspect of modern life is geared toward creating a more efficient you, from workout crazes to salad bars. You never have a moment where you are off the clock in a world that strives to produce the best workers. If you’re interested, I have a video about self-improvement where I delve further into this sector.
If you spend most of your life working or preparing to work for a job you resent or don’t enjoy, how can you expect to be happy? Yes, it may be hard to get out of bed in the morning or find motivation, but for some, discontent in the workplace leads to violent outbursts.
Ever wonder where the phrase ‘going postal’ comes from? Well, in the late 80s and early 90s, there were a series of workplace shootings in US Postal offices across America, killing at least 35 people. The gunmen associated with these murders are classified as workplace avengers. They were often middle-aged white men facing economic anxiety, obsolescence or possible termination from their job. At the peak of their earning potential, they become resentful when they feel like they aren’t making what they should be at work. Their co-workers become symbolic of their fury, which results in violent behaviour.
Often, these homicides were caused by people diagnosed with mental illness or antisocial behaviour. Most of the time, they were triggered by wanting to take revenge on a boss or the institution after a firing or reprimand. It’s called murder by proxy, where you transfer the identity of your intended victim onto anyone slightly associated with it. The shooters wanted vengeance on their workplace, and their colleagues were, sadly, representative of that place.
The postal service conducted an internal review to try and find the root cause of this discontent. Of course, there is not one specific reason that links all these instances of workplace violence. But the nature of the work is a common denominator. There are many structural problems with the US Postal Service that are too tedious to get into here. But one of the findings revealed that rural postal workers are happier than urban ones. Rural workers create their schedules and are in charge of how they carry out their work each day. If they get all the mail delivered by the end of the day, that is a job well done.
Urban workers, however, negotiate their workload each day with managers. In urban centres, the postal service must squeeze the maximum efficiency out of each worker. They’d rather hand out overtime and overrun the workers they have than hire more. That one difference, choosing how you will complete your work for the day, is a determining factor of overall happiness at work. Work is whittled down to its most essential parts in industries with winnowing resources. When profit is king, there’s no room to innovate your work structure to support workers better.
Something happens when workers become starkly aware of their place as a cog in a machine. While most people won’t retaliate against the system in a homicidal rage, we spend so much of our lives working that it has an evident influence on our emotional health. Busting your butt to keep a job you might not want is taxing. In this situation, you must maintain cognitive dissonance or disassociation from yourself for 40 hours a week. Because what’s the alternative? To exist in modern society, you must generate an income. In his letter, Bukowski likened work to slavery for this reason. Unless you come from immense generational wealth or are at peace with a monkish existence, work is inevitable.
Work that is isolating and repetitive, like in a warehouse or factory, causes your mind to wander. Without proper outlets, you can foster pent-up rage. Your body becomes like a machine, repeatedly fulfilling the same task: an instrument to generate money. Your work denies you your humanity. Yet you are doomed to live most of your life in this state. How can most people genuinely claim that they are happy with this system?
The vast majority of us will not be as lucky as Charles Bukowski. Bukowski got a ticket out of his grueling manual labour job. Remember John Martin, the friend to whom Bukowski wrote his letter outlining his problems with the 9-5? In 1969, Martin offered to pay Bukowski to quit his job at the postal service and commit himself full-time to writing. At the time, Bukowski wrote, “I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”
Within his first month as a full-time writer, he finished his debut novel. Martin owned a small press, and as a token of gratitude, Bukowski published with him throughout his illustrious career. But how rare is that? Imagine someone approaches you and offers to fund your passion project for the rest of your life. You’d quit your day job on the spot. Such an opportunity will not arise for most people. So how do we find a way to cope with this unfulfilling work structure? You can’t opt-out. Is there a way to lessen the burden of your 9-5?
One thing you can do is say no to work when you can. Maintaining a proper work-life balance is crucial to overall health and happiness, but setting those boundaries takes practice. You have to know your worth as a worker and be willing to stand up for yourself. You must take your entitled lunch and break times and refuse to work after your contracted hours without overtime pay. While Bukowski was cynical about the sanctity of your free time during your workday, you are entitled to it as a worker. The more workers unite to enforce these rights properly; the less likely employers will abuse them. Hence the importance of unions. If you’re a union member, ensure you are fully informed about what your union can do for you. Participate in union votes and strikes to make sure your voice is heard. It is one of the only ways to push change forward in the workplace.
Some companies have taken the initiative to change their structure. After all, our world looks a lot different than it did during the Industrial Revolution. The forty-hour work week now seems absurd. Shorter, less demanding work weeks prove this arbitrary time designation is obsolete. In an experiment, companies in New Zealand dropped to a four-day week, which resulted in greater workplace happiness without sacrificing productivity. Also, working from home, if your industry allows, frees up commuting time and enables you to sneak in some housework between meetings. Workers feel most empowered when they have some say over how their day is spent. Companies that allow their employees to make themselves as happy as possible during the work week help pave the way for a better work-life balance.
It is also essential to reclaim your free time. Free time means just that. Moments that you deliberately dedicate to absolutely nothing. Nothing in this context entails anything where you are not making or spending money. Walking, picnicking with friends, reading a book, even just staring off into space. Those alone moments allow you to cultivate a sense of self outside work. It’s unhealthy to lead your life with a sense of doom, but escaping the doom loop is difficult.
Your time is precious and sacred. The time you spend not working is even more so. Use it to reclaim your humanity and remind yourself you were not put on earth to work. You are here to live the best life you can. You owe it to yourself to create the best life for yourself, regardless of the constraints of the 9-5.