Digital Natives at Work: The Barriers of Traditional Working Hours

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Young people seek a balance between personal and professional life — but there is a limiting factor in the market: the working day has not changed since the beginning of the twentieth century.

by Valdir de Oliveira Jr. cover Sara Cwynar translated by Pronoia Tradutória

We all know stories of people who have developed depression due to a heavy workload, while others simply freaked out due to stress, not to mention heart conditions, food disorders, and quality of life issues that an entire generation has been facing as a result of extended working hours. What does this all mean? We have reached the end of the line for the working model that has been under development since the digital revolution, which began with the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989.

Generations have passed, hundreds of surveys and analyses have been conducted, the millennials and their characteristics have been identified, the first digital natives were born and are already starting their careers, but we remain stuck with the same working hours as in the early twentieth century.

Of course, the work environment has clearly changed: today we see offices that offer their employees recreational spaces and alcoholic drinks, and the corporate hierarchy has given way to more horizontal formats. Nevertheless, the hours remains the same. It doesn’t matter if a company offers dishes cooked by a renowned chef, or a ping pong table, people still spend more than eight hours a day in the office, and many continue their work at home.

Alec Soth
Alec Soth

Today’s work is facilitated by tools that enable us to be more accurate and fast on a day-to-day basis, such as increasingly extensive software, more efficient industrial machinery, smartphones, meetings held in conference rooms that have broken down physical barriers, among others. However, we are still required to work eight hours a day.

“In proportion as the machine is improved and performs man’s work with an ever increasing rapidity and exactness, the laborer, instead of prolonging his former rest times, redoubles his ardor, as if he wished to rival the machine. O, absurd and murderous competition!” — Paul Lafargue

From the industrial revolution to millennials

The history of working hours over the last three centuries shows that it was only in 1844 that the 12-hours working day for adults and 6.5 hours for children became law in England, the home of the Industrial Revolution (1760). Yes, children could work for more than six hours in factories, and previously, the workload for an adult could reach 16 hours a day, with no right to a weekend off.

It was only in 1868 that the United States gave all federal employees the right to work no more than eight hours a day, followed by Puerto Rico in 1899, when civil servants also obtained such a right. From there, the right not to spend more than a 1/3 of the day at work was given to workers around the world over the course of the twentieth century. Still today, in 2016, the struggle continues in dozens of countries. In China, for example, the workload decreases every year while wages increase, but such improvements are still far from reaching millions of Chinese workers of different kinds.

Scene from the movie “Modern Times”, Charles Chaplin, 1936

Today, the largest workforce in the U.S. — and soon the largest in the world — are the millennials, a generation that has decided to find the balance between personal and professional life, even if the two are no longer as separate as they once were. These young people have decided that entrepreneurship is the most logical path to follow; they try to work with what they enjoy instead of only thinking about salary. It is a generation that is supposedly going to change the world, and as a result, the way we work.

A lot has changed, but there is a barrier that remains almost insurmountable for the millennials: everybody needs to pay their bills, buy food, go out to have fun every now and then, and all this comes at a price. Therefore, although this is the generation that has decided to find a meaning beyond the traditional life, it has bumped into the reality of a world where not everyone can drop everything and go on a philosophical quest. That search was postponed until after the electricity bill is paid. The most likely outcome is undoubtedly frustration. A generation prepared like no other, with access to a world of knowledge at their fingertips, but which, despite trying, has yet to find a way out of the system.

Simon Denny, Products for Organising, 2015
Simon Denny, Products for Organising, 2015

Obsolescence of working hours and the need for change

Research reveals that of the eight hours worked daily, one to two hours are spent on personal e-mails, social networks, conversations with coworkers, or just staring at the computer screen thinking about anything but the work at hand. Another study, carried out by Standford University, showed that there is no truth in the notion that more hours worked equals more productivity. On the contrary, those supposed eight hours a day are actually six, since most people cannot stay focused for any longer than that.

However, the obligation to be at work beyond the time needed to actually do your work, not to mention commuting time, makes fatigue inevitable and causes a decrease in productivity. Ask anyone what it would mean to them to work two hours less per day, and they will immediately start thinking about all the things they could do, from spending more time with their children to finally learning to play an instrument, practicing a new sport, or even seeking to improve themselves professionally through new courses and study. This scenario would be a win-win situation: companies would be able to rely on more satisfied and motivated employees, who could do much more in six hours than in eight.

“Idleness is necessary for the production of ideas, and ideas are necessary for the development of society. Just as we spend so much time and attention teaching young people to work, we need to dedicate the same efforts to teaching them about idleness.” – Domenico de Masi

A recent example can be found in Sweden, where several companies have tested the six-hour working day with no wage decrease, a model that is already being adopted by English companies. Although these countries are rich and privileged, it is preferable that this practice is not taken as an impossible exception, but as an example to be followed. So far, the results have been positive, with happier and more productive employees and companies with increasing profit. The only downside in shortening the workday has been that many people have no idea what to do with their free time; after all, they never had it before. This is the perfect time for the “quest for meaning” mentioned above, which may be called idleness, a term coined in the nineteenth century and supported by theorists such as Paul Lafargue in “The Right to be Lazy”, Bertrand Russell, and Domenico de Masi.

Sara Cwynar, Our Natural World (Books 1), 2013
Sara Cwynar, Our Natural World (Books 1), 2013

The protestant ethic spread throughout the world, where work is the only element capable of dignifying a man and bringing him to spiritual enlightenment, was a method of domination. Today we do not believe in salvation through work to find God, but we transform work into God himself, to be worshiped every day. Most companies are still run by generations who believe that working hard is the way forward; they have been conditioned throughout their lives to think so, after all. And even companies run by young people tend to follow the same model, since the risk of testing something new is so scary to many. New generations are making this archaic workday obsolete and harmful. Once again, we fall into the old maxim: companies that adapt will survive, others will face the contempt of newcomers and the bitter grudge of a generation exploited to its limit. Change is inevitable, and this time it is overdue. Maybe it got stuck at work.

“One of the saddest things is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.” – William Faulkner

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