Reimagining the 9-to-5

The 9-to-5 workday is a relic. For decades, people hailed the 9-to-5 as an ideal—satisfied to work 40-hour weeks with only two days off. So did I.

However, the world is changing, and workers are demanding more. 

Although I shied away from questions related to my future post-graduation, I always envisioned myself clocking in at nine and leaving the office at five. The greatest appeal was the financial stability that came with consistent hours and pay. The thought of venturing into entrepreneurship and starting a business had never crossed my mind.

With my impending 2020 graduation, I frequently received the question: “What are you doing after?” Either pursue a master’s degree or join the workforce—those were the only two acceptable answers. I remained undecided.

As children, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and engineers were revered as top professions. Although I was never pressured to pursue a specific career by my parents, I always knew people expected greatness from me, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.

For many of us, there is so much pressure to decide what we want to do with the rest of our lives from a young age. My earliest memory of being asked what I wanted to be was in kindergarten. Although I answered “teacher,” and stuck to that answer for many years, the older I became, the more certain I felt that teaching was not for me.

I was unaware of how much the workplace structure would change in the years to come.

The Old Way of Working

The 9-to-5 has become a commonly accepted work model within a variety of industries and positions, but what are its origins?

Led by workers who dedicated the majority of their waking hours to work, employees fought and rallied for shorter workdays. The average worker laboured for 10 to 16 hours per day over six days, which increased the risk of exhaustion and injury. After a century of pleading, a few countries began to adopt the eight-hour workday

In 1926, to curb the exploitation of factory workers, Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, invented the concept of a “five-day, 40-hour work week.” He claimed this schedule increased worker productivity by giving them another day to rest. In truth, Ford had ulterior motives: he wanted to increase car sales. By introducing a longer weekend, he knew his employees would yearn to go somewhere and they needed vehicles to do it. It worked.

In 1940, the United States mandated the five-day work week nationwide. Soon after, Canada followed. While this adjustment decreased the number of hours labourers worked, it created additional problems.

The 40-hour work week purports to be a system of balance—eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours of play—but the workload often seeps into the non-working 16 hours, aggravating dissatisfaction and causing burnout. 

Another result that arose from this model of work was the appraisal of success by quantity versus quality. Workers were judged based on the tasks they completed within each hour and day, as opposed to their skills and value. 

Nowadays, we live in a service economy, where we need fewer physical labourers and more skilled labourers and service providers. But we also need more than just an eight-hour shift; we need flexibility so we can work at our own pace and enjoy life outside the workplace too. 

In the 1980s, there was a greater desire for work-life balance, resulting in the creation of corporate wellness programs. Wellness programs provided employees with fitness classes, well-being resources, and support to improve their physical and mental health. Employees began to value their own needs and interests above their employers.

Current 9-to-5 workers are exhausted. Chronic stress, financial insecurity, and burnout are collective experiences. With the added pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic, employees often find themselves working harder and longer for the same goals. In addition, remote work has caused an unnecessary spike in time spent collaborating, with more virtual meetings, emails, chatting, and (often unpaid) after-hour labour.

The Harvard Business Review attributes this new worker perspective to the pandemic. With thousands fatally impacted by the virus, the deadly virus magnified the ephemeral nature of time and reminded us to live fully. 

The time that workers spent at home encouraged them to prioritize a work-life balance and their mental health, and it also allowed for more flexibility. Finally, workers were given power; their shared experience promoted more empathy and listening from employers, along with more benefits that increased productivity.  

The Great Shift

The Gig Economy

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced millions of people to work from home and spawned an uptick in “entrepreneurial activity,” our understanding of “work” was changing. Throughout history, the workplace has gone through many shifts, but one of the most notable changes was the rise of freelancing, or what some call the “Gig Economy.” 

The Gig Economy is a labour market structure based on short-term contracts and freelance work, allowing labourers to work with multiple companies temporarily as opposed to holding permanent jobs. Previously limited to jobs like delivery drivers and musicians, more industries are reinventing the traditional model of work. We now see dietitians running online programs and courses to cut down on hours in the office, or copywriters working on a project-by-project basis.

When did it start?

Pivotal shifts in work habits and customs tend to coincide with global recessions. During the 2007 Great Recession, there was a growth in non-employer establishments—working without bosses. With a rising unemployment rate and limited employment opportunities, people decided to create their own jobs by starting businesses. While the term “Gig Economy” is new, the existence of gig jobs predates this modern phrase. Perhaps one of the most prominent uses of “gig” was by jazz musicians who referred to their short-term paid performances as “gigs.”

“Gig” referred to an alternative form of employment that was temporary, contracted, or on-call. Lately, the meaning has been redefined by independent contractors and freelancers who select which jobs they take and decide their own hours. Stephane Kasriel, the CEO of Upwork, a massive gig marketplace for individuals to find work, predicts that “the majority of the U.S. workforce will freelance by 2027.”

But what inspired the shift?

Salesforce reported a 24.3 per cent increase in the number of businesses created in 2020. Starting a business became easier because of the small barrier to entry and the accessibility of online businesses. Many pursued entrepreneurship as a way to generate additional income to fund their lifestyle. Businesses did not need big investments or brick-and-mortar stores to start, and soon, many business duties could be performed at home.

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index 2022 reported that 17 per cent of workers left their jobs in 2020. Dubbed the “Mass Resignation,” this phenomenon was triggered by individuals’ desire to no longer settle for complacency. The majority quit their jobs for personal well-being or mental health, work-life balance, job location, or lack of flexible work hours. Based on Microsoft’s data, it is clear that this generation won’t tolerate policies that detract from their ability to enjoy life outside of work. If workers do not feel valued, they are willing to leave. Since the pandemic, “53 per cent of employees are more likely to prioritize health and wellbeing over work than before the pandemic.”

A New Model: The Four-Day Work Week

Remote and hybrid work can offer flexibility to employees; however, some larger companies are implementing a different model: the four-day work week.

The four-day work week aims to reduce stress and improve work quality. To many, this model may sound contradictory in theory: how can we improve work quality by working fewer hours? Many pilot programs for companies such as Buffer and Microsoft show that productivity can increase with this model.

Although several employers have embraced this model, some have reported lower levels of employee satisfaction. One unsatisfied corporation is Los Angeles-based marketing research firm Alter Agents. Alter Agents trialed the four-day work week for 10 weeks, but due to their client’s varying schedules, they were unable to give employees the same day off. Instead, each employee chose a different day of the week to take off.

So, albeit well-intentioned, the four-day work week only promoted more stress and dissatisfaction in Alter Agents’ employees, with some employees feeling pressured to perform tasks on their days off or struggling to catch up.

Escaping the 9-to-5

“Leave your 9-to-5 and start a business” was the key message of the Facebook ads that filled my feed during the start of the pandemic. They pushed the rhetoric that starting a business was the gateway to financial freedom and flexibility. Run by business coaches and service providers, these ads emphasized how burnt out and underpaid 9-to-5 workers were.

These announcements encouraged social media users to know their value and worth, asserting that quitting the 9-to-5 would give them the satisfaction they needed. This theme really resonated with me, and, for a while, I rode the free webinar bus, signing up for every training I saw on the topic of starting your own business and marketing.

But soon I realized that the coaches did not share the whole truth. Owning a business meant chasing clients, managing your own time, and paying taxes (lots of them). 

As a freelancer and owner of my own business, I set my own schedule. Some days I work 15 hours, other days I work only a few. Even without an employer, I face some of the same challenges of my traditionally-employed peers: a poor work-life balance, a lack of boundaries, and burnout.

It is a lie. Freelancing, despite the name, isn’t complete freedom.

The Future of Work

So, which is better? We may be quick to institute this modern method of working based on the numerous benefits outlined by individuals who’ve switched over. However, one method isn’t truly better than another. Although many of us have been whisked away by the fantastical ideas described in the flexible model of work, the truth is that it’s up to us and our needs.

A 9-to-5 can be just as unstable as entrepreneurship with the frequency of layoffs and business owners reassessing the value of employees continually. Work contracts can offer some protection and compensation to ease the worry, but retaining a job is never guaranteed. 

Additionally, although many business coaches and other service providers will regal ambitious individuals with tales of financial freedom and vacations, running a business often requires more work than a 9-to-5, especially in the beginning. A business owner is likely to fulfill the roles of the marketing, administration, sales, and accounts teams on their own until they grow to be big enough to hire employees to take over these time-consuming tasks. 

Regardless, one thing is clear: this new generation wants flexibility and control. 

The future of work is Open,” predicts Atlassian, an Australian software company that helps teams collaborate. They state, “Open work practices allow for unhindered access to the right context, the bigger picture, and important information when it’s needed most.” Too much discourse occurs behind closed doors, leaving employees affected by poor leadership decisions. Through transparent decision-making, and the opportunity to showcase diverse perspectives, employees can help lead the company into success. It is only once companies start viewing their employees as people that transformation can take place.

Perhaps it is time companies work around the schedules of their employees, as people work best when they can control their time. The individual’s needs and wants have changed, and so should their work life. 

It is time to get rid of the old ways of working and incorporate new ideas that focus on the health and wellness of employees. Whether you work under a company or for yourself, rest should be a central part of any job.

Efficiency is not determined by how many hours you work in a day or where you work, but rather by how you maximize your time while prioritizing rest. 

The world has changed. Businesses are global and online, allowing people to work with others in different time zones across the world. Realistically, we cannot be constricted to a 9-to-5. A flexible lifestyle allows individuals to escape the constant grind and expand their world of possibilities. 

Now, a good work culture is more than a nice office and great employee perks; it’s finding arrangements that help everyone win.

Social Media & Online Editor (Volume 48, 49, and 50) — Belicia is a UTM alumna who just doesn’t know how to leave. She’s served as the Social Media and Online Editor for the past two volumes where being up til 1 a.m. was considered normal. Outside of The Medium, you can find her taking photos, streaming Valorant, and figuring out her next move. You can stalk her on her websiteInstagram, or LinkedIn.


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