The history of the 9-to-5 work day

history of 9 to 5 work day

In September 2013, I walked out of my office and into the unknown. I had resigned from my job, the first after my studies, with no concrete plans as to what I would be doing next.

It had started with a request to my boss to take a three-month sabbatical. Off I went to South America to travel from Quito, Ecuador, through to Buenos Aires, Argentina. During my travels, I devoured every personal development and career book I could find on Kindle, I chatted to people I met in hostels and listened to their very different stories about what they were doing and why, and I did a whole lot of soul searching. Then halfway through that trip, I called up HR and I officially gave my resignation.

Looking back on that decision, it’s the best one I ever made and, while I would never try to persuade anyone to make the same decision, what I absolutely would do is make you question where you are in your career and at least consider making a decision like mine to leave your 9 to 5 behind.

A bit of history on the 9 to 5

Now, the idea of working 9 to 5 was not a concept created by Dolly Parton but an idea that came about at the turn of the previous century. It was a revolutionary idea, for its time, and involved cutting back on excessive hours at a time when people were working 16-hour days, or 100 hours a week, in factories in the 1890s (the 9 to 5 doesn’t sound so bad now, eh?).

So what’s happened since then?

Well, at least half of managers actually work more than those 40 hours a week, while 4 in 10 say that their hours have increased in the last few years (Source).

There are many more working mums, and many more families with two working parents.

Technology has made it easy to work anytime, anyplace. There are two sides to this: on the one hand, it means that you’re expected to be ‘always on’ and to work into the evenings, weekends and holidays; on the other hand, it means that you don’t need to be in the office all the time and you can work more flexibly. Surveys have found that 4 out of 5 office workers check their work email after leaving the office and 1 in 3 log on before even getting out of bed (Source), while 54% of commuters are sending work emails en route to and from the office (Source).

Bizarrely, this isn’t what we thought would happen. Or, at least, it’s not what John Maynard Keynes thought would happen. In 1930, Keynes predicted that technology would allow us to cut our working week down to just 15 hours as our material needs were satisfied. (Tim Ferriss, of course, would have us work just 4 hours a week.)

So why are we working so hard?

Well, for one thing, there are a lot of good things that come with a corporate job: promotions and salary increases, the prestige of working for a big-name brand, not to mention the office parties and socialising with colleagues.

Another reason is that we’ve been socialised to this way of ‘life’. It’s perfectly normal and expected that people hate Mondays, that they live for weekends and that work is work and it’s not meant to be fun.

Of course, there are also many who have no choice but to work long hours for little pay.

So what’s the problem with the 9 to 5?

Let’s start from the perspective of the company, or even the overall economy: working long hours in an office in no way guarantees productivity. A lot of time is wasted at work with all the distractions that happen in an office environment; we all have different natural rhythms, from early birds to night owls; and, in fact, our brains can’t even focus on tasks for more than a few hours at a time anyway, or maybe even for more than 20 minutes. Modern research suggests that the average employee works productively for just two hours and 53 minutes in an eight-hour day. *Ahem!*

Despite those stats, people are ‘working’ longer hours as they’re ‘always on’ and never really taking a proper break. Successful corporate managers and directors have plenty of money but no time to spend it. They’ll buy luxury holidays, snazzy cars and big houses with hefty mortgages to make them feel better. Of course, those same purchases then lock them into this way of life and keep them in their corporate 9 to 5 so that they can afford the lifestyle that they’re so used to by now.

The health risks of working those longer hours have been widely reported. Almost 60 per cent of adults are drinking alcohol to cope with the stresses of everyday life while 38 per cent drink to forget their problems (Source). In the UK, half a million people now suffer from work-related stress (Source). Burnout has become ‘a sinister and insidious epidemic’ and, although it’s a subjective term, it usually manifests as exhaustion and irritability, disinterest, a lack of empathy, poor performance at work, and family issues and relationships problems at home. Medication, vacation – these provide only temporary relief.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are countless lost souls wandering the corridors, people who are “okay”, “fine”. These are the people who are under-challenged, just as there are many who are over-challenged. They spend 10 to 15 years climbing the corporate ladder, reach the top and then ask, “Now what?” They’re surprised and disappointed to find that it doesn’t really bring any meaningful reward and, if anything, simply means working harder for the next step, if there is one.

And yet no one ever says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”. Instead of that, the top five regrets of the dying include “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard,” “I wish that I had let myself be happier,” and in the number one spot my personal favourite: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

What’s the alternative?

Working in the “corporate 9 to 5”, for me, involves:

  • working in a private corporation, the primary motivation of which is profit and in which you are a small part of a big machine;
  • working in an office-type environment;
  • reporting to a more senior manager (your boss);
  • working standard hours of Monday to Friday, the so-called ‘9 to 5’; and
  • receiving a regular monthly salary and other benefits such as insurance and a pension.

So alternatives to this type of job could include working in a different type of company or organisation, with different motivations; working at home or in a different environment; working for yourself or for a number of different clients; working more flexible hours; and no longer receiving a regular salary and benefits.

Of course, there’s no one alternative, no single schedule or set-up, that works for everyone – but that’s the whole point! You can create your own schedule, based on your own definition of success, your most important values, and your personal situation.

Having said that, most of us – no, not just those pesky Millennials! – want flexibility; we want to be able to manage work alongside our family priorities; and we want to feel like we’re doing something meaningful, that’s making a difference in the world. Running your own business allows you to do all those things (and more).

And the good news is that there are more opportunities than ever to work flexibly and remotely; there are more tools and resources available than ever before to allow you to start and grow a business without a massive investment; and there is more information and support available than ever too, in the form of online courses, business coaches and programmes to guide you through the process.

In fact, the reasons that a lot of people will cite for staying in their corporate 9 to 5 – perceived job security in a large company, a comfortable retirement and generous pension, and so on – no longer really apply. There’s no such thing anymore as a job or even a career for life; even the most established companies have had to let people go; and the way in which our parents and grandparents structured their lives and careers just isn’t going to work anymore.

Leaving the corporate 9 to 5

So, what’s next? If all this resonates with you, if you agree with me and you decide that your corporate 9 to 5 is no longer where you want to be; if you’re open to considering the alternatives; and if you’re willing to put in the hard work to make your alternative happen – then I have three invitations to extend to you!

First, you can buy a copy of my book, Leaving the Corporate 9 to 5: Stories from people who’ve done it (and how you can too). My hope is that it will serve as an inspiration as you explore 50 different stories of career transitions with all their challenges and invaluable advice that they want to extend to you, along with concrete steps that you can take to create your own career transition story.

Second, and in the meantime, I’d love to have you join the One Step Outside Facebook group, where you’ll find like-minded people who are looking to redefine what ‘success’ means and get access to free training sessions, Q&As and all sorts of resources and tips to help you through the transition.

And, third, If you’re serious about embarking on this transition yourself, then book a discovery call with me to discuss how I can support you, either individually or in a group setting, to transition out of your 9 to 5 and into your ideal business.

Of course, quitting your job is no panacea, and starting your own business will be hard work (not to mention working out what it is that you really want to do in the first place – that’s actually the hardest part!). However, this one decision has the potential to put you on a steeper learning curve; to reignite your passion for your work; and, ultimately, bring you everything you’ve ever truly wanted. Now doesn’t that sound like it’s worth a shot?

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Download this free roadmap to start planning your transition out of the ‘9 to 5’ and into working for yourself.

We will use and protect your data in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

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