Whatever happened to 9 to 5?

The myth behind the 8-hour workday, and some revised lyrics for Dolly Parton

 

Is "9 to 5" a myth? (Comstock/Getty Images / August 14, 2011)

"Workin' nine to five

What a way to make a livin'

Barely gettin' by

It's all takin' and no givin'

They just use your mind

And they never give you credit

It's enough to drive you

Crazy if you let it."

That's about as close as we got to a protest song in the 1980s. Penned by anti-establishment folk warrior Dolly Parton, the theme song to the movie "9 to 5" cemented that time frame as a national slang term for workaday drudgery. (The movie also taught us that all mean bosses are required to bear some resemblance to Dabney Coleman.)

I bring up these important historical facts as a prelude to a fascinating question.

Q: 9 to 5 has become such a heavily used expression to talk about the daily grind of work, but I don't know anyone who actually works those hours. Everyone I know is scheduled to be in the office from 8:30 to 5 or 9 to 5:30 or some other 8 1/2-hour combination — not 8 hours with lunch. Did we cede 30 minutes to the "man" since Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin tied Dabney Coleman to a chair in 1980?

— Anonymous in Minnesota, via email

A: For starters, it seems the very idea of people working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. may be a bit mythical.

"It's something of a stereotype," said Robert J.S. Ross, a professor of sociology at Clark University in Massachusetts. "I don't know that there were ever a majority of offices that were 9 to 5. In many, many offices, at least the clerical staff was supposed to be there by 8:30."

To whatever degree a 9-to-5 shift ever existed, it's clearly an inaccurate way to describe the workers of today. Many are in the office by 8 a.m. and stay until 6 p.m. or later, not to mention time spent sending late-night emails from home or typing away on laptops on the train to work.

But long before people started bemoaning a 9-to-5 shift, American workers were toiling from dawn to dusk and would bend over backward to get a simple eight-hour shift.

"The whole eight-hour movement took off right after the Civil War," said Robert Whaples, chairman of the economics department at Wake Forest University. "People at that time said the length of the workweek is long and the pace is very fast and they needed something that gave them time to live."

This push for eight-hour workdays led to labor demonstrations across the country in May 1886. A popular slogan at the time was: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!" (Personally, I wish they'd gone with more of a 4-10-10 split.)

Slowly, different industries began adopting the eight-hour workday. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act established a national minimum wage and required that workers in certain industries be paid overtime if they worked more than 40 hours in a week.

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