He is a year and a half out of college, a talented industrial designer with an impressive list of corporate clients on his resume. When he graduated, he assumed he would quickly parlay his education and experience into a full-time job. But despite his best efforts, he remains a freelancer, scrambling from company to company, project to project, interview to interview, still waiting for the day when he can report permanently to a single employer.
"It's so competitive out there," says the young designer, whose circle of friends and acquaintances includes others in the same situation. "Companies love to hire you as a freelancer because they have no obligations." To meet deadlines from multiple clients, he puts in seven-day weeks. "I don't mind working 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday," he says. "But I'd like to be out having a little fun on weekends."
Ever since the five-day work week became standard for federal workers and most business employees in the 1930s, the weekend has been enshrined as a nearly inviolable right - a time to relax, regroup with family and friends, and catch up on chores and sleep. Some futurists even predicted a four-day work week, gloriously stretching the weekend further.
Now a different scenario looms, raising a question for many workers: Is the weekend becoming an endangered species? As downsizing puts more demands on remaining employees, as the contingent work force produces more freelancers like this designer, and as technology allows people to work anywhere, any time, many jobs exceed the boundaries of a five-day, 40-hour week.
Weekends still exist, at least on paper. What's vanishing is mental freedom. Tethered by work pressure and technology to their offices, employees check voice mail on weekends and vacations, finish assignments on home computers, and burn the proverbial midnight oil in their efforts to keep - or get - a job.
"A lot of people feel they don't have a life," says the freelance designer, who sees friends with permanent jobs logging long hours. "Sometimes they go into the office on weekends, or they download files to their computers at home. And the ones who travel on business often leave Sunday afternoon or Monday morning and come back Friday night or Saturday." Now that hotel rooms have become the latest extension of the office, with "business centers" wired into rooms, business travelers may find work staring them in the face even at 10 p.m.
Is this any way to run a workplace? In the long run, no. But reform - cutting back on crazy hours - will not be easy to achieve.
This year a new law, the Congressional Accountability Act, requires that nonexempt congressional office employees receive overtime after 40 hours. Yet the law provides no money for extra pay, so clerks and aides must adhere to what one congressman calls "a normal business day." Aides say they must find ways to squeeze 55 or 60 hours of work into a 40-hour week.
The law bears watching. If Congress changes its workaholic culture, which some staffers call "the last plantation," perhaps the return of the "normal business day" could also spread to the private sector. But as of now, jobs have never been so full-time.
Not only does work just encroach on evenings and weekends, it also consumes a day from start to finish. How many workers go through their long hours without breaks and without even a formal lunch? Just check office refrigerators, crammed with brown-bags and leftovers. Also check the noontime lines at office microwaves as workers zap those leftovers to eat at their desks.
It's time to raise the ultimate question: Is nonstop work efficient even by the single standard of productivity? Probably not. Tired workers may function less effectively. Employees become just employees - less human with no "life outside."
And what becomes of the family, to which everyone pays lip service? The balanced life, complete with a real weekend, is the sane life. Perhaps a little of all this overtime should go to figuring out how to regain it.