Never closed

With 24/7 - work all day, seven days a week - a clock-defying culture conquers the night.

A full moon shines brightly in the late-night December darkness as Mary Mutryn leaves a suburban Kinko's copy center, a stack of fresh printouts in hand. "I want these for a meeting tomorrow," she explains. It is after 11 p.m., and her workday, which began at 9 a.m., has finally ended.

Inside the 24-hour store, the workday has barely begun for Neal Paris. As temporary night manager, he starts his shift at 10 p.m. and does not finish until 8 a.m. "It's not bad," he says of the schedule. "I sleep from 11 in the morning to 4:30."

For legions of workers like Mr. Paris, traditional divisions of day and night, work and leisure are fading. About 1 in 5 employed Americans works evenings, nights, or rotating shifts, adding up to 15 million full-time shift workers, up 1 million since 1991. As their numbers grow, so does the need for odd-hours services and all-night supermarkets, drug stores, and restaurants.

Then there are the millions of daytime workers like Ms. Mutryn who work, shop, and play late, and who, from the comfort of home, bank electronically, shop via catalogs and the Internet, and check global stock markets while the rest of the nation sleeps. Add these groups together and a new reality emerges: In a world increasingly operating in cyberspace, night has become the new frontier to conquer.

There are no closing hours on the Internet, and fewer closing hours everywhere else. Cinderella, with her midnight curfew, doesn't live here anymore.

This clock-defying culture even sports a shorthand name: 24/7, signifying a 24-hour, seven-day way of life. Yet 24/7 remains a controversial concept.

Some futurists envision a brave new nocturnal world that never stops. Like Salvador Dali's painting of a watch melting over the edge of a table, they want to turn time into something more fluid and flexible. A 24/7 global schedule with three eight-hour work shifts, they suggest, would increase employment and reduce congestion and crime.

But other social observers peering into the next century fear that a technologically driven 24-hour society would create a topsy-turvy world where clocks lose their meaning and people lose their moorings.

"Electrons never sleep," says Stephen Bertman, author of "Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed." "Our lives are becoming more and more closely wedded to electronic systems that are not organic and do not possess human sensibilities."

As a result, Mr. Bertman says, "All kinds of things are being transformed, including the family, because there are no limits being set. This is a question of limits. We can go back to the Bible, to the book of Ecclesiastes, which talks about 'a time to sow, a time to reap.' We're entering a world where there are no time divisions as such." That, he adds, will produce "consequences we can hardly predict."

One predictable consequence involves a disruption of circadian rhythms, the physiological functions that fluctuate in patterns of about 24 hours. "The prime thing we're concerned with is alertness and fatigue," says Steve Mardon, editor of Working Nights newsletter at Circadian Technologies, a research firm in Cambridge, Mass. "It doesn't matter what industry you're in, whether you're an airline pilot or heart surgeon or someone in the control room, you face the same physiological challenge, which is that your body is really not meant to be awake at that hour. We're basically designed through evolution to be awake in the daytime and asleep at night. When you try to reverse that, you're going against the body's natural rhythms."

But tell that to the four customers using computers and photocopiers at Kinko's on this December midnight. Paris describes many of these wee-small-hours patrons as "corporate people trying to rush for a presentation in the morning, or people who don't want to deal with the crowds during the day."

One corporate customer, Mutryn, enjoys a variety of late-evening activities. Sometimes she heads for a late movie. Other nights she works out at a gym until it closes at 11 p.m. Then she might go grocery shopping. "I get my second wind," she explains.

On the same night that Mutryn is at Kinko's, Liz Andrews, also of Needham, is making a pre-midnight visit to Toys 'R' Us in nearby Dedham to buy holiday craft materials. A confirmed night owl, she longs for more round-the-clock stores, restaurants, and entertainment.

"The good thing is, PBS is now on all night," Ms. Andrews says. "It changed my life." During her student days in Texas, she worked an overnight shift at an airport gift shop. "In some ways I liked it," she recalls. "It was really quiet. I could read."

Another customer at the toy store, Stephanie Tobin of Jamaica Plain, Mass., finds late-night shopping a necessity. "When you work, you have to come home and cook, clean, give the baby a bath, and take care of everything for the next day," she says. "When do you find time for yourself except when other people are sleeping?"

As she fills her cart with toys, more than half a dozen night-shift employees wheel cartons from the stockroom and restock shelves. At the same time, a message on the intercom appeals for applicants for a "seasonal overnight crew." Shifts begin at 9 p.m. and end at 1 or 2 a.m.

Mr. Mardon acknowledges that some people are naturally "owls" who prefer night shifts. Unfortunately, he says, "there are not enough to cover all the work that needs to be done at night."

One evening-shift worker, Neville Francis, an airline reservation agent in Detroit, finishes work at midnight, then begins a 30-mile drive home. Sometimes he stops at a supermarket on the way.

"It's delightful," Mr. Francis says. "You might have to dodge the cleaning crew here and there, but you can shop in peace."

Once home, he begins the long process of unwinding. "I need two hours before I hit the bed. I listen to some music, catch up on my stocks." But going to sleep at 3 or 3:30 a.m. makes a short night if he needs to get up at 7 to drive his wife to her job at a child-care center.

Sleep deficits, in fact, rank as a common problem for those who, by choice or necessity, keep nontraditional schedules. Shift workers average 6-1/2 hours of sleep a night during the workweek, compared with 7 hours for day workers, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The foundation says the human body never adjusts to night-shift work, although more than 70 percent of adults think it does.

A 24-hour society also affects children. Running errands at the mall with parents at 9 p.m. or staying up late for Jay Leno contributes to the school-day fatigue some teachers say is widespread. The comforting certainties of fixed routines vanish as the week becomes more shapeless.

It is a way of life previous generations never could have imagined. "Our experience of time has changed radically over the years," says Mark Aultman, executive secretary of the International Society for the Study of Time in Worthington, Ohio. "In agricultural societies you would tend to live by the seasons and by the sun. As the Industrial Revolution came, it became important that we measure time and control it, so we can act differently in society."

Add Thomas Edison's invention of the electric light bulb more than a century ago, and the seeds of a potentially huge social revolution were sown. Whether that revolution will produce new freedom and creativity or simply generate widespread restlessness and dissatisfaction remains uncertain.

Supporters of 24/7 insist that removing artificial time constraints offers exciting possibilities for working, shopping, and relaxing free from the tyranny of the clock. Critics see it imposing other, more subtle kinds of tyranny. Mr. Aultman calls the 24-hour society "one aspect of the overcommercialization of everything." Bertman offers another kind of warning.

"Quite frankly, this 24-hour system isn't paying off in terms of making our inner life better," he says. "If anything, it's eroding our sense of well-being, our peace of mind, even our power to know whether the life we are living is the kind of life we want to live. A 24-hour society never has time to reflect, because we're too busy packing it all in."

He sees few solutions on a societal scale. "We want more things, and we enjoy stimulation," he says. But there are possibilities for change on a personal and family level. "We have some control over our individual lives, and we can make certain choices within the confines of our home."

Adds Aultman, "I would like people to better understand how time and definitions of time and measurements of time affect their lives. You have to become aware of these things, so you have more control over what you do and over what is done to you."

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