Time keeps on slipping

Why can't we find any time nowadays? The laws that used to protect our leisure have changed.

What do blue laws, daylight savings time, the 40-hour work week, and the compulsory school year have in common?

In "A Time for Every Purpose," Harvard Law School professor Todd Rakoff argues that this patchwork of laws shapes how we think about time. Unfortunately, he says, they no longer do a very good job of ensuring people can balance their work and personal lives.

As Rakoff shows in this curious little book, the modern construction of time doesn't have a very long history. In the mid-19th century, local time was still determined by the sun's appearance at a given place. As a result, clocks in Pittsburgh struck noon 16 minutes after clocks in Philadelphia.

Large-scale commerce required a more systematic approach. So railroads instituted their own time keeping based on the time in their terminal cities. Stops along the way suddenly had two ways to tell time.

Standardized time zones and daylight savings time didn't become fully entrenched until well into the 20th century. And just as time became more regimented, so did work and school hours. Blue laws ensured common days of rest by banning work and shuttering shops on Sundays and holidays. Then the 40-hour work week became the norm, and the Fair Labor Standards Act provided time-and-a-half overtime pay for excess hours. The 180-day compulsory school year established a rhythm of school, interrupted by a lengthy summer vacation.

For decades, such laws promoted "social time" by walling off the work day and allowing people to coordinate their leisure schedules. Rakoff argues that these mechanisms helped us allocate time, synchronize our schedules, and create social rhythms by repeating each day or week.

Time spent outside the office is not properly viewed as "mere leisure," Rakoff writes. Individuals and society as a whole benefit from shared common activities that build trust and cohesion. All the main purposes of life – work, family, learning, culture, and social and civic affairs – deserve time, he argues. But that balance is undermined as work keeps eating up more time and the legal structure that divided work and the rest of life erodes. "The fabric of social time is fraying," Rakoff warns.

Merchants pressed for store openings on Sundays. Women entering the work force removed a buffer between the boundaries of work and home. Professionals and executives, exempt from the 40-hour workweek and overtime regulations, keep working longer.

Where professional and personal lives conflict, Rakoff argues, the law now gives precedence to work. You can be fired for absences or for refusing overtime – even if obligations at home justify your actions. Adding to the time crunch is a school calendar that doesn't correspond well to parents' work schedules.

Offering realistic suggestions for fixing these time imbalances proves more difficult than merely detailing the problem. Rakoff reasonably says the law must create more mechanisms to balance work time and other responsibilities. He points to the Family and Medical Leave Act as a model. Perhaps, he says, legislation could protect employees who refuse to work overtime or ensure workers can collect comp days instead of overtime pay.

But most professionals and executives are unlikely ever to work under 40 hours a week or receive overtime – and even if they did, their salaries would likely be adjusted downward to reflect the change. And more flexible work or school schedules can actually undermine group cohesion by reducing the amount of time employees or students spend together.

Whatever the appropriate solutions, Rakoff makes a good case for strengthening the boundaries around our free time.

• Seth Stern writes about legal issues for the Monitor.

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