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As midnight strikes, more Americans head to work

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2004


The sun sets. Chris Brown rises.

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When the rest of the working world is packing it in for the night, Mr. Brown, a tall 19-year-old with a wisp of a beard, sucks down some "protein junk food" and chases the salty morsels with water. The night is his oyster, from behind the counter at a 24-hour BP gas station in Raleigh's university district. For him, the night shift means freedom not only from poverty, but from garrulous coworkers and stressed-out bosses.

But in the six months since Mr. Brown started here, the job has also taken a personal toll: Sleepless, he dropped out of North Carolina State and is now taking civil engineering classes at Wake Technical School, a capable but less prestigious institution. "I figured it wasn't worth $12,000 a year [of tuition at N.C. State] to be sleeping through the classes," he says.

Roused by the clamor of a 24-7 globe, the American workforce is increasingly seizing the wee hours - a groggy but growing graveyard shift where Brown and others toil in an alternate universe on the far side of midnight.

Once the haunt of cops and bakers, the night shift is now the fastest growing, according to the census: One in five Americans now goes to work between midnight and 6:30 a.m. To be sure, that includes day workers who rise before roosters. But another study, from Shiftwork Solutions in San Rafael, Calif., shows that one in four American workers now work outside the traditional Monday-through-Friday day shift, up significantly from ten years ago. And just as many prefer those "nontraditional" shifts, says Jim Dillingham, a consultant with Shiftworks Solutions.

For one thing, the increasing availability of "flex time" has given more people the option to head to work early, skip heinous commutes, and get home in time to pick up children from school - and thus cut day-care costs and spend more time with families, or simply with themselves.

A lot of those working the night shift are white-collar workers. Among the 24 million Americans who toil outside the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., half are in white-collar jobs, including healthcare, technology, customer service, retail, and media, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that number is expected to grow as more corporations and institutions move to round-the-clock operations.

The service industries tag on the heels of those white-collar workers, experts say, from IT workers to those serving coffee at half-past 2 and doughnuts at 3 a.m.

Though research on productivity gains is inconclusive, many employees say they accomplish more without the distractions of co-workers and sunlight. But whatever the reasons, the trend is clear: The night shift is the fastest growing frontier for the American workforce.

Not all of it, of course, is by choice. A globalized economy needs constant attention, so more white-collar professionals clock in at night to check the Tokyo Stock Exchange or take customer calls from New Zealand.

"[Night shifts] are really ... growing with the needs of a sleepless world," says Brian O'Neill, communications director at Circadian Technologies, a 24-7 consulting firm in Lexington, Mass. "The problem is that the world is changing too fast for the human body to adapt."