As midnight strikes, more Americans head to work

The sun sets. Chris Brown rises.

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."

There are other drawbacks to night work, too. For companies, the addition of nocturnal employees can be costly. "Workers burn out, turnover goes up, morale goes down, and so does productivity," says Mr. O'Neill. The late shifts can cost companies more - up to $8,600 extra annually, per person, than day workers, and with an accident rate up to 20 percent higher.

And for the workers themselves, consequences range from foreign sleep patterns, to a higher risk of accidents, to declining health and, most poignantly, frayed relationships with those who spend their nights hugging a pillow alone.

Donna Pearce, a brassy night-shifter in a Harris Teeter grocery store in Raleigh, has seen the impact firsthand. "It can mess up a marriage right quick," she says, eating a "lunch" of canned hot dogs at 1:43 a.m.

Her colleague William Hall struggles to find time for his family. But on Saturday morning, after his shift, he took his two kids to see "Scooby Doo" and "Spider Man" - all before crashing at 2:30 p.m. "We're all having to adapt to a 24-7 world," he says.

Working at night can hit parents and children especially hard. "The future of the night-shift growth is disproportionately in the service sector, and these are often the kinds of jobs that women going from welfare to work are moving into. The question is, what happens to their children?" asks Harriet Presser, a sociologist at the University of Maryland-College Park and author of Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American families. "It's a silent issue," she says.

Still, more and more companies are making sure that if the day shift gets a party, so does the night shift, and a growing cadre of consultants are on hand to give advice about how to eat correctly at night (light snacks are best) and how to get a good day's sleep.

Despite a litany of complaints, from bosses' lack of attention to sleepless days, many find solace, even happiness, working under the stars. There are lots of things to like, says Mr. Hall, including not having a boss always breathing down your neck.

Coworker Barbara Keyes says it fits her schedule: Her oldest daughter watches the young one, and she can spend days with them or volunteer, as she does with the PTA.

Manoon Nayyaz, an immigrant from Pakistan who works with Hall and Ms. Keyes, often puts in two shifts a day, one of them at night. Taking a break on the stoop of the silent store, he says he likes the solitude. "If we didn't find ways to enjoy it, you couldn't call it a life," he philosophizes to a chorus of crickets.

Back at the BP, in the middle of the long stretch between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., Brown finds another bonus: Weird stuff happens in the wee hours. There's a steady stream of red-eyed club-hoppers, and a man recently chased his girlfriend around the pumps with a hatchet (she escaped). Still, he's feeling the biological effects of a nocturnal life: "I'm totally sleep-deprived."

And it can only last so long. Six more months and he wants to move to the dayshift - and salvage his academic career.

Just then, the bell tinkles on the door and in walks Chris Dedousis, an N.C. State freshman who picks up a job application. "I'm up anyway, so I'll work the graveyard shift," he says. "Trust me, I need the cash."

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