Rethinking the old '9 to 5'

Sometimes by choice, sometimes involuntarily, the US labor force is shifting from a one-size-fits-all work week to more flexible arrangements. Not everybody can swing it, but those who can often discover that there's more to life than labor.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Any career on the up-and-up is worth applauding. Careers feed families and provide a feeling of accomplishment. Effort expended over a lifetime — rising early, clocking in, knuckling down, giving your all — can grow an idea into a thriving business, educate tomorrow’s generation, and bequeath to the rest of us lasting treasures in art, literature, and science. Beethoven didn’t write his 9th Symphony the first day on the job. It was the crowning achievement of a lifetime of work.

But no matter how brilliant, a career isn’t all of life. The writer Philip Roth, who recently announced his retirement, has commented tellingly on what he sacrificed when he closed the doors each day during his long career to concentrate on his craft. The wider world was shut out, the smell of a rainstorm, the chance encounter. There were no distractions, no wandering conversations, no excursions without purpose. 

The traditional way of dealing with the imbalance such concentration produces is to quit or retire. But that all-or-nothing approach comes with its own set of problems. Money is the big one, of course, and the reason many people keep plugging away in jobs they might otherwise leave. Even if financial problems can be mastered, the new experience of not working can leave a longtime worker grasping for a sense of purpose. 

Why should it be all or nothing? In a Monitor cover story, Simone Baribeau explores a shift in thinking among workers and employers toward more flexible arrangements. Ditching a paycheck and picking up a freelance contract can yield more time for family, friends, garden, or community. This is not, of course, always a happy decision. Many companies part with full-time workers to cut labor and benefit costs. That can hurt both pocketbook and pride. But many workers are also choosing to adjust their employment voluntarily.

Technology is driving much of this change. Before broadband, an office was a business’s hub. Telecommuting and teleconferencing, while not always ideal, make it less necessary to be physically present. The decrease in defined-benefit pension plans, the rollout of health insurance marketplaces, and the rise of online networks that link freelancers with clients also power the flex economy. As one who has recently hopped onto this trend, I’m here to say that it is both refreshing and disorienting.  

One way it is refreshing: At this time of year in North America, I used to notice the lengthening days and the changing seasons in a hurried way: a glimpse in the morning, a view through the windshield. Suddenly (Was it late June? Did the solstice just go by?) there were roses. I’ve recently seen something else: Each day’s light is subtly different. Watching roses leaf and bud makes their blooms that much sweeter when they come.

One way unhooking from the office has been disorienting: All those button-down shirts, trousers, shoes, and blazers upstairs form a kind of career costume museum, a diorama of thousands of meetings attended and reports produced. But each morning now, a denim shirt and cargo pants seem like the practical choice. 

Not everyone can or should be part of the flex workforce. Some people need the structure of an office, factory, or job site. Many need an employer to provide more than just a purchase order number. And we all need the concentration and dedication of career civil servants, scientists, farmers, and artists. But if finances, family life, and attitude align, it is increasingly possible to adjust the balance between work and life.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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