Day Jobs At Night

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    But he meant 8 a.m. in New York?5 a.m. in Vegas! It was arresting to think that people wanted to discuss the decline of males at such a wistfully cozy hour. It seemed altogether irregular that people would be up and about during a time of day when nearly all creatures from CEOs to two-year-olds to day lilies to border terriers shut down.

    The unfailing planet Earth cycle of massive lightness and massive darkness surely had some impact in defining the behavior of people even in a city whose principal industry occurred in gambling rooms with no windows and where the separation of suckers from their money had neither season nor primetime. Surely the city whose factory never sleeps was composed largely of people who did sleep?and during normal hours to boot.

    But I was the odd man out with my lazy traditional notion of when people sleep and when the workday begins and ends. I was wrong not only about life in the fast lane in Las Vegas, but also about powerful emergent trends in American life. Night and day are changing as sure as night and day.

    The fact is that some 40 percent of American workers work mainly at night or in the evening, or on rotation and on weekends. As Harriet Presser of the University of Maryland has shown, only some 55 percent of Americans participate in the work week as it has been defined in history and in custom: on a fixed schedule during daytime hours, five days a week. For the other 45 percent, their day job may be at night, or any other version of a regular routine. In families with two earners?which is now the most common American family form?nearly 28 percent show at least one spouse who doesn't work the normal daytime schedule. In more than half these families, one spouse at least works on weekends. For dual-income families with children, in some 57 percent of these families Ma and Pa do not work regular hours during weekdays.

    A recent study reveals that men married fewer than five years who work nights are six times more likely to separate or divorce after five years of this schedule. The data suggest that people divorce because of their schedules, not that they choose schedules that permit them to avoid the spouses they eventually leave. Single mothers more than married ones work nonstandard and long hours, which cannot but have an impact on their children that's likely to be negative, or at least confounding for youngsters. Leaving the welfare rolls to take a job may for a time boost the government's exchequer, but may also disturb some fundamental, formative mammalian patterns, such as that, in general, adults are supposed to feed children. In an epochal reversal of tens of millions of years of mammalian dining, several years ago there was an ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken that portrayed a seven- or eight-year-old boy sitting on the stoop of a brownstone with a bucket of chicken, a catcher's mitt and his mother. The ad said, "Have dinner ready for Mom when she gets home."

    Meanwhile, people still get hungry, and the food industry focuses on providing "home meal replacements" when the demands of schedules require that separate members of families eat separate meals at separate times. "Home meal replacement" is a verbal scam on a par with "pre-owned auto."

    It's obvious that the social and psychological impact of divergent schedules on family life is bound to be strenuous and complex, just as it is well known that there are clear health impacts on people whose circadian rhythms are disrupted. This is the inner clock responsible, for example, for the jet lag that nearly everybody experiences. For most people, this inner clock animates the touch of sleepiness, or at least a sense of the magnetism of home and comfort, when darkness falls. Disturbed sleep, confused gastrointestinal function and often a kind of chronic malaise are part of the package for countless people?to say nothing of significantly higher rates of accidents and occupational mistakes. There is a fierce reason for the formal, coercive attention paid to the schedules of airline pilots: fatigue and confused bodily rhythms can readily combine to affect both judgment and physical skill. It is also about time that stricter enforcement of the schedules of truck drivers affects the safety of roads having to contain huge objects moving at high speed, often only three or four feet away from other more fragile vehicles. And it took pathetic decades before hospitals, which should have known better, first began to adjust intern schedules so that they didn't have to work literally for days at a stretch.

    The fact is that there is a decisively strong pattern millions of years old that governs the energy and comfort cycles of animals that are not nocturnal. This deeply rooted scheme affects the human body, and it imposes costs on people who want or have to counteract it. People used not to pay much attention to jet lag and what it meant for effectiveness. Among the first people seen to deal with it directly were the Soviets who, when they came to meetings at the United Nations, were first spirited away to a hideaway on Long Island for three or four days. Aha! the devious plotting Commies! was the common reasoning. But jet lag was the explanation, and they were dealing with it. At the same time Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would fly hours and hours to Saigon, have a brief meeting and produce imperious, satisfied announcements on the tarmac before flying back to DC to repeat the cycle of grave misperception that sustained that war. Also, McNamara believed so strongly in flurried action as a moral good in itself, whatever its effect, that memoirs of the time reveal that he would arrive at work so early at the Pentagon that his humiliated aides would touch the hood of his car to gauge how long he'd been hard at work and they hadn't.

    Meanwhile, NATO pilots who flew around the world all the time conducted a test and realized that it was easier to fly west because it suited the body's rhythm better. Thereafter they only flew west around the world. Perhaps "sunny California" is so called because when you go there from the east it is usually bright and light, but the other way pitches you into early gloom.

    What is true about driving airplanes is likely to be as true for parents?or the investors who will take part in the 24-hour trading facilities that are sure to come. People who trade currencies, or take advantage of time differences between one market and another, already complain about the impact of their work on their lives?there is never any peacetime in the endless cycle of activities generated by different locations of time.

    The old USSR spanned 11 time zones?was that a factor in the difficulty of governing it with any congenial flexibility? What will be the underlying if subtle impact on people whose cell phones mean they are in their employers' pockets day and night? North American people have long ago come to associate action with high status rather than leisure with high status as in the Old Days. For example, English and European academics used to have "studies" or "rooms" while in North America they had offices like insurance adjusters. And there remains a serious difference in moral status between a playboy and a workman. But for countless people, you can't go home again, because work is with them all the time.

    The answering machine was one of the first devices that permitted the pressures of paid work to violate the envelope of the home, which had been traditionally protected from the inroads of employment. The cell phone is yet another border-killer and attaches everyone to the mother ship as if they were astronauts. It becomes more important than the immediate physical reality of its users, so that people who agree to dine with each other nevertheless commit time-adultery by talking extensively to other people because after all they called and who can resist?

    E-mail has its own peculiar hold over countless people, for whom Cyberia is as real an environment as the one in which they wear shoes, sew buttons and smell the coffee. And e-mail is everywhere in the world at once, in real time, so that no mere nicety, such as that I'm in Bruges and you're in Bali, affects the glad flash of intimate contact. E-mail is at once phenomenally effective in communicating information directly and saving endless time, but as well it's a vastly absorbent sponge that sucks up hours of the universe. It also facilitates the spread of often disastrous misinformation, especially about matters medical. And it can attain the status of traditional print, because it provides, most copiously and cheaply, the illusion of accuracy, making easily available materials that used to be edited, shaped and rejected. It is not a screen, but a megaphone. And it is always there, in the privacy of the control tower of your workplace, night and day.

    It will be interesting to see how important trading stocks becomes for the midnight investors, in contrast to how much they want some contact, some action, some movement, some comings and goings, some sense that the night is under their control. Most civilians can't beat the market and there is every reason to believe sleepy ones will do even worse. Since people in general overwhelmingly invest in companies that function in their own national community, they will have no advantage buying Belgian stocks at the crack of dawn in Jakarta. Nevertheless, the casino is so clearly not a sensible place to make money?and is yet so successful?that it has to be a way to make time, make friends, make a difference. It is also painfully unreassuring that the controllers of securities exchanges are not only going to allow people to trade stocks after parties, but that they hope to see the exchanges transformed into publicly traded profit-making companies. Yes, let's vary everything at once. In the dark. And guess who'll pay the bill?