Q: "9 to 5" has become such a heavily used expression to talk about the daily grind of work, but I don't know anyone who actually works those hours. Everyone I know is scheduled to be in the office from 8:30 to 5 or 9 to 5:30 or some other 8 ½-hour combination — not 8 hours with lunch. Did we cede 30 minutes to "the man" since Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin tied Dabney Coleman to a chair in 1980?
Anonymous in Minnesota, via e-mail
A: For starters, it seems the very idea of people working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. may be a bit mythical.
"It's something of a stereotype," said Robert J.S. Ross, a professor of sociology at Clark University in Massachusetts. "I don't know that there were ever a majority of offices that were 9 to 5. In many, many offices, at least the clerical staff was supposed to be there by 8:30."
To whatever degree a 9-to-5 shift ever existed, it's clearly an inaccurate way to describe the workers of today. Many are in the office by 8 a.m. and stay until 6 p.m. or later, not to mention time spent sending late-night e-mails or typing on laptops on the train to work.
But long before people started bemoaning a 9-to-5 shift, American workers were toiling from dawn to dusk and would bend over backward to get a simple eight-hour shift.
"The whole eight-hour movement took off right after the Civil War," said Robert Whaples, chairman of the economics department at Wake Forest University. "People at that time said the length of the workweek is long and the pace is very fast and they needed something that gave them time to live."
This push for eight-hour workdays led to labor demonstrations across the country in May 1886. A popular slogan at the time was: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!" (Personally, I wish they'd gone with more of a 4-10-10 split.)
In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act established a national minimum wage and required that workers in certain industries be paid overtime if they worked more than 40 hours in a week.
So we had the fighting and the yelling and the clever slogan writing to get to an eight-hour day standard, and then by the 1980s we get Ms. Parton and her cohorts griping about how such a shift will "drive you crazy if you let it."
Since then, however, the country has seen vast changes in its economy. Ross pointed out that a decline in manufacturing led to an erosion of unions. Some workers began getting "quasi-managerial" titles that exempted them from the Fair Labors Standards Act.
"As unions got beaten back, they lost control of the classification system," Ross said. "People were switched to managerial titles or contract workers, so there was no longer an hours issue."
There are still, of course, many hourly workers. And statistically, the number of hours worked each year has been trending downward, but those statistics fail to account for the hours people put in working through coffee breaks or on weekends.
"One of the things that has really eroded over the last couple of decades is lunching," Ross said. "People do it to themselves as well as their employers doing it to them — people eat at their desks. It's been 20 years since we've had a faculty lunchroom here at Clark University."
So we used to work too much, then we got down to a reasonable workday, and now many of us seem to be working too much again.
A t the very least, it seems the term "9 to 5" has become a dated part of the lexicon, kind of like using a button to "roll down" a car window or "dialing a number" on an iPhone (barring Apple's release of a rotary iPhone).