Life off the clock

There was a lot of work to do a few generations ago, but the work wasn’t regulated by a clock.

With the growth of industrial capitalism during the post-Civil War years, more and more Americans were feeling pressure to be “on time.” (The phrase itself was a colloquialism which did not appear until the 1870s.) The corporate drive for efficiency … reinforced the spreading requirement that people regulate their lives by the clock. … And though there was much resistance, especially among workers from a preindustrial background, the triumph of clock time seemed assured by 1890, when the time clock was invented. [1]

Clocks had been around for centuries, but no one punched a time clock until 1890. People had regular schedules, some more so than others, but in general their schedules were not rigid or synchronized.

Increasing numbers of people now enjoy flexible work schedules. This is not something new but a return to something old. Industrialism made synchronization necessary. Post-industrial work is partially returning to pre-industrial norms.

[1] “No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920″ by T. J. Jackson Lears.

4 thoughts on “Life off the clock

  1. One of the biggest downsides of the big labor fights occurring in the early to mid 20th century is that most labor laws have institutionalized preferences for a very specific kind of work. Namely: routine factory work.

    The implications of this simple fact are enormous. Ranging from the gold-plating of the 40 hour work week, the persistent legal bias toward the expectation of employment lasting decades, the bizarre concept of “employer” contributions to health care coverage and payroll taxes (spoiler alert: they come out of your effective paycheck no matter what balance sheet they are on), and the curious distinction between “full time” and “part time” employees. This affects everything from the source of 40% of federal taxes to the health care debate to race relations to the difficulty of single moms to earn a decent living to so much else.

    Unfortunately, for the most part those laws were set up to benefit a few very narrow interests. For the average worker many of these quirky and bizarre laws end up being actively harmful for individuals (forcing people to work multiple jobs, raising hurdles against self-employment and freelancing, for examples).

  2. Robin: I believe the laws and traditions based on routine factory work that no longer make sense will fade away. But I also believe it will take decades.

  3. Many years ago, I realised that a wristwatch was not serving me as a way to tell the time, but that it was instead, imposing a structure on my days that was not compatible with my Liberty. I sold it, and never replaced it.

    Knowing what time of day it is, every moment of the day, through clock chimes or a wristwatch requires a counter discipline to ignore it. I pity the people who live within earshot of a publicly chiming church clock; the sound is sweet, but that sound is a fence around your perception of what a day is.

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