Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore | Analysis
Posted on: 10/16/2019 04:49 PM

Or: How corporations undermine national cohesion.


Just under a century ago, the Soviet Union embarked on one of the strangest attempts to reshape the common calendar that has ever been undertaken. As Joseph Stalin raced to turn an agricultural backwater into an industrialized nation, his government downsized the week from seven to five days. Saturday and Sunday were abolished.

In place of the weekend, a new system of respite was introduced in 1929. The government divided workers into five groups, and assigned each to a different day off. On any given day, four-fifths of the proletariat would show up to their factories and work while the other fifth rested. Each laborer received a colored slip of paper—yellow, orange, red, purple, or green—that signified his or her group. The staggered schedule was known as nepreryvka, or the “continuous workweek,” since production never stopped.

Socially, the nepreryvka was a disaster. People had no time to see friends; instead they associated by color: purple people with purple people, orange with orange, and so on. Managers were supposed to assign husbands and wives to the same color but rarely did. The Communist Party saw these dislocations as a feature, not a bug, of the new system. The Party wanted to undermine the family, that bourgeois institution.


Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore | Analysis




“Lenin’s widow, in good Marxist fashion, regarded Sunday family reunions as a good enough reason to abolish that day,” according to E. G. Richards, the author of Mapping Time, a history of the calendar.

Workers, however, were upset. One of them openly complained to Pravda: “What are we to do at home if the wife is in the factory, the children in school, and no one can come to see us? What is left but to go to the public tea room? What kind of life is that—when holidays come in shifts and not for all workers together? That’s no holiday, if you have to celebrate by yourself.”

The staggered workweek didn’t last long. Officials worried that it affected attendance at workers’ meetings, which were essential for a Marxist education. In 1931, Stalin declared that the nepreryvka had been implemented “too hastily,” leading to a “depersonalized labor process” and the mass breakage of overtaxed machines. That year, the government added a day of collective rest. The seven-day week was not restored until 1940.

Experiments like this one have given social engineering a bad name. Nevertheless, Americans are imposing a kind of nepreryvka on ourselves—not because a Communist tyrant thinks it’s a good idea but because the contemporary economy demands it. The hours in which we work, rest, and socialize are becoming ever more desynchronized.

Whereas we once shared the same temporal rhythms—five days on, two days off, federal holidays, thank-God-it’s-Fridays—our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers. Nearly a fifth of Americans hold jobs with nonstandard or variable hours. They may work seasonally, on rotating shifts, or in the gig economy driving for Uber or delivering for Postmates. Meanwhile, more people on the upper end of the pay scale are working long hours. Combine the people who have unpredictable workweeks with those who have prolonged ones, and you get a good third of the American labor force.

The personalization of time may seem like a petty concern, and indeed some people consider it liberating to set their own hours or spend their “free” time reaching for the brass ring. But the consequences could be debilitating for the U.S. in the same way they once were for the U.S.S.R. A calendar is more than the organization of days and months. It’s the blueprint for a shared life.

Remember the old 9-to-5, five-day-a-week grind? If you’re in your 30s or younger, maybe not. Maybe you watched reruns of Leave It to Beaver and saw Ward Cleaver come home at the same time every evening. Today few of us have workdays nearly so consistent. On the lower end of the labor market, standing ready to serve has become virtually a prerequisite for employment. A 2018 review of the retail sector called the “Stable Scheduling Study” found that 80 percent of American workers paid by the hour have fluctuating schedules. Many employers now schedule hours using algorithms to calculate exactly how many sets of hands are required at a given time of day—a process known as on-demand scheduling. The algorithms are designed to keep labor costs down, but they also rob workers of set schedules.

The inability to plan even a week into the future exacts a heavy toll. For her recent book, On the Clock, the journalist Emily Guendelsberger took jobs at an Amazon warehouse, a call center, and a McDonald’s. All three companies demanded schedule flexibility—on their terms. The most explicit about the arrangement was Amazon. While filling out an online application, Guendelsberger found the following advisory: “Working nights, weekends, and holidays may be required … Overtime is often required (sometimes on very short notice) … Work schedules are subject to change without notice.”

One Amazon co-worker told Guendelsberger that she barely saw her husband anymore. He worked the night shift as a school custodian and came home to sleep an hour before she woke up to go to work. “We have Sunday if I’m not working mandatory overtime, and occasionally we have Monday morning—if I don’t have to work Monday morning—to see each other, and that’s pretty much it,” she said.

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