The Quiet Death of the 9-to-5 Job

I was on LinkedIn the other day when one of the suggested articles caught my attention. It was titled “The 9-to-5 job has disappeared.” While it turned out to actually just be a summary of a single point of a Wall Street Journal article of much more substance, it got me thinking. I scrolled down into the comments and found a wonderful gem from a man with one of the most corporate BS-sounding job titles I’d ever heard:

The 9-to-5 job has disappeared and depending on your role or vocation, that is OK. If success measurements are based on outcomes, then the “time” you spend ‘at work’ shouldn’t be a measure. On the other hand, if expectations are appropriately established on the front-end, burning out should not be the result. There a few presumptions of reasonableness in my statement.
— A "Client Partner/Trusted Advisor to C-Suite Executives"

Let’s put his impressive title aside and focus instead on the comment. This man—let’s call him Bob—suggests that the amount of “time” you spend ‘at work’ doesn’t matter if your success is measured by outcomes. To translate back into English, he’s saying that you shouldn’t be worried about your hours, you should be worried about results. Hours aren’t a consideration when you’re focused on the “outcomes”—i.e. getting stuff done. Bob implies that so long as it’s understood you’ll be working a crap-load, then you’ve got no reason to get burnt out by long hours.

Now, I can sit here all day and break apart his argument, but I want to put emphasis on the idea that ol’ Bobby here expects you to not burn out. After all, your expectations were established along with your success metrics. You are focused on outcomes, right? In his model of the workplace, burnout is caused by coming up short in your “success measurements.” Clearly, given his wording and punctuation choices, he doesn’t put a lot of weight behind the “time” you spend ‘at work’.

The Problem with Results as the Only Metric

As a software engineer, I work in an industry notorious for long hours, no overtime pay, scope creep, and poor planning. Let me tell you, Bob: burnout happens whether your expectations were set properly or not. It occurs even if your success measurements are overflowing with outcomes—it’s not the same as being dissatisfied. You burn out because you’ve stressed yourself to the limit repeatedly. You burn out because you forget what your wife’s face looks like. You burn out because you catch yourself working out how to sleep and shower in the office to save time. To put it another way, you burn out because you consistently have too much work to do in too little time.

Especially in software, the 9-to-5 job died a quiet death a long time ago. There are too many eager kids willing to light the candle at both ends to prove themselves, because programming is their passion; too many old neckbeards living at work because they don’t have a life to go home to. These people set the expectation. Putting in extra time goes from being a thing you do when you’re dedicated, passionate, and invested in the project/product/business, to being the norm. It stops sounding like “that Nathan is a hell of a worker” and becomes “look at that guy going home at 5 while the rest of us are here until 7 or later every day.” Before you know it, not working 60 hour weeks is getting counted against you in your annual evaluations.

Combine an over-working culture with project mismanagement and you’ll have the murder weapon used to kill the 9-to-5 job. I’ll be talking at length in a later article about how mismanagement leads to burnout. However, it’s not hard to see why only working 8 hours a day isn’t sufficient anymore. We live in a culture where “you’re lucky to even have a job.” There are limited advancement opportunities and tons of competition for your position. Employers are keen to encourage this; after all, it keeps everyone on their toes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that people are more productive and put out higher-quality work when you give them some time to have a life outside their job. Some people live to work, others work to live. However, like most things in life, the sweet spot is a balance somewhere between the two. You enjoy your job and are passionate about it, but you go home and mentally pack it away for the rest of the night so that you can be the master of your own destiny for a while. Maybe you’ll squander that time watching Netflix and eating popcorn or maybe you’ll invest it into new skills, hobbies, or your family. Either way, it’s time where your only obligations are to yourself and your loved ones. This time helps you decompress and analyze the problems you faced at work subconsciously. It leads to the fabled “ah-hah!” moments in the shower where your brain has finally put the pieces together for you. Without this time, you’re going to run out of gas eventually.

He’s Dead, Jim

So, Bob, you’re right. The 9-to-5 job has died, and we were all so focused on our outcomes that we didn’t notice or care. The worst part is, we’ve bred a culture where humble-bragging about how much you work is a show of dedication. If you truly enjoy working yourself down to the bone (either literally or proverbially), you’ve got my respect. However, for whatever reason—let’s avoid political, economical, or ideological arguments here—this has now become the standard. Anything less is insufficient. I can’t foresee it getting better any time soon, but the best way to improve the culture is to not participate in it. Don’t let your success measurements cloud your perception of what’s truly important to you. And most importantly, don’t let guys like Bob tell you otherwise.