Society starts at dawn.”

I’m not sure what the Styles Desk is, but The New York Times recently published one of the Styles Desk writers’ reflections on the experience of delayed sleep phase syndrome:

My father, who was an extreme lark, would wake up by 6:30 a.m. and storm into my room, huffing, Society starts at dawn,” as he yanked off my bedcover.

Growing up, I endured a similar perspective shared by one of my parents.1 I’m willing to bet the author’s father, who uttered the statement in the title, was not only a lark, but an extrovert. I can’t think of a statement more wholly encompassing both modes of being.

I suffer chronic sleep deficit. That is, I have a so-called sleep problem, although technically, that is not accurate.

I sleep fine. It is everyone else who has a problem with it.

My wife, who sent me a link to the piece, says this is me. She’s not wrong.

Williams’ experience of the working world mirrors my own. I don’t find much comfort in that, though it’s nice to know someone out there with a larger platform is willing to engage the problem.

By necessity, much of my life has occurred on lark’s hours. We all, larks & night owls, are shoehorned into them during our school years.2 Even the relative freedom of graduate school was a double-edged sword. I did most of my reading, and almost all of my writing, during the late night hours. This was ideal from a working perspective; the problem was that my days were a jumble of courses and teaching, and I taught every semester. There were definite times for certain kinds of work, but there was always additional work with the potential to be done at all times.3

[A]bout 40 percent of the population are morning people, 30 percent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between. Night owls are not owls by choice,” he writes. They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hard wiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”

There have been three times when I’ve felt my hours matched my chronotype: working a factory’s third shift in high school, working afternoons/nights in a high-end restaurant, and overnight watch in Iraq. All three point to a reason why I feel less sanguine than the author about traditional 9-5 workplaces’ accommodations for chronotype.

During my senior year in high school, I took a job (through a temp agency) working in a factory that screen-printed labels on bottles for major cosmetic companies. It was, in some ways, a great job — it planted seeds that grew, with sufficient fertilizer, into more thoughtful perspectives later in my life. In some ways it was a lousy job — I was working a minimum-wage gig from 11pm–7am, then going to school from about 10am–3pm, then engaging in after-school activities until 7pm or later. I didn’t do this for the full year, thank goodness; it lasted some number of months, but I no longer remember how many. Had I not still been in school, my hours outside work would probably have been filled by a second (also hourly) job. As it was, by that point I’d already given up on going to a four-year college after high school, so it was a good introduction to the life that lay ahead of me in the restaurant world. Second and third shift work schedules are a reality for many folks who have little choice but to simply endure it, whether or not they would choose it for themselves if given the opportunity.

When I was working in the restaurant — typically 4pm-midnight Monday–Thursday, 3pm–1am Fridays, & 10am–2am on Saturdays — my hours were actually set by lark-driven society. I simply had the luxury of working in a service industry that catered to larks’ desires for their leisure time. This is good work for a night owl, assuming a sustainable position can be found.4 I was a full-time student at the same time I was a full-time line cook; it was simply unsustainable.

At one point during my deployment to Iraq, I was assigned the 6pm–6am watch shift. I was the only one awake on our tiny FOB for the entirely of that time; the platoon commander, the sergeant of the guard, even the squad on watch all would sleep for part of those hours. Once I got over the eerie feeling of being the only one awake through the night within hours of our FOB, I came to love it. The most analogous roles in US civilian life are the folks who care for & keep watch on us overnight: emergency services, night staffs of hospitals & care centers, & infrastructure workers. Again, these are good gigs for night owls, provided they fit with the rest of one’s life.

Society likes morning people. Loves them, actually. Early risers tend to be more punctual, get better grades in school and climb up the corporate ladder. These so-called larks are celebrated as the high achievers, the apple polishers, the C.E.O.s.

The author of the Times piece focuses on hacker hours,” revealed by shifts in the tech industry & creative sectors” that suggest the new workplace culture is less about punctuality and more about creativity and breaking the rules.” That may be the case in these spheres of labor, and shifts there may drive shifts in related industries. But I think there’s an inescapable gravity to the point made by the author’s father: whether or not the larks’ hegemony over society’s work-time structure is total or partial, our society will continue expect that certain kinds of workers will always maintain daytime hours — including healthcare practitioners, workers in the trades, and educators — especially elementary & secondary teachers. While some people might be happy to be able to see their optometrist in the evening, or have access to a plumber’s services at midnight, elementary & secondary teachers will be among the very last to see a significant change in their workday.

In a world where a dual income has become necessary to simply fall behind less rapidly, schools preform the vital function of caring for children’s needs during the hours claimed by many parents’ employers. A work hours shift by employers will not immediately precipitate a shift in school schedules, which have proved remarkably resilient to broader societal changes, including the dwindling necessity to peg the school calendar to the seasonal demands of agrarian life. Should employers liberate their workers from the hegemony of the larks — either out of benevolence, or velvet-gloved coercion — workers with children will feel the strain of reconciling their new work schedules with the schedules of their children. No doubt some affluent, voucher-cashing private schools will market themselves as accommodating the modern schedules of their equally affluent client families. But can one seriously imagine the public school system, with its constituency of middle & working class families stretched ever thinner, shifting either quickly or uniformly? Perhaps the unchecked rise of service sector jobs, and the continued atrophy of industrial labor, will drive such a change. It could happen.

The trends I’ve observed in my lifetime don’t support such wishcasting. What I’ve observed is life becoming economically more untenable for most of us, while our labor is demeaned & devalued. What I’ve observed are major economic & quality-of-life gains being realized by an elect few, while the rest of us are coerced to go along with the fiction that their success & the country’s gross economic production has some relevance to the majority’s increasingly marginal existence.

Until something is done to address the fundamental inequity of our economic system — something that frees everyone to find work that recognizes their dignity, matches their skills & experience, and fits the tempo of their life — I’m afraid any implication that most folks — night owls as well as larks — could find work that embraces their genetic makeup is purely pie in the sky.

  1. It had a corollary: Nothing good happens after midnight.”↩︎

  2. It seems that school schedules have become more ridiculous than when I was in school, to the point where there’s pretty broad consensus much agree that they’re unhealthy for kids. At the same time, thanks to the working world that has become so warped, we’re also unwilling to do a thing about it.↩︎

  3. I don’t think my experience was unusual in that regard.↩︎

  4. Back then, the only way one could reasonably afford health insurance on a line cook’s wages was to be married to someone with a benefits package.↩︎

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