Work Discipline in the 21st Century
Historians who have read E. P. Thompson’s “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” (Past & Present, 1967) in graduate school remember it for a deeply evocative and original argument. Thompson wrote about how the regimented timekeeping imposed by capital overrode more traditional approaches to working hours and notions of time, while adherence to older forms of timekeeping could be a seen as “resistance to exploitation.”
What I didn’t remember, until I went back to it recently, is the historicity of the argument, which reveals something about the 1960s. Thompson was concerned not only with workers who had lived through the Industrial Revolution, but also those of his own day. “We are now at a point,” he wrote, “where sociologists are discussing the ‘problem’ of leisure.” Sociologists and others genuinely worried that, as the New York Times put it in a long article on work and leisure in April 1964, “people simply will not know what to do with themselves if the work week is still further reduced.”
Concern over too much leisure seems odd in our current cultural moment. A half century later, few members of our discipline are in danger of working too little. According to a study published in Inside Higher Education in 2014, on average academic faculty reported working 61 hours a week. Nonetheless academics, especially in the humanities, have long taken what people in many industries would see as an undisciplined approach to working hours. Many faculty only use their offices to meet with students, and institutions rarely demand regular schedules beyond teaching classes and attending meetings. Conversely, there are also so many demands on people’s time that research seminars happen in the evening and conferences take place over weekends. Working conditions in higher education aren’t as unique as many academics would like to think. But compared with many other white-collar professions, the lack of expectation of attendance during “regular office hours” is unusual, mapping more readily to what Thompson and many others have called “pre-industrial.” (Here at the AHA, we generally follow a 9:00–5:00 office schedule.)
Even though academic history faculty often approach work discipline in idiosyncratic ways, digital communication has led to change. Perpetual connectivity and mobile technology confer some advantages, allowing certain kinds of work to take place at times and in places that suit the individual. This flexibility has many benefits for people who experience a range of work and personal demands on their time. But unorthodox scheduling has distinct disadvantages too, because it enables work to intrude when other aspects of life should take precedence.
Recently, the reality that work discipline varies has become a little more visible. An increasing number of people have added a short but considerate statement to their email sign-off about working hours, stating that the sender does not expect the recipient to respond outside their own working hours. Disclaiming “My working hours may not be yours” gives the writer license to send an email at unsocial hours by absolving the receiver from an expectation to respond immediately. That’s the intent, but what does such a cultural practice tell us about “post-industrial” work discipline?
It is undoubtedly good that many recognize the ways in which their work habits differ from those of colleagues and politely absolve coworkers from responsibility for conforming to their own schedules. As our work and communication become ever more digital, we would do well to remember how institutions shape time, work discipline, and even leisure. Applying historical knowledge and perspective will help us be intentional about how we use and manage our time, and to find humane ways to, in Thompson’s words, “fill the interstices of [our] day with enriched, more leisurely, personal and social relations.”
Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.
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