Is nothing sacred? Even though we live in a place famous for its workaholic habits and stressful schedules, there has always been the comforting thought that in other, warmer countries people do things differently. In these Lotus-lands of the imagination, or so we believed, workers hardly merit the name: They start late, finish early, strike often, snooze through siestas, take bloated vacations and linger over long, well-lubricated lunches.
Well, no more. Not, at least, in Mexico, that quintessential Lotus-land, and certainly not with regard to lunches. In a move scheduled to take effect this week, the Mexican government has officially abolished the country’s traditional three-hour lunch, removing at a stroke a central pillar of the time-honored culture of “al ratito” (later) and “manana” (tomorrow).
In slashing its citizens’ midday break by two-thirds, Mexico may be undercutting its easy-going, tourist-pleasing image, but it is really only facing the inevitable. As a modern trading nation, it has little choice but to fall in with the rest of the industrialized world, a fast-paced, 24-hour universe where time is money and there is only one watchword: now. The reformers argue that the tighter schedule will actually free up time for workers, since the long afternoon break meant that the Mexican workday typically ran until 10 or 11 at night. Now, they say, employees will work harder for fewer hours, with evenings off to devote to their neglected private lives. Observers in Japan may be justified in feeling skeptical. Experience here warns that employees used to staying late at the office could find the habit hard to break, under pressure from bosses, clients and that sleepless global clock, and end up working more hours — fueled only by a couple of takeout tacos. How do you say “karoshi” in Spanish?
In truth, whether Mexico’s reordered day proves more efficient or not, the country is buying into a dilemma confronting workforces in developed countries everywhere: how to maintain the distinction, let alone a balance, between work and the rest of life. The Lotus-eaters’ languid paradise remains the mirage it always actually was, especially since the tentacles of electronic communications curled their way into the remotest outposts of civilization. The irony is that the indolent ones’ plaint is even more pertinent now than it was when the poet Tennyson voiced it nearly 170 years ago, at the height of Britain’s industrial revolution: “All things have rest: why should we toil alone,/ We only toil, who are the first of things,/ And make perpetual moan . . .?”
Perpetual moan is right. Hardly a day goes by that we do not read or hear some lament about the growing mountain of work and the apparently shrinking number of hours in which to do it. Night-shift work is on the increase, breeding health problems from depression to sleep disorders, as well as a brand-new acronym — TATT, or “tired all the time.” Even day workers have been complaining of fatigue, to the point where some U.S. businesses have started letting them nap in the office. And, squashing firmly any lingering stereotype about laid-back, siesta-loving Mexicans, it turns out that many of those protesting the advent of the new, short lunchtime had been using their three-hour break to moonlight in a second job.
Yet the problem, as Mexican employers will undoubtedly find out, is not just the number of hours that workers spend in the workplace. Cell phones, laptop computers, e-mail, voice-mail, beepers, pagers, fax machines: The whole panoply of modern technology operates insidiously to erase the line between work and leisure. Not only does work seep through into home time (some people no longer talk about 9-to-5 jobs, they talk about 24-7 jobs, meaning mental engagement with their work 24 hours a day, seven days a week), but leisure itself has become a kind of work. The habits of “multitasking” and “prioritizing” and “conferencing” that we cultivate at work infect our sense of what constitutes fun; we have to organize and plan before we can take it easy. And the node, the gateway, through which all this researching and planning flows is, for more and more of us, the very locus of our work: the computer. The trend is such that before too long it will hardly matter whether we are sitting in our offices or not, or for how long. We will carry our work loads and our work-driven mentalities with us, like snails creeping along under their shells.
Nobody has answers to any of this; it is perhaps a good start just to recognize that there are problems. It may be sensible, however, to be on guard against the silent and sometimes camouflaged encroachment of work into the leisure spaces of our own lives.
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