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7 min

The nine-to-five with Katie Herzog

North Carolina writer exposes the truth behind 'empty labour'

Katie Herzog explains the nine-to-five. Credit: Najva Sol

Katie Herzog is a writer in North Carolina, with a full-time day job and great love for public radio. In a recent essay on working the nine-to-five that appeared on The Nervous Breakdown, she explored what sociologists are now beginning to call the "empty labour" — what we actually do during office hours when we have nothing to do. While she’s trying to break into radio, she is working on a book of essays about employment and unemployment. We talked over Skype about paying the bills.

I’ve been reading your blog, so I have to ask, any news about that radio job in Seattle?

I’m waiting to hear if I get invited for an interview.

And your training stint at a radio station is coming to a close. You actually have good things to say about your unpaid internship.

Yes. I found something I love doing, and that was a new experience for me. When I was at work there, time passed really quickly. It’s something I’ve never experienced as a worker before. But that show actually got cancelled today. The host is moving on. This could have been a great opportunity to bring in new voices and freshen up the show — instead, the station cancelled it. So now there are a lot of producers who also need a job.

Let me ask you about the “Working That Nine-to-Five” piece. There’s so much truth-telling there. Why do we not write about work more?

Jobs that we have are often so boring that we don’t want to talk about them . . . My day-to-day job is incredibly boring, and I spend most of my day G-chatting. And while I’m G-chatting, all of my friends who also hate their jobs are doing the same thing. But there’s also the reality that when you write about hating your job, or hating work in general, there could be repercussions, so that might scare people off. I wrote that under a pseudonym and I’m looking for a job right now and don’t want that piece to come up when somebody Googles me.

So you’re still at that job.

I am lucky, really; I work for this small company run by a family, and they let me cut down for the summer to part-time. I would not have been able to do the radio internship without this. I am 30, I don’t live at home, I don’t get money from my parents, I don’t have any savings — it would have been impossible.

Is everything in the piece true? The solitaire-playing executive? Your work days spent reading on the internet? 

That was all true. I changed just small details here and there. For example, the story I tell about my friend who’s been watching Hulu and masturbating all day while she was the only one on the entire floor during office renovations — I changed the industry she works in.

There are all these sociological studies coming out now — Ronald Paulson at Uppsala University, for example, looked at those results recently — that confirm what you write about, that we all spend more time doing private things during work hours.

Oh, totally.

You have some stunning Gallup poll stats in that piece; for example, that only 30 percent of American workers feel engaged at their workplace. But Paulson has some even weirder stats, like 70 percent of all porn viewing takes place during work hours.

That’s crazy!

How is that even possible in open-concept offices? Mind boggles.

It would not be possible where I work. But see, things that 15 years ago were taking more time and more manpower to do take much less time now. I do a lot of contracts, and 15 years ago I would have to send everything through the mail. The tasks that would have taken hours and days to do now take us minutes, but we’re not actually more productive. Sometimes I feel like I’m in time-out. My job is to sit at my desk for eight hours, then clock out and go home. And it’s not just me. My friends who love their jobs still sort of do the same thing. We’re all waiting till it’s over. It’s depressing.

So what we’re selling is our time.

Yeah, we’re like prostitutes.

What is the "product" we’re creating, exactly?

Plus, it’s really physically bad for people. I have pain in my shoulder constantly from sitting all day. The only thing I move is my wrists and fingers. And yet I’m in pain at the end of the day. I think we fucked ourselves in this country. We believe it’s good to work more. I think it’s good to work less.

Yes, while we’re spending days chained to the desk doing nothing meaningful, we breathe this ideology that celebrates working endless hours. Work is honourable; not working is shameful.

I’ve gone through long periods of being unemployed, and the worst thing about being unemployed isn’t being broke — which is hard, I won’t lie — but this idea that you have no purpose. We are assigned purpose by our work. And at least here in the US, when people ask you what you do, they’re asking you what your job is, not what your aspirations are. So I don’t tell people I’m a writer or I want to get into radio; I tell them I work in publishing.

Ah, the first question you get asked at parties in Canada, too: what do you do for a living.

I want to tell people, "I sit on my couch. I listen to podcasts and I smoke weed. That’s what I do."

But I like that you start your essay with the management side. What are they doing all day? Attending meetings where they pretend to make decisions?

I was listening to this radio show recently about biggest time wasters in a day — it’s meetings. They tend to be hugely unproductive and break your day up, but I guess the purpose of management is to call meetings.

What is the worst job you ever had?

Oh god, I had so many bad jobs. Probably the job where I got my highest salary ever — I made twice what I make now. It was an editing job, but for a certification exam. It was all attention to detail — if a nurse took this exam and they passed when they should have failed because of your test, you can get sued. I was so incredibly bad at that job that I was constantly yelled at and got put on probation a couple of times. One time, we had this big meeting with a PowerPoint presentation in a dark room, and I fell asleep. My boss woke me up, said, "Let’s go get some coffee." I tried to give him some bullshit excuse, like I have narcolepsy, but he was like, "No, you don’t." And carrying this coffee, I tripped over somebody’s leg, spilled the coffee, sat at the desk and immediately fell back to sleep. And, of course, I got fired from that job. That was probably my least favourite job — but also the one that if I stuck with it, now I’d probably have enough money to put a down payment on a house.

Did you ever want to try part-time jobs and writing?

I’ve done piecing together part-time work and freelancing for a long time. But I was always broke, always having to ask my parents for money, and it wasn’t a good situation. And here health insurance is tied to your employment, so if you don’t have a full-time job, you have to pay for your health insurance.

Does your insurance through work include dental?

Yeah, but it only includes, like, two cleanings a year.

I ask because here, publicly funded healthcare excludes dental and prescription drugs. As a freelancer, I had a period when I could only chew food on one side because I couldn’t afford to go to the dentist and see what it was that caused the pain on the other side.

Oh, it’s ridiculous. I don’t know what people do here when they get lung cancer without having a full-time job. You just die — you just die because you’re poor.

Any service industry jobs in your past?

Lots. I was a barista all through college and part of grad school, and after college for a couple of years. Those were not the best of times. I also did a lot of waitressing. I worked at this one place where they wanted us to memorize all the orders without writing anything down. Then I worked at a comedy club. I worked at mostly coffee shops, grocery stores, once at a hair salon. I got fired from that one, but I was sleeping with the boss. I filed for unemployment benefits, and they contested it: “We didn’t lay you off; we fired you because you were a terrible employee.” So we had to have this mediated conversation with the unemployment commission.

Was it at least a good relationship till it ended?

There was no relationship; we were just sleeping together. She was also straight. Her son walked in on us on Christmas morning. We were just in bed, had gotten drunk as shit the night before and passed out naked, and her son of 13 walked in, and I felt like I killed Santa. Those were my heavy-drinking years.

Are you working on your book? Your website advises us to look for it in bookstores in 2027.

I have about half a book of essays complete — most of them are about being employed, unemployed and underemployed — but right now I'm more interested in making audio documentaries, so I'm putting the book on the back-burner for a while. I'm currently working on a short audio documentary about white-water kayaking and death, but I'm sure I'll start writing again soon. I always seem to come back to it.