Most of the shifts I’ve worked in retail have been the so-called “graveyard shift”.
Also known as the “late night shift” or “third shift”, it’s the time between when the store closes and opens back up. Or it’s between the times when most people are asleep and when they are awake. It’s also usually notable in having fewer customers, less managerial involvement, more “behind the scenes” things to do, etc.
Descriptively speaking, there’s more room for error, mistakes could at least be conceivably be laughed at and customers might even get made fun of by employees and employers alike. Workers can listen to their music if the store is closed, more “interesting” customers might come into the store if it isn’t closed and in general conversations may be lighter than it’d be otherwise given the hours and clientele or lack thereof.
For a lot of these reasons I like the graveyard shift. It’s hands down my favorite shift out of any of my possible options. Though that isn’t saying much given that I don’t want to wake up early in the morning for the first shift. And I also don’t want to deal with the rush of people in the afternoon to closing shift either. So the shift where there is the least amount of people, where I’m likely to have the most amount of flexibility and where the bosses are most likely to leave me alone?
We have a clear winner here.
It’s much easier to talk about common interests or act a bit weirder than you may otherwise. Customers might stick around to make conversation with you (which can be good or bad) and you might be able to get away with special “discounts” if you’re not being watched too tightly.
Speaking personally, it can’t be overstated just how great it is to have the option to listen to your own music. Many of us get tired of the monotonous pop stations on the radio. And that’s even if we like pop music to begin with. For myself, I enjoy some pop music fine (I enjoyed Taylor Swift’s latest album 1989 for example). But most of the things that retail stores play (including the places I worked at) were either lousy, bland, socially ignorant, etc.
And thus being able to shut that off and enjoy what does make me happy? That’s a real treat in an environment where I’m not in control of my environment most of the time. Understandably, it may seem like a small thing but having this sort of choice over what sounds come into your ear can be a real lifesaver, especially for those of us who hate work.
There’s also a certain sort of camaraderie that comes from night shifts. Because of the increase in casual interactions, more time to oneself and relative increase of control over your environments, you may get to know your coworkers a bit better. And even when this isn’t the case, being a graveyard shift worker means that you may feel like someone who is simply “behind the scenes” and isn’t appreciated. And if you feel like this then it’s plausible your coworkers may as well which gives y’all some disgruntled emotions to bond over.
Hell, even the bosses can be a bit easier on the employees. Because there’s no immediate influx of customers to worry about they’re less likely (at least in theory) to be as harsh on you about your mistakes. They may even goof off a bit themselves or make jokes about the company everyone works for. I mean, the jokes are probably nothing groundbreaking, but it’s better than being subjected to blatant maltreatment.
Another great thing about the graveyard shift is the lack of people. If you’re an introvert like I am (and especially if you’re also autistic) then it’s great to not have to deal with so many people. Less people means less things to think about, interact with, plan around and so on. It means that your job is mostly relegated to the people you’d have to hang out with anyways. And besides those people it’s mostly the product you’re selling that you’d need to worry about.
But again, that’d likely be the case even if you weren’t working at 12 AM.
Lastly, it can’t go unmentioned that when you work the later shifts you tend to earn a bit more money. Sure, it’s usually just a few bucks, but if that’s your main job then you’re likely going to accumulate a notable difference from your early bird coworkers over time. And if you’re a night owl then this task isn’t that hard.
All of that said, fuck the graveyard shift.
This type of shift only works people who can stand it. Who can totally detach themselves from any sort of normal sleep routine. Sure, if you’re a night-owl then it’s not so bad and you may have similar friends who work similar hours. But even taking the best situation for you, it’s likely you’re going to isolate some people.
Of course, you can make this argument for any work shift. But it’s particularly troublesome when you work third shift because most people don’t work those shifts, let alone stay up at those hours. You end up being tired when most people are having their events or want to be the most social.
I managed to have my graveyard shifts not interfere too much but I’m also not a very social person at times. Most of my friends are night owls, or are at least not your average sleeper. And most of the events I’d go to wouldn’t be during the morning or early afternoon anyways. They’d likely be later in the day when I’ve already been awake for at least a few hours.
But even so, the fact that you’re staying up from anywhere in the range of 5 AM to 7 AM is beyond most night owls I know. I usually only stay up till 2:30 AM or, at most, a little before 5 AM. But most of the graveyard shifts I had made me stay up until 7 AM and I often wouldn’t get home and fall asleep until a little before 9 AM.
This was pretty disruptive to my usual routine and also made me mentally unbalanced as time went on.
And even though it’s possible to create bonds between your fellow grave keepers, in my experience it sure wasn’t likely. I think there was one coworker who I hung out with once (we lived in the same small city) and after that he asked to have me as a job reference. And then I never heard from him again.
Moreover the feeling of being “behind the scenes” just makes you realize how unglamorous the store is. The back of the store may be a mess or it may even be in top shape. But this is one of those cases where it doesn’t necessarily make anything much better to know which is the case. Moreover, any sense of seeing the “inner working” goes away once your working the same sort of shift five days a week.
In addition, a huge caveat to the benefits of third shift work that I’ve mentioned is the holidays.
These benefits go out the window if you’re only a temporary worker. If you’re helping out for the holiday season (roughly September to December) then a lot of those casual aspects just aren’t emphasized as much. The bosses may be cranky from it being “that time of the year again” and your coworkers are unlikely to be involved in the supposed “festive spirit”.
And while the added wages might be a nice bonus, that’s mostly what it’s treated as. When you’re a temporary worker for the holidays it’s seen as a way to make some “extra cash” during the holiday season. No one really wants to admit that for some people this is their source of income. After all, admitting that might actually mean that perhaps there’s something much bigger and systemic going on.
In the case that you’re not a holiday worker, at least some of the benefits I mentioned are likely to go into effect. But remember that, in the end, you don’t control whether they do or don’t. In the end, your bosses are the ones who get to tell you if you can listen to your own music or not. They can tell you if you “need” to work another half-hour for slightly larger pay in your pocket. They can still act like they should be in a rush even though there aren’t any customers coming around the corner anytime soon.
One of the most hated bosses I had was easily the one at Walgreen’s. He and I were the only workers in the store and he was barely older than me (if older than me at all). But he still treated me as if I was an infant most of the time and even when he finally gave me a compliment on my work it always felt backhanded.
And having it be a third shift job made all of that far easier for him to do.
Because it was just him and I, there weren’t any other workers to back me up or dispute what was going on most of the time. Sometimes there was another manager who basically acted like a coworker with me and he often didn’t approve of the way I was treated. But even in those scenarios there still wasn’t much he could actually do.
And working the graveyard shift and having to do the “behind the scenes” things not only isn’t glamorous but it can sometimes be downright ethically murky. I remember when I worked at Walgreen’s that me and the nicer manager had to throw away a bunch of products even though they were barely expired and likely still good for consumption.
I made up some story (that was partially true) about how I had other things to do that were really important. So I asked him if he could do that since it seemed like we had to. And I was “lucky” enough to at least be a silent accomplice to this abject display of waste and unnecessary blocking of resources to the less fortunate.
Having the graveyard shift off and on as I did made me learn to appreciate it.
But that’s also why I despise it.
Writing in The New Inquiry, Danielle King has an article called The Life and Death of the Graveyard Shift and gives one or two cheers for the death part:
Sometime soon, many of these low-value, exhausting jobs will become defunct, succeeded by fleets of mechanical servants. I expect the night shift to be the first chunk of work that disappears when the robots come. And we can all agree that the robots are coming, whether labor costs actually rise or not.
Maybe the whole endeavor would be more appealing if orders were going to be taken by Bishop the android, or even animatronic Barack Obama. We’re far more likely to see clunky, semi-functional touch-screens, the kind of ATM technology that banks have yet to perfect.
The replacements certainly won’t be as cool as nocturnal teens.
I think King is onto something with their prediction here. But I don’t see it as necessarily as a bad thing if, as long as we’re going to have it, work is automated more by efficiency than by aesthetics.
Hell, I’d rather people be getting a good night’s rest then showing up to work and depriving themselves of the normal sleep cycles most of their friends are probably on. And work isn’t about what is “cool” anyways, as King later notes, since the decisions are going to be made by what produces burgers faster and not anything else.
But King never really explains why efficiency over aesthetics is such a big deal.
Sure, the way capitalism and work operate, they value “efficiency” but only under certain rules that disproportionately harm workers and benefit the managers. That much is true and not something I’d deny. But it also doesn’t mean that the current system is much better than that. If you have a large section of workers becoming unemployed then it’s likely that they’ll either go somewhere else or, if nothing else, the workers could learn how to keep the machines together.
And yes, that’s a shitty situation and not something I’m going to advocate for.But I find it difficult to say that it’s so much worse than the current system that has people working in McDonald’s to begin with.
Most people hate fast food work, I hardly know anyone who has ever enjoyed that sort of work. And to be fair, it’d be hard to enjoy that line of work when most people treat you with disrespect, the wages are often low, the managers are sterotypically mean and controlling and the workspace is very confined.
I feel like this situation is analogous to Uber vs. the taxi cab medallion system.
Look, I have my criticisms of Uber (for a more recent critique see here) and I don’t think it’s going to be the savior some libertarians think it is. But I still think it’s a hell of a lot better than the taxi cab system where it literally costs thousands of dollars to buy your own medallion so you can drive a taxi. And even then you’re beholden to these big taxi corporations that have incessant protocols, bureaucratic regulations and deeply hierarchical relations. Anot only the cab drivers and the bosses are hierarchically related but also the dispatcher and the cab drivers are as well.
With Uber, there are far fewer entry costs, you can set your own hours and, at least in theory, you don’t have a boss. The rating system (at least in my experience) has largely guaranteed good results. Whereas with most cab drivers I often feel like I should ride in silence or I end up being in a car that wasn’t very pleasant.
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear to me at least that Uber is still in some ways an improvement over the status quo. Is it the last word on the matter? Absolutely not. And it should be heavily criticized for its faults and its faux “sharing economy” model. But even given those things I still think Uber is an improvement over the taxi cab medallion system in several important ways.
Similarly, I don’t thnik technological unemployment is even the issue here. It’s how capitalism does it and I think King is likely to agree:
There’s another picture with which we are even less familiar: a future where our society finds itself post-labor and post-scarcity. In such a world, work might be just a way to break up the day, an occupation instead of a livelihood. The concept of the work ethic would be irrelevant, because we would choose to go to a job, and we would ostensibly choose it because we liked it and wanted to do it.
I love this idea of work being an “occupation” rather than a “livelihood”. That’s an excellent way to put my ambitions as well and in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly stated.
Because, at the end of the day, I don’t necessarily want to get rid of things for us to do. If people want to do something, get paid for it and then use that payment to better their lives then I have nothing against that. I only have a problem with these sorts of relations when people become dependent on them to live a barely functioning life.
Now, I don’t know that we need to have a “post-scarcity” society to do this. And even if we did, I think markets are a much better way to get us there than state or stateless communism. Regardless, I agree with King that the concept of a work ethic would be largely irrelevant and what mattered is that we did what we wanted and what we liked.
I think the future is bright…with lots of shades of gray.
We can see the futuristic possibilities in front of us and what may lead us to liberation and more time for play. But on the other hand there are all of these things that are getting in the way or obscuring our vision. Things like capitalism, the state, cultural norms like the work ethic and so on.
All of these things obfuscate our ability to see what must be done.
Sadly, I don’t have any big speech planned here as I wrap this article up. And I certainly don’t have one “true way” to get us to a work-free society.
But I hope that the banner of anarchism and anti-work combined with things like intersectional feminism, anti-racism, neurodiversity and more can provide a solid foundation for a clearer and brighter future.
Did you like this article?
I’m trying to do longer ones to make up for sporadic content, given the holiday season.
If you appreciate that, or my work in general, consider donating to my Patreon!