The Adult Snow Day Is Dying, and That’s Sad

Photo: Corbis

If you live in the snow-pummeled Northeast and still have power and internet access, do a quick poll of your friends: Among those whose offices were closed, how many of them had a bona-fide day without work today? And how many of them worked from home?

I’m guessing very few of them actually had today “off.” Maybe they made an agreement with their bosses beforehand that they’d work from home due to the nastiness outside. Or maybe their company has an official policy “encouraging” employees to work from home when they can’t make it into the office. Whatever the case, for many people, a day that would in 1995 have been spent watching the snow pile up against the windowsills, hanging out with the kids, or vegging out with daytime TV was instead spent hunched over a laptop.

It doesn’t appear that there are clear numbers on this — “I would be shocked if someone had actually come up with a compendium of snow-day policies for work,” said Jerry Davis, a professor of business at the University of Michigan (he told me his daughter had spent the previous evening desperately praying for a school snow day). What is clear, though, is that telecommuting is on the rise, and the clear implication is that just because you can’t go into the office doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do work. “Snow days used to be a windfall,” said David Harrison of the University of Texas’s McCombs School of Business. “They used to [think], I don’t have to work. And now they’re not.”

Sure, there are still plenty of people, like teachers and some government workers, who do get full days off for snow emergencies.  But “[f]or millions of other people in other types of jobs, that’s not the case,” said Wayne Cascio, a management professor at the University of Colorado Denver. “So, really, the very concept of absenteeism doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t matter when you get the work done and you’re really judged by results rather than the time you spent at work.”

These were supposed to be the positives of telecommuting, of course — more freedom and less of a focus on the often-meaningless metric of time spent slumped in an office chair. But there’s evidence that telecommuting has brought with it some significant, not-so-hidden costs. A 2012 Bureau of Labor and Statistics paper (PDF), for example, argued that the practice has “become instrumental in the general expansion of work hours, facilitating workers’ needs for additional worktime beyond the standard workweek and/or the ability of employers to increase or intensify work demands among their salaried employees.”

The lines are blurred,” said Cascio — an oft-invoked way of describing what it means to be an employee in 2015, as the domains of work and not-work increasingly encroach on one another. “There’s no real clear separation like there used to be.”

Technology is the easy explanation here — if email didn’t exist, we Northeasterners would all be lounging on the couch right now — but Larry Stybel, a CEO and management expert, said that this explanation is something of “a red herring.” Rather, he said, the decline of the snow day can be seen as part of a broader shift away from the policies that prevailed during a period — 1947–1973, by his estimation — that he views as a “historical anomaly that … will not occur again in our lifetime.” During this quarter century or so, America’s heavily unionized workforce, riding the postwar boom that turned the U.S. into the economic superpower it is today, got a better deal than it’s ever had — and maybe ever will have again — from their employers.

Benefits like generous health-care and pensions and paid time off were, for many middle-class workers, the norm rather than the exception. Whether in the form of vacation days or sick days or snow days, there was a sense on the part of companies (often nudged by unions, of course) that they could afford to be somewhat indulgent on questions of work-life balance — a feeling likely bolstered by the long-term relationships many workers built with the companies they worked for. (For many workers today, particularly young ones, three years at the same job is seen as a very long tenure.)

Suffice it to say that things are different in 2015 — and email is just the start of it. To Stybel, the current shift is something of a regression to a historic mean. Because for most of human history, he explained, there just wasn’t much of a concept of time off. “If you want to make a comparison that is meaningful, look at the 19th-century, early 20th-century farmer, who, if there was snow and they just couldn’t work the ground, they were going to have to do something else,” he said. “It’s not that they kind of sat around and did nothing. If there’s anything that’s going on, all of this technology is making us start to be compatible with farmers.” That is, when your office is closed, it means that while you may not be able to have that face-to-face meeting, you better find something else you can do.

Even if the adult snow day was part of a larger blip in the history of the workplace, and even if it’s illogical to expect employers to pay employees to do nothing despite cable and satellite connections that are (usually) unimpeded by wind and snow, it’s worth reflecting on what the death of the snow day signals about workers’ conceptions of who they are.

For those of us who grew up in a snowy climate, school snow days were one of our first exposures to the idea of entrenched routine being interrupted. As an elementary-school student in suburban Boston, I’d sit glued to the local news channels, which, in those early internet days, ran an agonizingly slow crawl along the bottom of the screen listing every school closing or delay announcement in alphabetical order. Natick … Needham … Newton!

It turned the world upside down: For the next 24 hours, none of the usual rules applied: no waking up early, no sitting in class, no commuting to and from school. It was always weird to look out the window at 2 p.m. on a Thursday, not just because the world was blanketed in snow but because it was so easy to forget that, at 2 p.m. on a Thursday, anything but school actually existed.

The grown-up world has a tendency to strip things of their magic a bit, but the snow day still served as a wonderful stop sign from the heavens for myopic, overworked adults. What else could grind to a halt, even temporarily, the exhausting, striving adult world of meetings and reports and office memos? What else could not only suggest to the workaholic that he take a day off, but force him to because the roads were too icy, the subways all closed? What else could unite father and son on a sled on a snowy hill in the middle of a weekday?

In a world that forces us to inhabit our roles as workers ever more intimately — one in which time actually off from work has been shrinking for decades, where it’s easy to forget that there’s more to life than what it says on our business cards — snow days were one of the few remaining excuses not to be a worker for a little while. I’m going to miss them, even if I haven’t really had much time to think about it.