The Slavery of the 9 to 5 by Charles Bukowski

The Slavery of the 9 to 5 by Charles Bukowski

“How in the h*ll could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, sh*t, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

The nine-to-five grind has become a modern form of entrapment for many workers. In a brutally honest letter written in 1986 to his friend John, acclaimed author Charles Bukowski rails against the soul-crushing nature of traditional office jobs. Bukowski, who spent years of his early life working manual labor and factory jobs, laments how the standard Monday to Friday, nine-to-five schedule stifles creativity and strips us of our humanity. He reflects on his own struggles to break free from the trap of wage slavery that now crosses all races and social classes.

Even in his later years as a professional writer, Bukowski maintained a sense of joy and accomplishment for having found liberation from the tyranny of clock-punching drudgery. His poignant letter illustrates the oppressive routine that wears us down physically and mentally into obedient drones just for meager rewards. By ultimately forging his path, Bukowski shows how the resilient human spirit can still discover meaning and fulfillment.

Below is the brutally honest letter Charles Bukowski wrote to a friend in 1986 railing against 9-to-5 jobs.[1]

Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, and there’s no free lunch break at those places; in fact, at many of them, in order to keep your job, you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME, and the books never seem to get the overtime right, and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished; it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man, I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now, in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands, and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie), and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways, and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,


Let’s dive deeper into what he was saying in his letter.

The Tyranny of the 9 to 5 Grind

The standard 9 to 5, Monday through Friday work schedule is oppressive for many people. The endless grind of waking up early, commuting, sitting at a desk all day, brief lunch breaks, more desk work, commuting again, just to do it all over the next day. This repetitive routine stifles creativity and drains the human spirit. Many are trapped in this cycle just to earn a paycheck.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch Break

The 9 to 5 doesn’t usually allow a real “free” lunch break. You must squeeze eating into a short window, often while still working or available for work issues. It’s more like lightly nibbling at your desk while responding to emails—a little break. Many employers want you to maximize every hour for them.

Overtime Further Erodes Our Humanity

On top of the 40-hour work week, many employers try to extract additional overtime hours from employees – nights weekends, whenever possible. This adds to the burnout and diminishes personal/family time even more. It becomes all about serving the company—a terrible use of time and energy for those on a straight salary.

Wage Slavery Extends to All Workers

Bukowski noted that wage slavery doesn’t discriminate; it can happen to all types of people in every socioeconomic class. What was once more limited has become an equal opportunity form of exploitation. Many are trapped in the same endless loop of working with no escape.

They Diminish Us to Bodies With Fearful, Obedient Minds

Over time, this grind wears down both body and spirit. It hollows you out until you are robotically going through the motions, obeying orders. You become a fearful shell focused only on keeping your job, no matter the personal cost.

What Do They Sacrifice It All For?

Bukowski wonders how people can sacrifice their whole lives and humanity for the meager rewards like a mortgaged car, mindless television, and a family doomed to the same cycle. The tradeoff doesn’t seem worth it.

I Tried to Warn My Fellow Workers

When he was younger, Bukowski tried to awaken his colleagues to their plight. But they didn’t want to hear it or realize they were trapped. Questioning the system might put their jobs at risk.

The Bosses Revel in Our Entrapment

Bukowski recalls how bosses took delight in knowing they had total control over the workers. The bosses can sometimes hold all the cards in the employer/employee relationship.

They Never Pay Us Enough to Get Free

Wages are kept low enough that workers live paycheck to paycheck. There’s no way to save up and build independent wealth to be able to quit and escape the system. It perpetuates itself.

I Saw the Miracle of Escaping This Trap

Despite the odds, Bukowski eventually escaped the 9 to 5 life. He saw it as a great accomplishment and miracle, even later in life. He didn’t want to resign himself to that fate.

I Now Write From an Old Body, But a Joyful Spirit

Though Bukowski now writes as an old man, he maintains the joy of being free from wage slavery. His body is worn down from years of manual labor, but his creative spirit endures. He succeeded on his terms.

My Life Has Not Been Entirely Wasted

Bukowski feels that his writing made his life meaningful despite the early hardships. He only used it partially, surrendering to the dictates of the bosses and the 9 to 5 grind. He found his way.

Key Takeaways

  • The 9-5 schedule is oppressive and stifling for creativity and humanity
  • Lunch breaks are often non-existent or spent working
  • Overtime further steals personal and family time
  • Wage slavery now crosses all social classes
  • It wears us down physically and mentally into obedient drones
  • The rewards seem paltry compared to the sacrifice
  • Attempting to awaken colleagues is futile
  • Bosses delight in controlling helpless workers
  • Wages remain low to prevent saving up and escaping
  • Breaking free from the trap is a miraculous accomplishment
  • Creative fulfillment endures despite bodily decline once you break free
  • Meaning can still be found on one’s terms


In the end, Charles Bukowski’s letter illustrates the soul-crushing nature of traditional jobs, whether in production work in warehouses, retail, the service sector, or office employment. The endless grind drains life’s color and vibrancy. But through determined nonconformity and self-actualization, we can find liberation and purpose even later in life. The human spirit remains resilient, capable of joy and creativity. By forging our path, we can create meaning without surrendering entirely to the dictates of conventional jobs.