Young people in Barcelona's Gracia neighborhood, where streets remain busy until early morning throughout much of the week Manu Fernandez/AP

Catalonia plans to shorten work hours—but don’t call it the end of the siesta.

Updated: July 21, 2017 Writer Feargus O’Sullivan has posted a follow-up story to address some of the issues raised by readers in this piece.

Is the typical Spanish daily schedule about to change forever? For decades, campaigners in the country have complained that the average Spaniard’s habit of keeping extremely late hours and taking delightfully long lunch breaks was making everyday life harder for citizens. This week, change could finally be on the way, as 110 professional bodies in Catalonia have signed up to a plan to change the region’s daily timetable by 2025, shortening the classic three-hour lunch break so that employees can finish work earlier in the evening.

Such a change would radically reshape ordinary people’s lives—and controversially, it could drive a wedge between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, where the national government supports similar changes (and has adopted a shorter break for public offices) but hasn’t yet fixed a timetable for action.

You could call the plan an end to national harmony, a blessed release for hard-pressed workers, or an attack on the Spanish way of life. Whatever you do, however, don’t call it the end of the siesta.

That’s because the beloved and much-misunderstood Spanish tradition of the afternoon nap more or less died out decades ago. What remained is a highly distinctive national timetable not found in any other European country, where it has often been read as a peculiarly exotic form of madness. The average Spanish working day is certainly unusual in shape.

After starting work between 8 and 9 a.m., hungry workers hold out for a lunch break scheduled as late as 1:30 or 2:30. As if in compensation for this long wait, many then stay off-duty for a break of up to three hours, filling it with a protracted multi-course lunch and maybe a stop at a “nap bar.” Most stores and many businesses close down until the late afternoon, before a final burst of office hours between 5:30 and 8 (or sometimes 4 to 7).* Spaniards then head home at an hour when most people in other countries are cleaning up their dinner dishes, rarely getting food on the table any earlier than 10 p.m. This pushes bedtime past midnight for many.

Like most cultural habits that look curious at first glance, Spain’s workday makes sense in historical context. This is a country with high summer temperatures that devised ways to deal with them in the days before air conditioning. When Spaniards’ homes and workplaces were mostly in close proximity, a long afternoon break was a sensible way of managing afternoon heat. Workers could head home for a substantial meal, then close their bedroom shutters and sleep it off, waiting for the evening’s cooler breezes before resuming their labors. If I could work like this now (in hardly scorching London), I probably would.

But for most residents of Spain’s cities, longer commutes killed the habit of returning home for lunch long ago, not least because the tradition relied in part on women being at home to cook or grandparents on hand for protracted childcare. Even in the siesta’s supposed heyday, many Spaniards never got a nap—they were too busy doing chores.

But while weekday siestas are increasingly a thing of the past, the long lunch break persisted, as did the late dinner. Spaniards are now sleeping 53 minutes fewer per day than the EU average. The result is a daily grind where rest time has been whittled away.

Changing this timetable, condensing the working day, and harmonizing Spanish hours more with the EU norm would do more than make life easier for workers who do business in other countries. It would also change school timetables, reduce afternoon traffic, slash the length of lunchtime shop closures, and shift primetime TV, whose lateness has led to some bizarre scheduling. (The finale of “MasterChef Junior,” which is aimed at young viewers, ended at 1 a.m. on a weeknight.)

It’s no coincidence that the call for change comes from Catalonia, an autonomous region where demands for independence from powerful sections of society are getting ever-louder. Catalonia’s position in the campaign vanguard against the traditional Spanish timetable can be read as an attempt to distance itself from the rest of the country—not unlike its earlier ban on bullfighting. Accordingly, it’s been politically controversial, with anti-independence parties fighting the unilateral nature of the plan because they see it (with some reason) as an attempt to spin the region into its own separate orbit.

Making the working day more productive fits with a strain of Catalan nationalist rhetoric, one that likes to paint relatively wealthy Catalonia as an industrious North European-style outpost holding out against the supposed meridional indolence of other Spanish regions. You can sniff out this attitude in some media reporting of this issue, such as in this article stating that the change would bring Catalonia in line with “advanced countries.”

Even if all Spain shifted their working hours in 2025, however, there would still be other factors encouraging the Spanish to keep late hours. Chief among these is Spain’s location in the wrong time zone. During World War II, Franco aligned Spain’s clocks to central European time, to match his Nazi allies, moving the country out of the previous time zone that it shared with Portugal and the British Isles.

Given that almost all of Spain lies to the west of London, this kicked Spanish time off kilter—sundown occurred an hour later than it normally would for countries at the same latitude. Spaniards thus needs to wait longer than other Southern Europeans for the day to cool off, so they had to become night owls to enjoy more downtime after dusk. Not surprisingly, a plan to return to Spain’s pre-Franco time zone is also in the works.

In a world of increasing standardization, it might be tempting to mourn the final demise of Spain’s eccentric and glorious mix of work, life, and nap. There’s something thrilling about the nocturnal buzz of a Spanish city, where public living by night is shared by all generations, who fill sidewalks and cafes into the wee small hours.

But the reality is the Spanish are chained to an inconvenient, irrational work and sleep routine; changing the workday is an utterly logical step. People who stay up late will do so because they want to, rather than because they have to. And everyone else can finally get some rest.

*CLARIFICATION: As many commenters have pointed out, this three-hour stretch is a maximum—most businesses’ workers are not actually kicking up their heels for half the afternoon. Indeed, a problem often highlighted is that, despite this, many employees are still expected to stay at work into the evening.

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