Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In Spain, time is complicated.
After I posted Wednesday’s article on proposed changes to the daily work schedule in Spain, I got an earful from readers who lived (or had lived) in that country. Many found that the picture of working life I’d drawn decidedly did not square with their experiences; several lined up to ask me if I’d ever even been to Spain (yes, often), and if I had the faintest idea what I was talking about (er, apparently not).
As a writer, there’s a bittersweet quality to the realization that an apparently well-performing post is mainly being hate-read by exasperated Spaniards. Readers were nonetheless perfectly right to highlight my misconstruction of the issue, and I’m happy to do some further explanation and correction here.
My original article confused two different phenomena. One is the long lunchtime closure that is part of traditional store hours in Spain—hours that are still largely observed by smaller stores, although they have been substantially given up by major chains. The other is standard lunch hours in regular businesses, which don’t match these. The amount of time regular employees take for lunch varies greatly. In many smaller cities and in rural areas, two hours is still common among people who work for small businesses, but in Madrid and Barcelona an hour is now more typical, with many hard-pressed workers taking less than that.
To make matters more complicated, some workplaces operate without a break (Horario Continuo) during the summer months, working straight through until around 3:30, then going home. (This, by the way, is a great idea that should be adopted globally.) It is not thus the goal of timetable reform (Reforma Horaria) to shorten the lunch break, but to shift its position within the day, with the main goal being to free up more time in the evening.
The idea behind this is to create a more balanced daily routine. Lunch breaks typically start between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. (and yes, there are people who take them earlier), but if they were moved to a 12:30 start, there would be more balance between the first and the second parts of the Spanish working day. The point of this is that it could help reduce the ongoing local habit of working well into the early evening, allowing a two-hour shift backwards that could have a knock-on effect on the timing of evening meals, cultural events, TV schedules, and so on.
It would be wrong to suggest that Spain’s long lunchtime closing hours are necessarily connected to any love of leisure (something that the original piece didn’t say). As readers have also noted, the long break is in part a product of Spain’s poverty in the immediate post-Civil War period. With recovery from the war extremely sluggish under Franco’s dictatorship, many Spanish workers had no choice but to take on two jobs to get by. Pushing the lunch break later, and lengthening it, made it possible to squeeze two shifts in different jobs, one in the morning and early afternoon, and another in the late afternoon and evening. Aside from general exhaustion, this could lead to some pretty bizarre schedules. (One reader got in touch to tell me that, as a child in the 1970s, her family didn’t get its midday meal until 4 p.m., though even at that time, their lateness was considered extreme.)
Spain’s grim economic conditions started to ease in the 1960s, with a large middle class emerging by the 1980s, but the country never completely reverted to its pre-war timetable, leaving large variations in experiences today.
Given the late lunch’s brief and troubled history, it makes sense to iron this out. The question of when timetable reform should be implemented nonetheless remains contentious, with the Catalan regional government’s aim of 2025—deemed too soon by some parties—creating the potential risk of different regions of the country going out of sync in the future. Even absent my own contribution to the topic, the Spanish may be arguing about their workdays for some time to come.