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Carpe Noctem: Night owls demand the right to hit the snooze button

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Night owls can make a statement at early morning board meetings with the "No Daytime" Mug from cafepress.com. (Photo courtesy of cafepress.com)

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Instead of feeling guilty, many night owls are sticking up for their right to make their own sleep schedule at home and at work.

Some people might call 37-year-old Melinda Schauer a slacker.

On early days, the single mom and her two kids, ages 13 and 11, wake up at noon. On slower days, they sleep until 1 p.m. Bedtime is 4 a.m. Schauer has tried--and failed--to work on the same clock as most of the rest of society. She struggled in school when she was young, and she lost or quit jobs that required her presence in the morning. Her parenting was questioned when her kids were late to school or when her family was spotted on an outing at 3 a.m.

Schauer said she is simply one of the large fraction of the world’s population who are night owls because of biology, not lack of moral fortitude. To accommodate the sleep schedule that comes naturally to her, she now runs her own freight brokerage business from her home in Kettle Falls, Wash., and she homeschools her children.

“Instead of changing myself to keep other people’s schedule,” she said, “I have changed my life so I can function on my time.”

About 41 percent of Americans identify themselves as more productive in the evening, according to a 2005 poll by the National Sleep Foundation. Many of these people struggle to comply with conventional work and social hours. They slouch into their jobs just on time or late in the morning, sleep in on weekends, and are often in a daze during the earlier hours of the day. You will not find them jogging at 6 a.m. or doing yoga at 7 a.m.

But night owls are beginning to challenge society’s moral judgments, and they’ve got science to back them up. Scientists call severe night-owl symptoms Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, a genetic condition characterized by extreme difficulty falling asleep before the wee hours of the morning--sometimes as late as 6 a.m.--and a tendency to wake up at 10 a.m. or later. Forced to rise in time for 9-to-5 jobs, people with the disorder become increasingly exhausted and can feel as if they are in a constant state of jet lag. Since their mental peak hours are well after the workday has ended, few ever see them at their most productive.

“For most people if you’re an owl you’re an owl, and if you’re a morning lark you’re a lark, and you have very little control over it,” said Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center and spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology.

Heather Pickering is one of those night owls. At 25, she’s among the youngest employees at her high-powered architecture firm. While long hours in the office were an adjustment for many of her Generation Y counterparts, Pickering has found them especially brutal.

Instead of giving up, she has tried to explain the condition to her supervisors and coworkers. “I've been careful to gain popular support from my peers, so they understand I'm not doing it on purpose when I come in 15 minutes late, and that I'm not expecting to be held to a different standard than them,” she said.

Other night owls contend their condition is not a disorder, but simply a physical characteristic like having red hair, which--far from being a detriment--can actually have a positive impact in the world’s 24-hour society. In Denmark, 30-year-old Camilla Kring has formed a group called B-society (an alternative to what she calls 9-to-5 A-society). The mission of the group, which has attracted more than 7,000 members across Europe since its founding a year ago, is to use acceptance of different sleep schedules as a starting point for a transformation of the way post-industrial society views work.

Kring and her staff of about a dozen volunteers publish a magazined called B-alive, which will soon be available in English, and they have joined with a Danish high school to launch a program where all classes start after 10 a.m. B-society is also developing a global job bank of employers willing to accommodate atypical schedules.

The need to have workers arrive and depart at the same time is a historical artifact, Kring said. In agricultural societies, laborers had to get up early with the cows, and in industrial-era factories, workers had to start together on the assembly line. But now, insisting on such uniformity robs many employees of their vitality and also creates infrastructure problems like traffic jams, she said.

For its 350 salaried employees, California-based Netflix has already embraced a flexible philosophy: no one keeps track of when employees work as long as they produce results.

Set office hours are a “relic of the industrial age,” said Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey. “They’re just not relevant for us. With laptops, cell phones and Blackberrys, it doesn’t matter if you’re at home, in a sandwich shop or in Butte, Montana.”

The new paradigm, however, does not apply to the company’s 1,500 hourly employees, who clock in and clock out in decidedly industrial fashion.

Night owls who lack sleep-friendly work options, or simply want company after everyone they know has gone to bed, can find endless amounts of solace, camaraderie and information online.

One group, The Nocturnal Society, has issued a manifesto that outlines, among other things, the ways nocturnal people contribute to the social order by performing night jobs and how society repays them with numerous slights like ending beer sales at 2 a.m. “The reason is simple,” wrote manifesto author Daniel McGraw, “Our rules are written, debated and passed entirely by people working day-shift.”

E-mail: omp2111@columbia.edu