This simple ritual during the midpoint of our waking hours has been an inalienable pillar of freedom since Nog the cave person struck the first wildebeest at midday and gnawed on its entrails for an hour or so, after which he or she took a nice postprandial nap. With the ubiquity of mikebloombergian cubicles, most of us can kiss the small restorative snooze goodbye. But now it seems that even the noontime break for sustenance — that core strut in the construction of our daily humanity — is in danger too.
Evidence comes from a poll of 1,023 North American workers, which found that less than 20% of employees take a lunch break. Thirty-nine percent of poor, beleaguered Morlocks lunch at their desk. And 28% report seldom taking any break at all, presumably wolfing down a cheeseburger or gluten-free vegetable bowl while pounding out a reply to the latest e-mail chain. More than 80% state that a proper lunchtime is a thing of the past.
“This is yet another warning sign of the relentless stress experienced by workers in the U.S. and Canada,” says an executive at Right Management, the research group that conducted the study.
There have been attacks on our time and peace of mind before, but none quite so dire. In the beginning, faxes destroyed our right to think about things overnight. Then e-mail pulverized our right to silence when we have nothing to say. More recently smartphones have vaporized our right to be nowhere. Now this? Nay, I say!
Lunch matters. It restores us to ourselves. It gives us an opportunity to meet with peers, learn a little something about what’s going on outside our sphere, and enjoy bizarre fads in what is considered food, depending on where we are. In the Midwest chicken cut into pieces and smothered with gravy is considered a fitting repast. They call it fricassee. In L.A., nobody would get near it, opting instead for a tiny leaf of lettuce with a piece of raw fish on it and a bit of shaved radish. Yuck, right? They love it! Because it’s their lunch. And lunch, for a lucky few on the Left Coast, is a sacred part of life, sometimes occupying 33% of the working day, including transit time.
Which brings us to the nub of it. This is one more front in the class war. The executive caste, in this case, is not the 1%. It is the 19% who suck up the lunches. Go to any restaurant. You will see people in suits. The nicer the restaurant, the nicer the suits.
These happy, chubby lunchers are fans of the institution for themselves — but enemies of the lunch of others. They are the ones who e-mail us from their posh table as we are headed out the office door. “I’ll see you at 2 for a total rundown of the Forbisher situation,” they will say, and you sit back down at your desk, take off your jacket, and order that tuna sandwich. You want to scream, “I’m out!” But you do not. Jobs are scarce. You’ve lost your lunch.
What is to be done? It’s simple. I want you to stand up, dump your pathetic sandwich, and leave your building. And I want you to be absent for a while. If you are called, don’t answer. When somebody tries to schedule a meeting at 12:30, suggest 3:00 p.m. After a time people will realize that you are unavailable for a beat or two in the midst of the workday. “Oh, Bob,” they will say. “He does lunch.” And then they will remember. And the urge to revolt will light within them. Come, my brothers and sisters! Arise, you prisoners of starvation!
I’ll be watching from my table at Michael’s. I hope this doesn’t have an impact on my ability to get a reservation.
This story is from the November 12, 2012 issue of Fortune.
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