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Spain, land of 10 pm dinners, asks if it’s time to reset clock

Dipping into a bucket filled with Mahoubeers, Jorge Rodríguez and his friends hunkered down on a recent Wednesday night to watch soccer at Mesón Viña, a local bar. At a nearby table a couple were cuddling, oblivious to others, as a waitress brought out potato omelets and other dinner orders. Then the game began. At 10 p.m.

Which is not unusual. Even as people in some countries are preparing for bed, the Spanish evening is usually beginning at 10, with dinner often being served and prime-time television shows starting (and not ending until after 1 a.m.). Surveys show that nearly a quarter of Spain's population is watching television between midnight and 1 a.m.

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez | Getty Images News | Getty Images

"It is the Spanish identity, to eat in another time, to sleep in another time," said Mr. Rodríguez, 36, who had to get up the next morning for his bank job.

Spain still operates on its own clock and rhythms. But now that it is trying to recover from a devastating economic crisis — in the absence of easy solutions — a pro-efficiency movement contends that the country can become more productive, more in sync with the rest of Europe, if it adopts a more regular schedule.

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Yet what might sound logical to many non-Spaniards would represent a fundamental change to Spanish life. For decades, many Spaniards have taken a long midday siesta break for lunch and a nap. Under a new schedule, that would be truncated to an hour or less. Television programs would be scheduled an hour earlier. And the elastic Spanish working day would be replaced by something closer to a 9-to-5 timetable.

Underpinning the proposed changes is a recommendation to change time itself by turning back the clocks an hour, which would move Spain out of the time zone that includes France, Germany and Italy. Instead, Spain would join its natural geographical slot with Portugal and Britain in Coordinated Universal Time, the modern successor to Greenwich Mean Time.

"We want to see a more efficient culture," saidIgnacio Buqueras, the most outspoken advocate of changing the Spanish schedule. "Spain has to break the bad habits it has accumulated over the past 40 or 50 years."

For the moment, Spain's government is treating the campaign seriously. In September, a parliamentary commission recommended that the government turn back the clocks an hour and introduce a regular eight-hour workday. As yet, the government has not taken any action.

A workday abbreviated by siestas is a Spanish cliché, yet it is not necessarily rooted in reality. Instead, many urban Spaniards complain of a never-ending workday that begins in the morning but is interrupted by a traditional late-morning break and then interrupted again by the midday lunch. If workers return to their desks at 4 p.m. (lunch starts at 2), many people say, they end up working well into the evening, especially if the boss takes a long break and then works late.

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"These working hours are not good for families,"said Paula Del Pino, 37, a lawyer and the mother of two children, who said an 8-to-5 workday would ease the pressure. "Spanish society is still old-fashioned. The ones who rule are old-fashioned, and here, they like it like it is."

The national schedule can be traced to World War II, when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco moved the clocks forward to align with Nazi Germany, as also happened in neighboring Portugal. After the defeat of Hitler, Portugal returned to Greenwich Mean Time, but Spain did not.

At the time, Spain was a largely agrarian nation, and many farmers set their schedules by the sun, not by clocks. Farmers ate lunch and dinner as before, even if the clocks declared it was an hour later. But as Spain industrialized and urbanized, the schedule gradually pushed the country away from the European norm.

"People got stuck in that time," said Javier Díaz-Giménez, an economist. "Eventually, the clocks took over."

In the early decades of his rule, Franco ordered radio stations to broadcast reports of news and propaganda twice a day to coincide with mealtimes at about 2:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.Television arrived in the 1950s and followed the same mandate, with daily programming on the lone government channel ending at midnight with the national anthem and a portrait of Franco.

"Then everyone would go to bed and procreate," said Ricardo Vaca, chief executive of Barlovento Communications, a media consultancy in Madrid.

By the 1990s, with Spain's post-Franco transition to democracy underway, television also began evolving. Mr. Vaca said new private networks, eager for profits on popular shows, made programs longer and pushed prime time into the early morning hours. Now, he added, surveys show that 12 million people are still watching television at 1a.m. in Spain.

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Changing the prime-time schedule is one of the recommendations bundled together by Mr. Buqueras, president of the Association for the Rationalization of Spanish Working Hours. At his office in Madrid, Mr. Buqueras burst into a conference room and immediately checked his watch.

"Thank you for being on time!" he declared.

Mr. Buqueras argues that changing the Spanish schedule would be a boon to working mothers, allow families more free time together and help Spain's economic recovery. "If Spain had a rational timetable, the country would be more productive," he said.

Whether an earlier, more regimented schedule will translate into higher productivity is a matter of dispute. Mr. Buqueras's group says Spanish workers are on the job longer than German workers but complete only 59 percent of their daily tasks. Measuring productivity is an imprecise science, and while many experts say Spanish productivity is too low, Spain actually outperforms many European countries in some calculations, according to Eurostat, the European Union's statistical agency.

"These three-hour siestas don't exist," said Carlos Angulo Martín, who oversees social analysis at the National Statistics Institute in Madrid. Nor are habits uniform across the country, he said, noting that in the Catalonia region, mealtimes and work schedules are aligned more with those of other European countries.

(Read more: Spain emerges from 2-year recession)

María Ángeles Durán, a leading sociologist with the Spanish National Research Council, is skeptical that changing the time zone will reverse low productivity, which she attributes more to the structure of the service-oriented economy and a lag in technology. But she agreed that normalizing the work schedule would help women: She cited a survey she conducted of female lawmakers in Europe, who complained that men deliberately scheduled important meetings in the early evening when women were under pressure to return home.

"For men, this is perfect,"Ms. Durán said. "They arrive home and the children have already had their baths! Timetables can be used as a sort of weapon."

At the Mesón Viña bar, Mr.Rodríguez and his friends contemplated the Spanish clock. One friend, Miguel Carbayo, 26, was appalled at the notion of a nap-free lunch. He had worked as an intern in the Netherlands, where his co-workers arrived at 8 and left at 5, with a half-hour to munch on a sandwich for lunch, a regimen he found shocking.

"Reduce lunchtime?" he said. "No, I'm completely against that. It is one thing to eat. It is another thing to nourish oneself. Our culture and customs are our way of living."

But, he admitted, a shorter nap might be acceptable. "They say 20 minutes is enough to boost productivity,"he said.

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