Monday , 25 September 2017
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Don't Balance Work And Life, Integrate Them

Many people feel that work is eating into their personal life. In fact, more than 3% of all US employees are working from home at 2am — each night. Doing the math, that tells us that roughly everyone is working at 2am at least once every month. And, the average US office worker spends more time at work — outside the normal 9 to 5 — than with their family. This is a problem. As a new father, I feel this pressure keenly.

I miss the sound of your voice
–Matt Nathanson, “Come on, get higher”

We talk a lot about “work-life balance”. This is normally code for saying “I want to work less”. That is a perfectly reasonable life choice, but will have impacts on your career decisions (e.g., where to work, what kind of job to take).  In my case, I can’t work less — my company has work I need to get done, and it isn’t optional.

And I’m not the only one. Fifty years ago, the average person with a high school degree worked 40-50 hours per week, which amounts to full-time plus some overtime. This was caused by the nature of high school graduate work: Shifts at assembly plants.

Those jobs aren’t as common today; a new kind of job has arisen, often (condescendingly) labeled as “knowledge workers”.  Most knowledge workers have a college degree; the average person with a college degree now works more than 50 hours per week, and is salaried, so there’s no overtime.

The problem is largely the view that we should even have a 9 to 5 workday. That idea comes from Frederick Winslow Taylor, who found that assembly lines are more efficient if you start them at the same time (he called this “scientific management“), and from John Dewey, who wanted public schools to teach kids to be better factory workers. Taken together, these two 19th century ideas create the 9 to 5 death grip.

People tend to talk about John Dewey as a hero of public education. He is clearly that.  However, outside of spaghetti westerns, few people are entirely good (or evil).  Dewey created a system of public education that had a huge positive side effect — even the poor got some education, which was key to the US economic development. But his primary interest was creating more effective factory workers, which involved training students to show up at a certain time and memorize certain facts.  We have such rigid class structures in part because of his (now irrelevant) focus.  He’s a mix of good outcomes and not-terribly-great motivations.

Side note 2: Taylor was also complicated.  The notion that workers should be more efficient is probably a good one.  But he didn’t think much of the “working class”, and regularly derided workers’ intelligence in public (including one spectacular testimony before Congress saying that the average iron worker didn’t even understand what iron is).  Despite being one of the most influential people on modern life, he was not well loved by labor!

This 9-to-5 idea applies really only to shift jobs — the notion that you show up, work when you’re on shift, and leave when your shift ends. Most of us aren’t doing shift work anymore; we’re doing knowledge work. Yet the view of what you do at work, and how work should be scheduled, hasn’t changed.

The idea that you’re at work when you’re at work, and you’re not when you’re not, clearly isn’t true. People are working when they’re not at work. We miss our childrens’ afternoon soccer practice because we are at work.  And are working after she’s asleep. This feels suboptimal to me.  If I’m going to work at night, I want to go to my daughter’s soccer practice

My daughter is 16 months old. She’s precocious, but not playing soccer… yet.  But work with me here.

The whole dichotomy is silly — people should work where and when they want, and be able to take time off in the middle of the day and make it up at night. Do I really need to be working at 3pm, or can I take an hour or two at night to finish what needs to get done? It’s the forced 9-5 schedule that kills us, not the workload.

The best social policy is to make the mental adjustment from shift work to knowledge work, as a society. We may work 40+ hours per week, but without the need to “be on shift.” We should be able work in pieces here and there. We have full-time jobs, but still get to see our daughter’s soccer practice.

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