Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Apologies To Freud

The Myth of a Work/Life Balance

What Sartre didn't know is that "Hell is The Blackberry."

Posted Oct 13, 2011

Remember when a lack of workplace boundaries meant your cubicle was positioned next to that of the office gossip, ensuring your "dirty laundry" went viral? Now many offices have no walls at all; more and more of us choose to work from home, or telecommute. Likewise, thoughts of "quitting time," family vacations, after-work socializing, and relaxing with train buddies are as quaint—and as out-moded—as the dictaphone.

Whatever work-life balance had existed in the past appears to be gone for good. Personal productivity and unemployment are up; fewer workers spend more time to complete tasks. With unemployment levels at a staggering 9%, pay cuts, and millions of people out of jobs, many push themselves harder to hold on to whatever work and income they can.

It isn't like we didn't see any of this coming, either. In her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Juliet Schor makes a compelling case that our participation in pleasurable, relaxing, non-work pursuits has dropped; she notes that free time has fallen nearly 40% from that enjoyed by prior generations, from 26 hours a week to only 17 by the early 1990s, and she attributes the rise in work—and the resulting time crunch—to Capitalism and Consumerism. Sadly enough, people have more possessions but less time to enjoy them.

When Schor wrote 20 years ago, our cultural mandate was something akin to: work more, play less. And things have only gotten worse. There is no longer a magic number defining the traditional work week, and there are no parameters to guide our measures of what constitutes an excess of toil. As more and more is expected, "forty hours" has been replaced by "never enough hours." So, individuals currently have even less free time than they did when she first considered the question of our declining work-life balance.

So what changed? Why would a 45 hour week suffice twenty years ago, when it is no longer good enough today? According to Wednesday Martin, Ph.D, a New York City based Cultural Anthropologist: "The reason a 45 hour work week isn't good enough anymore is the same reason that most of us can no longer have one-income households: inflation, a higher cost of living, and a lousy economy all mean that it takes two incomes to keep a family afloat. Anxiety about that fuels and is fueled by our being constantly ‘in touch and available.' "

Society has changed and families look different today, to be sure. Two incomes are certainly the norm. But a weak economy does not tell the whole story. As Martin implies, we can thank technological advances for the erosion of boundaries between work and home. Blackberrys and Smartphones have made it possible to perform our jobs while in transit—and to do so all evening, and all weekend long. The ubiquity of laptops and home computers ensures that telecommuting is here to stay. Someone who lives in Poughkeepsie may work for a company based in Toledo, while those who work in Manhattan often choose to perform their duties on a laptop or desktop—many times while situated smack in the middle of the living room sofa. "Once we cross that line, and see our peers doing it, it becomes normative and then we feel pressured into participating. We have all collectively bought into the myth that being in touch via technology is ‘necessary' and ‘productive,' and is part of being a 'good employee' and having 'a good work ethic.' "

Sartre famously said, "Hell is other people." But he never recieved a text message at 2 a.m. Were he around today, he might make a slight revision: "L'enfer c'est le Blackberry."

The technological innovations of the last decade have all chipped away at our personal space, limiting the boundaries between home and office—but none even approaches the impact of Skype, the service that allows users to see a person at the other end of an electronic telephone connection, even if that speaker just so happens to be located very far away.

While it is true that Skype has helped companies do business all over the world—it allows individuals to converse face to face despite being on different continents—therein is its paradox. Such spread-it-wide-open technology has actually been responsible for the re-introduction of a boundary or two. Note to the guy who works from home in his bathrobe: You might want to shower, shave, and get out of that robe before logging into the office teleconference or webinar.

Schor, Juliet (1991). The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books.