Monday, June 19, 2006

Further Commentary on our Time essay on Goofing Off, including a conversation with Tom Lutz, author of “Doing Nothing”

From Po and Ash:

In Time magazine this week, on the "back page" (the last page), we have a fun essay on the crazy, paradoxical relationship Americans have with relaxation and vacations and goofing off. (You can read it on via this link.) [FYI, Time did not give Ashley her shared credit for this essay - but it's the work of both our minds, I assure you. – Po]

Americans “busy up” our vacations so much that we actually find them stressful. Increasingly, we’re not using our available vacation days, even though we get very few in the first place. But we’re finding other, unconventional ways to goof off. Our essay focuses on “stolen time” – our tendency to space out at work or grab snippets of relaxation in between meetings and errands.

Our title for the essay was "How Americans are trading in vacation days for coffee breaks." We wrote about how we all dash to Starbucks, but the epitome of this trend has to be the software company Delicious Monster, in Seattle. They make a bestselling organizer tool for the Macintosh, so they are successful enough to rent an office. Instead, they use the local coffee house – literally. Their employees show up at Zoka Coffee every day, grab tables, and log on to the free WiFi. In a sense, they are multi-tasking like high-level zen masters – both relaxing and working simultaneously.

If you're one of the people we wrote about who steals time at work, and if you ever wonder whether you can be fired for it, a case on that issue was decided recently in New York. An employee of the state's Dept. of Education surfed the internet a lot, mostly "reading." His boss didn't like it. The case went to court, and the judge sided with the employee. Surfing the internet for personal use is no different than occasionally making personal telephone calls. As long as the latter is allowed, so should the former. Funny thing is, the Dept. of Education went ahead and fired him anyway for general insubordination. Oh, and a recent survey found that 1 out of 3 large companies had fired staff for sending personal email.

So the answer is, yes, you probably can be fired for it. The deciding factor is probably going to be how much stealing time you do, compared to the time you actually spend working.

Here’s one of the statistics we love, but we couldn’t fit into our Time essay. Americans feel like we work longer hours than ever, but it’s actually not true. Our average work day is almost an hour shorter than it was forty years ago – we have more leisure time than ever. But we can’t sense it, because we don’t use our leisure time to relax; we are so active in our leisure that it adds to our stress, not reduces it. The more leisure time we get, the busier we feel.

Either that, or we don't even consider our leisure to be leisure, since not doing anything at all -- just hanging out in front of the television.

Which brings us to University of Iowa Professor Tom Lutz, whom we'd wanted to discuss in our essay, but it was another piece unfortunately cut due to the magazine's 800-word count requirement.

Tom has written this intriguing book called Doing Nothing: A History Of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America , which is receiving a smashing amount of attention.

Most of the press been over an amazement that a book about doing nothing would be a surprisingly serious, scholarly review of the work ethic, or lack thereof, throughout history. But indeed it is just that.

And that's what we found the most compelling in the book, and in conversations we had with him: According to Lutz, the work ethic is more than a vague idea. It's also an emotional response. And more often than not, the relevant emotion is anger. (Lutz even began writing the book out of a desire to understand his own anger towards his son's spending days in front of the television.)

As Lutz explains, hardworking people are furious at those they perceive as slackers – their refusal to make a meaningful contribution to society, their seeming detachment from the drive to succeed, or even just to make ends meet. A slacker is just one rent-check away from being a mooch, after all. Slackers refuse to participate in what we believe are at our society's core values: they're traitors in our capitalist midst. (Indeed, as Lutz points out, the term "slacker" was originally used to describe wartime traitors and those who refused to enlist.)

But, Lutz continues, the hostility is mutual. Slackers are angry (if it doesn't take too much energy) at those who work, because they believe that the workers' effort is nothing more than misdirected energy: workers greedily pursue a meaningless paperchase when what is really important is spending time with friends and family, enjoying one's pursuits. Workers may be in lock-step with society's purpose, they'd argue, but they are missing life's purpose.

Interestingly, Lutz believes that the war between the workers and the slackers really began during the Industrial Revolution. No one on the farm ever protested that they worked until the cows came home. You just did what needed to be done. And you rested and joked and loved along the way. (In fact, even today, a family farm is still exempt from most child labor and other work condition laws.)

But with the factory came a new sense of "work" being defined not just by what needed to be done – but also by how many hours of the day were given to your employer.

As workers became increasingly shackled to their posts in the factory, there came an increasingly dramatic bifurcation between the time you gave to the job and the time left to yourself. Which is when we saw strikes over hours spent at work – because time for the personal went out the factory window. So the workers demanded that the hours be capped in a way they never were in the farm-setting, when work and family and the personal coexisted.

Which was a particularly interesting consideration for us. As we pointed out in our Time essay, Americans are stealing personal time throughout the day. This merging of personal time back into our work might be the more natural state. And the idea that we're just supposed to be straight worker-bees may be more of a recently fabricated myth than reality.

Therefore, since the work ethic is as much emotion as reality, it's equally a matter of perspective . . . which lead us to another one of the more intriguing twists on work Lutz discussed with me: work fantasies. Even those of us who are the most serious workaholics still have the fantasy of winning the lottery (or making a killing in the stock market) – the means don't matter as much as the end: being rich enough to never work again.

But there is another fantasy, related, we also play with – and this one we rarely talk about. I’ll call it “the perfect slacker job fantasy.” It’d be a job where you get paid a decent amount, for a full 40 hour week, when in fact you only have to work a couple hours a day. The rest of the time, you get to goof off – and nobody will ever catch you. Lutz mentioned, as an example, a guy who inspects liquor stores. He gets paid full time, but he only has to check 2 or 3 stores a day, which takes him only a couple hours at most. He’s home for lunch every day. It’s an awesome gig . . .

. . . unless it's your tax-dollars paying for it, dollars you earned with a long, hard 10-hour day, in which case it's outrageous, infuriating, and grossly unfair.

I remember this slacker-job fantasy, when I was young. During college I used to be a union janitor, working the graveyard shift midnight to dawn, while I had friends who had scored these incredible summer jobs. They were the kind of jobs star college football players might be given by some deep-pocket alumni. They barely had to lift a finger.

The thing about this fantasy is, we judge it differently if it’s our job or someone else’s job. If it’s our job, we think it’s deliciously cool to be getting away with it. We don’t consider ourselves lazy – we considers ourselves lucky. But if it’s your neighbor with a job like this, then we despise him – we think he’s lazy and a cheater.

Which gets us to the core of Lutz’s book. Borne out of a middle-class tension between a drive to earn our keep and a desire to live the life of Riley, we condemn slackers and "do nothings," but we secretly wish we could be more like them.

Slacking off is every bit a permanent part of American culture as working hard. Goofing off (a little) is like a primal need for us. Why do we criticize slackers – when they’re not harming anyone, certainly not you? We do it because somehow by putting them down, we make ourselves feel better about the compromises we’ve had to make in our lives.


Blogger communicatrix said...

Back when I was still grinding away at a 9-to-5, corporate gig, I remember my then-shrink saying that one could grab one's 'weekend' whenever. Coming from the place of downtime equaling pure evil, I couldn't imagine. Now I live a freelance life of some worry (beginning to think these things are genetic), but mostly a lot of work and a lot of farting around, in varying combinations depending on what's needed at the moment. The best news is that sometimes the work *is* the play. But even when it's not, I'm never resentful about doing it. And as an added bonus, my own happiness means I'm really fine with other people doing whatever.

Except in the car. Still get mad in the car. You guys really should do an essay about anger and driving...

2:18 PM  
Blogger SleepingBeauty said...

This is my favorite line in the article "As crazy as it seems, we like to relax at places that serve jolting caffeine and superfast food."

Are you familiar with the slow movement?

Here is an idea worth sharing: if more Americans knew that in France a two lunch is standard for all professions all of the facts and stats would serve only to illuminate, rather than convince.

Great work.

6:55 PM  

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