A friend of mine once woke me up a little to the lack of inevitability of labor history when he asked me in a McDonald’s one day, "Exactly when and how did the fast-food chains talk us into the idea that they would stop employing people to bus tables, and give the job to us."
I think of that every time I scrape my trash into the bin or see the dupes using a self-checkout line at the grocery store. And I thought about it when I read Shel Holtz’s little-noticed blog post last week criticizing some ABC News employees who demanded and received compensation for the time they spend working on their smartphones when they’re not at work.
"Leave it to some workers who want to return to the days of the clear line between work and leisure," Holtz sneers. Only factory workers work from nine-to-five anymore, he said. For the rest of us, "Just as the news cycle has gone 24 hours, so has the work cycle."
Holtz’s problem with the ABC News employees, who he calls "greedy" and "clueless," is that they undercut his pet argument for why companies should allow employees free access to the Internet while they’re at work: If employees have to work at home, you have to let them play at work.
"If a company pays you for the time you spend doing work away from the
office, then they have every right to expect you will devote every
minute in the office to work," Holtz says.
(That notion is tidier than it is true. There was office chit-chat and there were personal calls in the days when bosses apologized, "I’m sorry to call you at home.")
I know Shel pretty well. Everybody at IABC knows his musical tastes and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that he bent some stranger’s ear at a rock ‘n roll show or at Jazz Fest about the powers of communication, man. Shel’s a pretty self-actualized guy who has made a rich life for himself.
But as I pointed out in a comment on Holtz’s blog, I know a lot of other people "for whom work and life isnât such an
integrated festival-of-intellect-friendship-and-soul as it is for you. Some people really do work to live, and living means being frigginâ
home with the family, in the forest with their friends, on their
[sailboat] without the possibility of [someone] sending them an attachment for
I added that "my life is more like yours than like theirs, but I donât begrudge
them their efforts to achieve it, and I donât think you should either."
But in the days that Holtz’s blog post has stuck in my craw, what I’ve been stewing about is this assumption that somehow God has decided to create a 24-hour news cycle, and our lives naturally, inevitably have to be transformed into endless exercises in round-the-clock vigilance and middle-of-the-night e-mail checking.
This is not necessary, and it’s not inevitable. To the extent that it is becoming the American way of life, it’s because you and I are caving in to: corporations who want to do business in a global economy and so want us to work three shifts for the price of one … workaholic bosses with no lives outside work and a deep suspicion of anybody who does … and our own insecure fear that our talent isn’t what we we’re being paid forâour willingness to take our PDA on vacation is.
The last thing we need is a humanist like Shel Holtz calling us clueless for wanting a little real, uninterrupted peace and quiet, and greedy for demanding some compensation for working at home.