Culture of work ’til you drop

I heard a crazy thing today.

There is an expectation of overtime in [the technology] industry. I don’t think anyone’s surprised by that.

Um, I’m surprised by that. That’s why they call it overtime. It’s over(what is expected)time. Otherwise it would just be called moretime or something that doesn’t imply the fact that a particular measurement has been exceeded.

Of course, I’m not really surprised by that. I have been facing this expectation ever since I began working at 16, and since then I have been working some “overtime” hours, most of them unpaid. Surprised? No. Incredulous? Yes.

It strikes me as particularly insane to let my lack of surprise for such a thing turn into complacency, as the vast majority of people I have always shared office space with have seemed to do. Some go so far as to volunteer overtime hours, which always leaves me with a puzzled look on my face.

One of the primary issues for me is to have some choice in the matter. Flexibility is freeing (even if it has to be legislated), and enhances productiveness by increasing a worker’s efficiency. An expectation of overtime (or anything) is accompanied with an implicit ultimatim: do X or else Y. This is even more evident when other people volunteer X and I don’t, and it creates an environment that culturally strengthens the expectation of X. There’s a phrase for this: it’s called peer pressure.

American workers are indoctrinated with a system of reward: “work hard—play hard.” This is not really so bad, it models the reality of many situations quite realistically (i.e., not everything is perfect or enjoyable all the time), and it’s generally a good if simplistic approach to a holistic life.

Until you realize that this work culture places more importance on work than on play. This is a Bad Thing. The reason this is so bad is because it informs every decision employers (and to my astonishment, many employees) make: that they should always sacrifice “play” in favor of “work” because the latter is percieved as more important.

Now, I realize to most of my colleagues and fellow white-collar Americans I am probably being written off as a lazy slob right about now, and I suppose there’s little avoiding that. However, if that is what you are doing I will challenge you to consider the following question: If work is so much more important than play, why the incredibly passionate concerns over quality of life, or fulfillment, or happiness, or personal satisfaction? Are you happy with your job? Does it provide for you these things you say you seek?

If so, I envy you, as do the massively overwhelming majority of other employed people. The sad truth is that for most people, many of whom don’t even know what it is they want (myself included to some degree), expectations of work being more important to me than, well, the rest of me, are absurd.

I am not saying that working jobs you don’t really want frees you of the comittments you made to tasks you have, if you have made such comittments. What I am saying is that the (ridiculous) expecation of work being more important doesn’t change those comittments. In other words, if I have a full-time job, I should be working whatever the definition of “full-time,” which in New York City is 40 hours per week. Working one minute over those 40 hours is, and should always be expected to be, optional.

Right now, that isn’t really the case, and it’s unfortunate because the rather arbitrary dogma of the 9-5 for every conceivable working environment set forth by Henry Ford in the early 1900’s is rapidly becoming ever more inappropriate to today’s working conditions. As the New Zealand Herald article I linked to above says:

“If employers were able to vary their working hours, and work more often from home, there would be real social, environmental as well as economic benefits,” Ms Kedgley said.

I sincerely believe this is true, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s such a foreign concept to most people. Even the people who talk about “work-life balance” often talk about it in a way that shows they clearly separate the idea of work from the idea of life. Instead, I think work should be viewed not as a “necessary evil” that just happens to be a part of life, but rather that people need to be enabled to find the ways that makes working, y’know, work for them.

Succeeding in that can only cause Good Things to happen for everyone.