Welcome to Elsewhere, USA

We e-mail, we text, we Facebook, we blog. Are we more productive today or just more anxious?

Published January 30, 2009 11:38AM (EST)

As chair of the sociology department at New York University, Dalton Conley notices that when he's giving lectures, his students don't just take notes. They also update their Facebook pages, watch videos and even fact-check what he's saying on Wikipedia.

But Conley is hardly the type of professor to frown on such blatant multitasking while he's pontificating. He's more likely to interpret his students' fractured attention as a sign that they are preparing to soon take their places among the professional class, where they'll blur their work and personal lives, as they're pulled by technology and pushed by economic inequality and shifting gender norms.

In his new book, "Elsewhere U.S.A.," Conley describes not only the rise of the familiar texting, instant messaging, e-mailing culture that has transformed the old 9-to-5 into the 24/7, but the underlying cultural and economic factors driving even high-paid workers to feel like they should be working more hours.

Conley comes across as ambivalent about the changes he documents, betraying nostalgia for the lifestyle his grandparents and parents enjoyed, which sound placid in comparison to his own. After all, he need look no further than his own living room for evidence of the always-on ethos and the conflicts it engenders. At one point, he writes, his wife, design engineer and artist Natalie Jeremijenko, was having a videoconference via Skype with a collaborator on the other side of the globe at 3 a.m., while their young son, who had wet his bed, came looking for Mom to be comforted.

I spoke with Conley at Salon's office in San Francisco, where he managed to make it through the whole interview without once checking his BlackBerry.

What do you think it represents that our new president, Barack Obama, refuses to give up his BlackBerry?

The BlackBerry for Obama is just the tip of the iceberg for him. We had the man in the gray flannel suit who quit work at 5 p.m. in our last president. Obama reflects more accurately how professionals of his generation are living, both in keeping the BlackBerry, and because he works at home, which happens to be the oldest home office in the United States, the White House.

The Obamas are going to be an interesting first couple with a career woman in the White House, as opposed to Laura Bush, who was again a throwback to the 1950s, when only 17 percent of moms worked outside the home. And they have an interesting solution as well, which is to import Michelle's mom to have an extra adult to manage the kids. So we're going to identify with Obama in a way that we couldn't with Bush.

You talk about how educated professionals, especially parents, have this feeling they should be everywhere at once. What do you mean?

It's great that work is flexible and there's an increased amount of autonomy for career professionals. But we are also ruled by this abstract boss called "the work" or the "in box." In past economies, whether we're talking about modern industrial capitalism or the craftsman, people were limited by daylight and raw materials and were producing something real and physical. Knowledge workers are not limited by any of those pesky things as long as there is an electric plug, your phone is charged or you have a wireless connection for your laptop. There is work you could be doing 24/7, or feel like you want to do, or should do.

If you're out making social capital -- connections -- which are increasingly important, maybe you feel guilty you're not home with your kids. If you're home with your kids, maybe you're not completely there because you're sneaking the BlackBerry under the dining room table. Or you're somewhere else in your head because you're thinking about the 101 things that you have to respond to before midnight. We have autonomy but we have also been boxed in and pulled apart by it.

We're in the middle of a recession. Major American companies like Home Depot and Pfizer are laying off tens of thousands of people. But you write that people in the educated professional class are more financially secure, and more secure in their careers, than they might realize. Do you think that's the case in our current environment?

The current recession may be Great Depression 2.0. It remains to be seen whether we're going to hit the kind of jobless rates that we hit in the 1930s. Even though the price of food has risen a bit, it's basically much cheaper now than it's ever been in history. So I don't imagine a Dust Bowl of the 1930s, where people were hungry and standing in food lines in massive numbers.

Also, most of the layoffs are at the bottom half of the American income distribution. They're not the people I'm predominantly writing about. And they're not the people we are reading about. People who buy newspapers, and like to read about themselves, tend to be white-collar. So we dramatize the white-collar layoffs much more than we do the blue-collar workers, when actually the economic decline is hitting the low-wage workers much harder. We just hear about it more often when a Lehman Brothers goes under.

Why did you want to focus on these high-wage workers?

They represent a new class. There has been a lot written on the beeping, buzzing technological world around us, but not linking that to the rise in economic inequality, and the changing balance between home and work, given the wholesale entry of moms into the labor force. This class is also structuring the economy, even for low-wage workers. What was once provided for in the social or non-market economy, like caring for our children, doing our dishes, is now outsourced to the monetary marketplace. The fastest-growing sector of low-wage employment is food preparation and service. That is a direct echo of the fact that higher-wage couples don't have time to cook things at home from scratch, and have even outsourced that aspect of domestic life.

You say high-wage earners are now working more hours than their low-wage counterparts? Why do you think that is happening?

As you move up the income ladder, you work more hours. Let's say you get a raise, or you're self-employed and your business is doing better so you can bill at a higher rate. You have what economists call the "income effect," meaning you now have more income, and you could choose to spend that income on a flat-screen TV. But you could also choose to spend it on leisure. You could buy more time off.

But at the same time we have the "substitution effect." In other words, the increased opportunity cost of not working. If you once earned $20 an hour, and now you earn $40 an hour, you think, "Oh my God, I could be working now earning more money." It's not a conscious calculation. But the opportunity cost has trumped the leisure-buying aspect of increased income. Why? Because of rising inequality at the top. As you move up the ladder, you actually feel like you're relatively worse off because the income gaps get huger and huger.

Most people think of income inequality in terms of the difference between the CEO's pay and his lowest-paid worker. But are you saying that the real dramatic changes are taking place between middle and upper earners?

Right. Economic inequality overall in the United States has increased every year since 1969. If you break that out and look at the prototypical middle-class family or household -- the 50th percentile, the median -- and you look at the relationship between the median and the bottom half, it's been pretty flat. It's been stable. The middle class is not pulling away from the poor. What's happened is that the top half has been stretched out like taffy, and the further up the slope you go, the increasing incomes have gotten steeper and steeper.

So people in the top half feel less secure than ever?

Yes. That is a big element of our economic anxiety. It may be that job security in 2008 and 2009 has gone down. But we've been talking about decreasing job stability and increased economic insecurity for the last 20 years.

When times are good, people at the top may be doing incrementally better. But you see people around you who are doing a lot better, and you feel worse off. And since most of us have our basic needs like food and water and shelter taken care of, it's really an area of relative goods that we're working hard for. We've gone beyond providing for our basic physical needs. Most of what we're insecure about is whether we can maintain our current lifestyle, whether we're secure in our earning potential and power.

What drives us to work harder and harder?

I don't think it's something innate in our national character. If you go back to the early '60s, we had an increasing and large amount of leisure. We worked less than the Germans, the British, even the French or Italians, which are held up now as the layabouts, compared to industrious Americans.

There was even a presidential commission that worried: How are we going to have identity and meaning in this world, where we work so few hours? What are we going to do? Play bridge and golf the whole time? We've got to think of something that is more meaningful than that. That seems laughable now that we've exceeded almost any other nation in terms of work hours.

So our work obsession isn't in our national DNA?

Sociologists are allergic to the notion of national DNA. It's an interaction of the genetic and environmental. If you go back to the 19th century, you get what Max Weber called the Protestant ethic in his famous book. After the Protestant reformation, you had an enormous amount of ecclesiastical insecurity. The way to solve that was to appear blessed on earth, and the way to do that was to accumulate lots of riches. You had to find a calling -- a vocation, which means "calling" in French -- and work at your God-given talents. Live miserly, live an ascetic lifestyle. Don't spend and consume but accumulate and save. That was the 19th century entrepreneurial ethic in America.

By the mid-20th century, with labor and management relations at their best point ever, and giant corporations like ancient dinosaurs walking the economic landscape, you had what William H. Whyte in "The Organization Man" called the social ethic, which means fitting in, showing loyalty. Meritocracy and bureaucratic rules were going to rule the day, and not entrepreneurial social connections and nepotism.

To fit in you had to consume. You had to get your house in the new suburbs and have the right car. But we never killed and buried the Protestant curmudgeon in our cultural unconscious. So there was always a tension between this idea of consuming to fit in with the Protestant ethic.

The modern Elsewhere ethic, which I call it, has resolved those tensions by mixing work and leisure, instead of having clear boundaries. Often when we're socializing or having a dinner party, those are ambiguous relationships. They're friends but they're also people who could give you the next good idea or the next potential client. We also married consumption and investment. People now buy a Sub-Zero refrigerator not because they want it but because it adds to the resale value of their house. Throwing a big party at your office is not for fun but an investment in client or customer relationships.

If technology makes us feel like we should always be checking our e-mail, doesn't it also create opportunities for us to do a lot of leisure activities during work hours?

Yes. Not only is home more like the office, the office is more like home. Casual Fridays have now become casual everyday. People are Facebooking and e-mailing for social reasons at their office. That is kind of like the three-martini lunch of the 1950s spilled over into little bits throughout the day.

Now that we have all these technological tools to keep in touch with people, theoretically we should be communicating more efficiently, and that should free up time, but it doesn't seem to work that way. Why not?

You could say because I can reach this person any time I want, I don't need to see them. I can dash off an e-mail or Skype them. But it turns out the more that you have mediated communication, the more you actually want to build on that with face-to-face meetings, just like the false promise of the paperless office.

The PDF file was supposed to replace our printer. But paper use in offices has gone up because we have access to more documents. We think, "Hey, that's pretty cool. I want to print that out, and read it on the subway home." Or, "I don't actually like reading it on the screen." We end up printing out more. The PDF doesn't act as a substitution for the printed page, it almost stimulates it or encourages demand for it.

When you talk about the breakdown between work and leisure, I think of my friends who do things that seem like work for free. Is it working? Is it leisure?

It's a big debate among economists: If you contribute code to an open-source software package, is that leisure or are you sending some signal to the marketplace so that paid employment and contracts will follow? I don't think people know themselves: "Is this an investment or not? Well, I better do it anyway, just to be safe."

But maybe they enjoy it? Among this educated professional class, there seems to be a premium on enjoying your work, and feeling that your work is an expression of who you are, and an enormous part of your identity.

That goes back to the Protestant ethic. The notion of being saved was that you found your calling, and you enjoy your work, and you want to do it because you enjoy it. And an increasing number of folks in this Elsewhere class do enjoy their work. And so there are push and pull, supply and demand dynamics that are pushing us to work all the time.

What are some of the surprising consequences of more women entering the workforce since the '60s?

It has contributed to the rise in inequality over the past four decades. Women have entered the labor force in high numbers, and that's combined with "assortative mating," or marrying like kinds. High-earning women, despite what Maureen Dowd says, are more likely to marry a high-earning man. Powerful men are not marrying their secretaries anymore. They're more likely to marry the partner in their firm, and that engenders doubling of household-level inequality. So not only do you have the lawyer vs. the janitor, now you have the janitor married to the cashier and the lawyer married to another lawyer. There are also more employment opportunities for high-wage earners. So you end up exacerbating inequality even more by virtue of the household dynamics.

It's also increased economic insecurity because women -- thanks to motherhood and the still unequal distribution of child-rearing duties and household labor -- tend to have a more flexible relationship to the formal labor market. So a lot of the increased income volatility that we experience year to year is because of women entering and leaving the labor market as children are born or become school-age, and because of the increased household dissolution rates -- divorce. That's intimately tied to the sense of economic insecurity, particularly for women.

Speaking of divorce, you suggest that what the rest of us call serial monogamy, we should call "dynamic polygamy." What do you mean by that?

There is a widely observed phenomenon that highly unequal societies tend to be more polygamous than egalitarian societies. It's a fun metaphor to import here. Now we are living with a lot of remarriages and blended families, which is a form of polygamy. You can have ongoing obligations to the children you had by your first partner living in the hut across town, through child support and alimony, and the same obligations to your current family. So in terms of kinship ties, and the economic relations inherent in those kinship ties, we're no different than a kind of "pre-modern" polygamous society.

You seem ambivalent about some of these changes. But you end up saying you're not telling anyone to toss their BlackBerrys or iPhones, and live in the moment. Well, why not?

If some people want to do that, great. I'm just trying not to sit on some high horse and lecture folks. I'm sure that 50 years from now, the struggles that we are going through with the lack of boundaries will look quaint and silly to folks in 2050, the way the Organization Man, and social life in the '50s, look quaint and earnest to us now.

We can make choices about policies, such as paid family leave, which would change things for the better. But a lot of the forces, like increased individuation and technology, are going to dictate life, whether we like it or not. I do know folks who sell the business, pack up everything, move to rural Maine and build a log cabin. I think it's interesting that for them it takes such a drastic act to regain control of their lives. The challenge for most of us is to manage these buzzing, beeping demands on us while being part of the mainstream economy. And at the same time preserve some things we value outside that sphere.

Short of dropping out and living off the grid, aren't we all drawing these lines in our own lives, like "no texting at the dinner table"?

And they're different for every family and for every household and for every individual.

You wrote a funny end note about this: "Here I must confess to years of screaming at my wife for trying to involve the kids in her work life, as well as yelling at her to turn off her cell phone during 'family time.' I was wrong and she was right." What makes you so sure?

That's why it's in an end note. I'm not so sure. I go back and forth on all of this. More and more you'll see companies allow the kids and the family dog to come into work. You can see advantages if you work in a professional environment and you involve your kids. They're exposed to social capital and lots of fancy vocabulary words flying over their heads, some of which will land in their ears. But you can also see that kids need focused attention. It's something we have to balance.

Do you find it difficult to sit here and talk to me without checking your BlackBerry?

Yes, definitely. It's difficult to stay in one place for an extended period without checking for new messages. We get addicted to that kind of constant communication. We feel wanted if someone sends us an e-mail. It's a really low bar for being wanted. But it is something that someone is reaching out to you for human, if mediated, connection.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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