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New perspectives on the work/(life) conundrum

My mom always told me "Make your passion your profession, and you'll be a happy man." She was right, and I am glad I followed her advice. Yet I appear to be part of a minority. In an article about growing disenchantment at work ("Hating What You Do"), thi

Digital Labor

My mom always told me “Make your passion your profession, and you’ll be a happy man.” She was right, and I am glad I followed her advice. Yet I appear to be part of a minority. In an article about growing disenchantment at work (“Hating What You Do”), this week’s Economist cites a survey conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy, an American consultancy. It found that between June 2007 and December 2008 the proportion of workers who professed loyalty to their employers slumped from 95% to 39%, and the number voicing trust in them fell from 79% to 22%. Furthermore, the article refers to a more recent survey by DDI which found that more than half of the respondents described their job as “stagnant,” as in “nothing interesting to do” and “little hope of professional growth" within their current organization. Half of these “stagnators” said they were planning to look for another job as soon as the economy recovered. These survey findings are flanked by several recent cultural events in the US that indicate a shift in the way we negotiate the meaning of work, for example Michael Moore’s “Capitalism – A Love Story” and a whole New York Times Magazine issue on “Anxiety.”

And yet, Americans will be surprised to hear that the most dramatic manifestation of this apparent misery-at-work trend occurred in “socialist” France. A spate of attempted and successful suicides at France Telecom that occured over the past twelve months, many of them explicitly prompted by stress and dissatisfaction at work, forced the deputy CEO to resign and sparked an emotional national debate about life in the modern corporation.

“You are what you do,” German philosopher Immanuel Kant contended long before we started talking about Work/Life balance. Having always been an idealistic concoction most fervently promoted by those biased towards Life, this balance wouldn’t even need to be promoted if it were indeed a battle of equal powers. It isn’t. Work has invaded every single aspect of our lives, and it has infiltrated our society Mafia-style: controlling and demanding every hour of our lives without appearing to do so. Increasingly, Work is no longer visible as such and is instead embedded into Life, which makes its power even more frightening: If you do things that are work but don’t feel like work, then Work has ultimately prevailed.

With the advent of digital media, the relationship between Work and Life has again dramatically changed. Social computing has turned the workplace into the living room and the living room into the workplace. For the digital knowledge workers of the attention economy, it has become harder, if not impossible, to separate Work and Life. The concepts of live-to-work and work-to-live, often pitted against as a clash of American and European cultures, are too one-dimensional to truly capture the reality of most professionals today. Work is Life, and Life is Work, and there is not much in between. The question is no longer how we can balance our digital lifestyle with our professional lives, the question is: How were we able to get any work done before the digital era? And how did we have a life before Twitter?

The new digital work lifestyle has profound implications for one’s (professional) identity: What do you do when everyone else does everything all the time? With everything and everyone connected, the once clear contours of our existence give way to an indistinguishable maelstrom of stimulation: the story of our life is no longer a curriculum, it is a non-linear stream. You can go swimming, fishing, snorkeling, and sailing in it. You can choose to stay on the surface or take a deep dive. But you can never leave. And you can always drown. With Work and Life being the Big Blend, it is shocking but not surprising that for some the only way to take a break from Work is to take a permanent sabbatical from Life, as in the case of the France Telecom workers.

The borderless Work/Life experience creates agoraphobia, an anxiety about an indefinite space of self-actualization possibilities and one’s position within. As Alain de Botton, the philosopher for the knowledge worker, put it: “It’s perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living. It’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm and be free of career anxiety.”

The Economist suspects that companies aggravate this anxiety by a new, ill-conceived form of Taylorism: “Giant retailers use ‘workforce management’ software to monitor how many seconds it takes to scan the goods in a grocery cart, and then reward the most diligent workers with prime working hours. The public sector, particularly in Britain, is awash with inspectorates and performance targets. Taylorism, which Charlie Chaplin lampooned so memorably in ‘Modern Times,’ has spread from the industrial to the post-industrial economy. In Japan some firms even monitor whether their employees smile frequently enough at customers.”

These are all measures that will very likely deter Generation Y workers, the digital natives who have grown up with the Internet and expect organizations to provide them with much more ambiguity and empowerment than these were willing to give to their parents. For the Gen Y’ers, Work is no longer just what you do; Work is another way of Life – a meaningful life. It implies a Work-Life package that reconciles passion and profession, meaning and earning, impact and income. A good job is what you believe in – as long as you can abandon it at will. Sure, Work has become invasive, but so has Life, as work performance is being constantly disrupted by the micro-events in one's digital life feed (email, Twitter, blogging, social networks, etc.). Companies need to learn to convert this distraction into productivity. In fact, this might be the biggest management challenge for the next ten years: Learning how to leverage the tools of distraction to increase productivity – and happiness.

No matter where on the Work/Life continuum you’d place yourself, you will acknowledge the one premise that unites us all: how we are going to work in the future will determine how we’re going to live in the future. Consequently, the Berlin-based creative collective Palomar 5 believes that the best way to find out about the future of work is to let people from different backgrounds work together. Palomar 5 has therefore organized a six-week long Innovation Camp in Berlin that gathers, Big Brother-like, 30 handpicked uber-achievers under 30 to explore (and live together) a vision of work in the digital future. The Camp’s agenda and workflow have been carefully crafted and encompass various modules, guest experts, and collaborative creative assignments that tackle Work/Life as one big design challenge.

In a similar vein, The Internet As Playground and Factory: A Conference on Digital Labor will be held at the Eugene Lang College of The New School in New York City on November 12-14. An overview Introduction sets out the seminal questions arising “in the midst of massive transformations in economy, labor, and life related to digital media.” The conference is free, with advance registration required.

There’s no dearth of books on the subject either: If I had to pick two, I’d go with Alain de Botton’s The Sorrows and Pleasures of Work (with a poignant chapter on accountants) and Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital which provides a comprehensive overview of the aspirations and habits of the Gen Y workforce.