Americans for centuries have believed that new labor saving devices will free us from the burdens of the workplace and give us more time to ponder philosophy, goof off, explore the arts, and hang around with friends and family.
So here we are at the start of the 21st Century, enjoying one of the greatest technological boom times in human history, and nothing could be further from the truth.
The very tools that were supposed to liberate us have bound us to our work (and schools) in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. But technology almost never does what we expect.
Almost all of us -- especially the people reading this -- have less leisure time than ever. We work harder, take fewer vacations for shorter periods of time, report more stress than almost any other demographic group and find the boundaries between work and play increasingly blurred. Computing and communications technologies are destroying the idea of privacy and leisure.
According to a new study reported in the July issue of American Demographics magazine, as the distinctions between home and the workplace fade, more and more of us go online from our offices to buy the things and perform the tasks we used to do when we got home. At first, employers were wary of workers going on the Net. But they've learned to love and encourage it, since it keeps employees chained to their desks for longer hours.
In l999, the researchers report, 19 percent of the total population had Net access at work, compared with just seven percent in l996. Employers, who now expect workers to be available for longer periods, understand that they have to let them to do their chores online. At work, Net surfers go first to news, information and entertainment sites. Then they hit search engines, marketing/corporate sites, sex sites and retailing shopping sites, in that order.
But there's a huge trade off for this convenience. Inforum's l999 Survey from the MEDSTAT group, reports American Demographics, found that adults aged 35 and younger were the most stressed people in the population. Nearly seven in 10 said they were "somewhat" to "extremely" stressed, an astonishing contrast to adults over 65: 31 percent of them said they had almost no stress in their lives at all.
More than a third of adults under the age of 25 say they don't get enough sleep most or all of the time. No wonder. More than half of them report that they didn't have time to take a vacation, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. When younger people do travel, they don't take much of a break: 42 percent of travelers who go away for just a weekend are aged 18 to 34 -- the largest share of any single demographic group. Of course, maybe they have less disposable income or have young children they can't leave for long. But if you think about people you know in this age group, it's also obvious that they have trouble disconnecting from work, thanks mostly to technology, and they're also afraid to show employers that they're not indispensable. It may also be true that openly or not, more employers expect their workers to be around all the time.
Before the Net, cell phones and Palms, the lines between work and leisure time were markedly clearer. People left their offices at a predictable time, were often completely disconnected from and out-of-touch with their jobs as they traveled to and from work, and were off-duty once they were home. That' s no longer true. Even in a competitive job market, employers expect workers to put in longer hours and to be available almost constantly via fax, cell, e-mail or other communications devices. Bosses, colleagues and family members -- lovers, buddies and spouses too -- expect instant responses to voice-and e-mail messages.
Employers have thus begun to pay the small price of allowing their round-the-clock workers to shop and communicate online, found the AD study.
The American Demographic report validates the suspicion that corporatist employers are taking advantage of new technologies and of workers' anxieties to demand longer hours and increased productivity -- the very things new technologies were supposed to liberate people from.
Although there are no known studies relating to college students and their work hours, it seems they are also bound to their desks and dorms by environments in which faculty, friends and other members of the college community increasingly do their work online. Studies of time spent on instant messaging services would probably show staggering use. And research possibilities online are boundless.
Few of us manage to buck this trend, apart from some neo-Luddites. Half of all Americans now own a cell phone, and more than 46 per cent of pleasure travelers take their phones with them when they go away, reports the Travel Industry Association. More than 18 per cent take their pagers and 6 per cent their laptops, while 10 per cent check e-mail on vacation. Younger Americans are living in a hyperactive information culture.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40 per cent of men worked more than 40 hours a week in l998, an increase of 5 percentage points in the last two decades. As for women, 22 per cent worked more than 40 hours aweek, compared with just 14 per cent in 1979.
So it's not surprising that a l998 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that more than 40 per cent of American workers say they come home from work exhausted, up from 36 per cent in l989. Young married couples report that they work an average 26 per cent more hours each year than they did 30 years ago.
Aside from long hours, the nature of work has changed. Economist and author Richard Sennett (The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism) and Joanne B. Ciulla (The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work), point out changes in the nature of work itself.
"Flexible" work projects, the growing number of part-time workers, and a culture that embraces and even celebrates continuous layoffs, down-sizings and re-engineerings have rendered almost everyone's work life stressful and unstable. Workers work harder and longer, move more often, change their work tasks more frequently, and are nevertheless constantly subject to dismissal or its threat.
This isn't what technology is supposed to be doing for us. New technologies, from genetic research to the Net, offer all sorts of benefits and opportunities. But when new tools make life more difficult and stressful rather than easier and more meaningful -- and we are, as a society, barely conscious of it -- then something has gone seriously awry, both with our expectations for technology and our understanding of how it works.