This isn't an original idea, but it has been gnawing at me lately. As we all know, unemployment in the U.S. remains frighteningly high -- and is worse in many parts of Europe. We still haven't really dug our way out of the meltdown. At the same time, the hours worked by Americans remain incredibly high. See this 2011 infographic on The Overworked American. About a third of Americans feel chronically overworked. And some 39% of us work more than 44 hours a week.
I was thinking of this because I did an interview for BBC about Google -- you can see the piece here. I think it is done well and quite balanced. It shows all those lovely things they do at Google to try to make it so good that you never want to go home -- the classes, the great food, the laundry service, the massages and so on. And I do believe from many conversations with senior Google executives over the years that they care deeply about their people's happiness and well-being and seem -- somehow -- to have sustained a no asshole culture even at 32,000 people strong. That "don't be evil" motto isn't bullshit, they still mean it and still try to live it.
But as I said in the BBC piece, although they are more caring than many of their competitors, the result is that many great tech firms including Google border on what sociologist Erving Goffman called "total institutions." Examples of total institutions are prisons, mental institutions, the military (at least the boot camp part) -- places where members spend 100% of the time. The result is that, especially here in Silicon Valley, the notion of work-life balance is pure fiction most of the time (Sheryl Sandberg may go home at 530 every day, but the folks at Facebook did an all-night hack-a-thon right before the IPO. I love the folks at Facebook, especially their curious and deeply skilled engineers, but think of the message it sends about the definition of a good citizen in that culture).
To return to Google, about five years ago, one of the smartest and most charming students I ever worked with had job offers from two very demanding places: Google and McKinsey. Now, as most of you know, people work like dogs at McKinsey too. But this student decided to take the job at McKinsey because "My girlfriend doesn't work at Google, so if I take that job, I will never see her." He took the McKinsey job because at least that way he would see her on weekends. I am pleased to report that I recently learned that they are engaged, so I guess it was the right choice.
Note I am not blaming the leaders at Google, Facebook, or the other firms that expect very long hours out of their people. It is a sick norm that seems to keep getting stronger and seems to be shared by everyone around here -- indeed, my students tell me that they wouldn't want to work at a big tech firm or a start-up where people worked 40 hours a week because it would mean they were a bunch of lazy losers! I also know plenty of hardcore programmers who love nothing more than spending one long late night after another cranking out beautiful code.
Yet, I do wonder if, as a society, given the blend of the damage done by overwork to mental and physical health and to families, and given that so many people need work, if something can be done to cut back on the hours and to create more jobs. There are few companies that are trying programs (Check out the "lattice" approach at Deloitte). But it seems to me that we would all be better off if those of us with jobs cut back on our hours, took a bit less pay, and the slack could be used to provide the dignity and income that comes with work to all those people who need it so badly.
I know my dream is somewhat naive, and that adding more people creates a host of problems ranging from higher health care costs to the challenges of coordinating bigger groups. But in the coming decades, it strikes me as something we might work together to achieve. There are so many workplaces that have become just awful places because of such pressures to work longer and longer hours: large law firms are perfect example, they have become horrible places to work for lawyers at all levels. There is lots of talk of reform, but they seem to be getting worse and worse as the race for ever increasing billed hours and profits-per-partner gets worse every year. And frankly when I see what it takes to get tenure for an assistant professor at a place like Stanford, we are essentially expecting our junior faculty to work Google-like hours for at least seven years if they wish to be promoted, I realize I too am helping to perpetuate a similar system.
I would also note this is not just a "woman's issue." Or even a matter of structuring work so that both men and women can be around to raise their kids, as it sometimes is described. Sure, that is part of it. But I think that everyone could benefit from a change in such norms. Indeed, about five years ago, a managing partner of a large local law firm did a survey of attitudes toward part-time work and was surprised to learn that male associates who didn't have children were among the most enthusiastic supporters of part-time schedules. Interestingly, they were supportive partly because they couldn't use the "kid excuse" to cut back their hours and resented covering for colleagues who could and did leave work earlier and take days off to be with their children -- they resented having less socially acceptable reasons for cutting back days and hours.
What do you think? Is there any hope for change here? Or am I living in a fool's paradise?