A Spy In the House of Work 0

Report #1: Neo-leisure, the dirty little secret behind the 65 hour workweek.


I’d heard all the reports about the overworked American worker. I’d even read Juliet B. Schor’s anthem to overworked Americans, creatively called The Overworked American. It took me hours of hard work. I read in grueling detail how the advent of faxes, cellphones, e-mail, and other labor-saving devices has only proved labor-producing. She cites a Harris Poll that says that “since 1973 free time has fallen nearly 40%.” This new development Schor blames on the miracle of information technology, thanks to which we now work the equivalent of one extra month per year.I say she’s wrong.Leisure is not in decline. It’s dead and has been for years. According to my dictionary, leisure is “time free from work or duty, when one can enjoy hobbies or sports.” Do you know anyone who does anything after work – other than watch “Seinfeld” or play Nintendo? Is there anyone left in this whole country over 8 and under 80 who collects stamps? And sports? The Stairmaster doesn’t count as leisure. Neither does golf, which is nothing more than a business meeting held alfresco.But can we really blame the 65-hour workweek on information technology? No way. For one thing, the 65-hour workweek doesn’t mean 65 hours of work. Nobody who works “full time” works full time. Actually the only people who do work full time on the job are postal workers. And look what that’s done for them – turned the post office into a branch of the NRA.I figure at least 50% of a heroic 65-hour workweek is spent pursuing the invisible, undocumented life of neo-leisure. Neo-leisure, formerly known as goofing off, is what knowledge workers do for R&R. It’s why every package of Windows comes with Solitaire pre-installed. It’s why bean counters have been trained to check office phone bills for 1-900 phone-sex calls. It’s why so many subscribers to America Online use it to download games.According to overwork experts, the workday today goes all day, beginning at dawn (power breakfast) and ending after midnight (e-mail check followed by flossing). So I decide to go undercover and check out the latest in neo-leisure.Wednesday morning, 9:45, I slide into Starbucks, the chichi mocha spot preferred by the people who overwork at the nearby US Bancorp Tower, the tallest building in Portland, OR. Known by granola-heads and tree-huggers as the pink penis, for its 43 floors of pink-tinted windows, it is corporate home-away-from-home for the usual collection of mega-law sweatshops, the local factory outlets for PaineWebber, Deloitte & Touche, and an assortment of other franchises whose names end in the letter “e.” In other words, a veritable hive of neo-leisuring drones.I get in line behind four young turks. They’re exceptionally young, even for young turks, with short bright hair and red chins shaved a trifle too exuberantly. This is the Age of Recycling, so each turk carries a “grande”-sized paper coffee cup with plastic take-out lid saved from a previous coffee break. Each also carries a white pad. In these parts yellow pads have become politically incorrect – every turk worth his salt knows that dye contributes to water pollution. The pads denote Meeting not Coffee Break. I sit down at the table next to them, inconspicuously poised to catch an earful of arcane business talk.They arrange the white pads in front of them, hunker forward, fiddle with their pens, sip their coffee. One of them picks up a copy of USA Today. He reads the entire Golf Tips column. Outloud. For 30 minutes. When he finishes reading, he leaves. His chair is immediately taken by another coworker who gives the remaining turks the birds-eye lowdown on why Mr. X has changed offices with Ms. Y. The real deal: his cubicle was closer to the heartbeat of the office, but he desperately wanted to have a window. Then they all leave.It turns out this was not a meeting after all. Just a harmless bit of midmorning neo-leisure. I can’t prove it, because I didn’t follow them back up the elevator shaft, but it says here they went back to their desks and, after calling their respective racket ball partners to make sure they were still on for that afternoon, met for the next installment of their coffee break.Watching this drama unfold took me back to my own career in neo-leisure. I neo-leisured for a nonprofit organization, where I held down one of those look-busy jobs that couldn’t be cut from the budget because of the way funding dollars flowed. It was the ideal place to hone my skills: the seamless segue from business phone calls to personal phone calls; the working lunch that turns out to be all lunch and no work. It was completely exhausting. I was thoroughly overworked.Since those early days of neo-leisure, of course, the field has become professionalized. What knowledge worker today doesn’t recognize the four basic food groups that comprise the workaday world of neo-leisure:

  1. Padding lunch hour or coffee break with personal errands.
  2. Kibitzing on the electronic bulletin board.
  3. Chatting with colleagues about personal stuff, after opening with any quasi-work-related gambit. (One unexpected and delightful by-product of the neo-leisure movement is the rebirth of the art of conversation.)
  4. Are you reading this at work?

At the nonprofit organization where I neo-leisured in obscurity, the real big-time trailblazer in neo-leisure was my boss, a man who boldly went where no man who honestly valued his career had ever gone before. He was terribly overworked, staying at the office until 8:00 p.m. if nothing needed to be done, longer if there was even less.It didn’t used to be like this, back in the old economy. Back then there was real leisure. It meant getting off work at 5:00 p.m. with all the other working stiffs, nudging your way home in traffic during the peak of peak hour, only to be accosted by the kids the second you trudged through the door. This was followed by a brown-green-and-white dinner, the nightly news, and then, once the kids were in bed, the unbridled fun of a few bleary-eyed hours to fiddle with your ham radio.Those days are gone, as obsolete as other artifacts of the ’50s. Today going home and feeling guilty about watching a bad movie on cable instead of mowing the lawn isn’t an option. Since neo-leisure time technically isn’t your own, the only legitimate people you can neo-leisure with are your co-workers. This simplifies life. And you get to miss rush hour.Here’s the way it works today for a friend of mine whose life is marathon ad copy at a scorchingly chic agency in New York. On most days he knocks off at the humane hour of 6:00 p.m., makes the rounds of his favorite strip clubs with other members of his creative team, then returns to the office to play video games and “concept” way past the midnight hour.He enjoys moaning about his killer hours. They’re part of the standard membership litany that includes my worst airplane experience, the time my hard disk crashed, and the client from hell. Fact is, no one who’s living the life of the New Economy even wants a seven-hour day or a four-day workweek. Overwork is the goal. To go home at a decent hour is to be thought a shirker, a weenie, a wuss. Here’s the hard truth about neo-leisure: the only way out is deeper in. If you’re the kind of person who hates afternoon birthday parties or who wants to go home at the end of the day and read The Cat in the Hat 17 times to your two-year old, you’re out of luck. You’re living in the wrong decade, baby.Try going with it. Pack everything into your car and drive to Hollywood. As with every other trend worth mentioning, Californians are out ahead of the rest of us; and people in the film business are way out ahead of other Californians.The Masters of Neo-Leisure are Hollywood film execs. All days are divided into three parts: the breakfast meeting, the lunch meeting, and the dinner meeting – connected by drivetime.For some there is a fourth component, a secret bit of unclassifiable business that isn’t much discussed. It is the nap date. After lunch, around 3:00, when he’s tired of sitting in the car all day long, his eyes stinging from the smog, an executive or producer might invite a starlet to share a nap with him at a favorite hotel. In the old economy this passed under the corny rubric of “afternoon delight.” But as neo-leisure it is much more refined. Sometimes it really is a nap. Driving around to all those restaurants can be exhausting. Sometimes it is an opportunity to talk business. Sometimes it is a lusty coupling, which is not actually neo-leisure but business. (Big business, as Heidi Fleiss will attest.) In any case, it is a write-off. The top guys in Hollywood are so good at neo-leisure, work is dead.There is no sign of it being reborn any time soon.