Second job, 24-7 week -- and no life

September 05, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- The man has logged on to complain. "Let's face it, the woman is a lousy role model," he writes, beginning an AOL rant. The woman in question is Hillary Rodham Clinton. But what bugs my correspondent this summer morning isn't "abuse excuses" or carpetbagging or mansion-shopping.

It's the fact that the first lady has taken on a Second Job. He regards it as some perverse variation of the old joke about the Clinton economy: "I know they've created millions of new jobs. I have two of them." Now Hillary has two.

The first lady and Senate candidate has become the spitting image of the overworked, multitasking, juggling American. She's doubled her productivity. She's even vacationing in two different places.

This e-mail, with its tongue-in-cyber-cheek, arrives as I have been drawing a composite portrait of my friends and their alleged vacations. This is what one friend confesses he has packed for his week off: a tennis racket and a cell phone, sun screen and a laptop, a baseball cap and a Palm Pilot.

I have another friend who gets up in the morning, dons her T-shirt, turns on her laptop and checks her e-mails. In the evening, she takes a shower, wraps herself in terry cloth and returns phone calls.

"Who's the bad role model?" I e-mail back to some foreign port. The fact is that we all are suffering from what I have come to label work creep. Work, rather like the bittersweet in my garden, has taken over the rest of the summer landscape.

I am old enough to remember when people talked about the 9-to-5 economy. Today, the hip numerical way to describe the economy is 24-7. The blue laws that once shut down my supermarket on Sunday have been trumped by the Internet laws. Now we live in a market that never sleeps. The office is always open.

Remember bankers' hours? Welcome to the ATM. Recall the stock market closing bell? Soon we'll be able to buy stocks and bonds, like milk and juice, at any hour of the day or night.

Quitting time has become a relic of the past. We can shop in e-malls late at night. I know day-traders who will soon be night-traders. Two jobs? How do you "moonlight" when the sun is still up in Hong Kong?

My e-mail correspondent has sent me to the factoids of what once was would have formed a treatise on workaholicism: the average full-time workweek is now 47 hours long and that doesn't count hours we spending working at home or commuting.

Meanwhile, in just one year, American productivity went up 2.6 percent as we learned to do two, three, four things at once. By now we have adjusted our speed so that it seems normal to multitask during down time.

How many people cell-phone and commute, go hiking with pagers? Am I the only one who checks in with friends and family, hoping they don't hear the telltale clicking sound of the keyboard as we talk and work?

I suspect that it isn't just the hours that have changed. It's the attitude. The work heroes of the 1990s aren't the Trumps but the young Internet entrepreneurs who work, eat, sleep in their offices.

To counter the AOL rant about Hillary I clicked onto an article about a handful of young men pushing their online start-up company down the runway toward Internet liftoff. In hiring new people, it seems, they worry about the "drag coefficient," the things that could keep down their employees' speedometer. A spouse counts as one drag, two kids a double drag.

In the land where Work 'R Us, we proudly repeat the new ritual exchange when Americans greet each other on the street. "How are you?" "Busy. How are you?" "Busy." We are no longer, "Fine, thank you." We are busy.

But underneath the 24-7 and the high-tech hype, in the land of work creep and casual Sundays, there is the sense that something has gone awry. The work world has changed, not just for those who want to keep up with the bills or the Joneses, but for those who want to keep up with technology.

Even in good times, the luckiest of workers remain insecure about a future that seems as planned for obsolescence as this year's software. In the fast-forward workplace, you stay up-to-speed or fail behind.

From that oxymoron known as a home office, I type a postscript to the Ranter from AOL. "Remember the poster of the 1980s? `Oops, I forgot to have children'? Here's the poster of the 1990s, `Oops, I forgot to have a life.'"

Put that in your kayak. Right next to the Palm Pilot.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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