Sunday, November 22, 2009

Get a life

“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for - in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it” observed Ellen Goodman.

That’s the quote that I remembered when I read this interview with an ‘economist and a work-life balance expert”, in

“Back in 2006 – a time of boom and ebullient profits -- we completed a study of what we call ‘extreme jobs’: high-echelon jobs that have gargantuan demands but also gargantuan rewards. At the time, there was a kind of equilibrium in place, because these ‘extreme workers’ were working really hard – on average 73 hours per week -- but at the same time, they were being extremely well paid. They also had lot of status and power, which can be very appealing, and often they were very stimulated and kind of ‘turned on’ by the challenges of their work. Whether they were developing a new video game, running an oil rig or developing a new derivatives product, the odds are that today’s knowledge workers are very self-actualized through their work. So despite the massive time commitment, the rewards of these jobs very much outweighed the burdens. As a result, people were opting into these jobs and enjoying them.

Fast forward to 2008 and many of the ‘extreme’ burdens have actually increased: people may be working even longer hours, dealing with even more responsibility and a depleted team, but on the other hand, there is no bonus coming their way and they have to face job insecurity. The cost-benefit calculation has totally shifted around these jobs in the last two years, leading to what we call a ‘dysfunctional talent model’."

So, what this expert is telling us is that working 73 hours or longer is quite normal. It gets dysfunctional and stressful only when you don’t get proportionate rewards.

Working 80 hours a week means 11.5 hours a day if you count Sundays or 13.5 hours a day, if you don’t work on Sundays. There are many who have to work this hard to eke out a living, but if someone chooses to work such long hours on a sustained basis so as to grab a fat bonus, he/she would do well to read Ellen Goodman’s quote again before he/she drops dead.

The basic question one needs to ask is: “Is ‘work’ the sole purpose of one’s existence? Or is ‘work’ a means to lead a more comfortable and satisfying life outside working hours? Or is there no distinction between the two, they being intertwined?

In one of his travel stories called. “ The crocodiles of Yamoussoukra”, V.S.Naipaul decribes life in a village deep in the wet forests of Ivory Coast, where European customs brought in by expatriates interfered with local tribal beliefs and convictions. But several Africans had learnt to live with the duality, There was the world of the night and the world of the day. The world of the night consisted of rituals, dancing, witchdoctors, drums, etc. The world of the day could involve work in a European setting – hotels, factories, etc. For the African, observes Naipaul, the world of the day was an artificial and restrictive one. The true life was there in the mysteries of the village at night. The work during the day with all its false, arbitrary rituals was the charade. So, an African who could be a senior executive in a big company, would be longing to get back into the 'real world of night" and could slip into it comfortably.

That’s what we need to ask ourselves. Which is the ‘real’ part of our lives and which is the charade? There has to be a dividing line. If spending 80 hours a week at ‘work’ is the ‘real purpose’ of our existence, then the rest of what life offers us is only a charade. Conversely, you can have a real life outside working hours, if you can view the time spent at work as an elaborate charade.


Balajisblog said...

Raj - When it comes to life and living, most folks confuse the latter with the former. I am fascinated with dog milk's narration of African execs. Almost similar to us trying to run out of star hotels in search of a simple meal many times...Balaji..

Raj said...

Balaji: As a gastroentrologist told me, "What is life? Life depends on the liver".

Sankar said...

It need not be an either or situation. it depends on the frame of ref like relativity. So ones life is a mix of both, being charade or real purpose depending on which frame of ref one is in at the moment