Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Time is not money. I value time. Ergo, ...

"Are you home these days? No school?" asked a neighbor the other day.

In a nanosecond, I went through the possibilities the conversation could lead to: a friendly humor about not working to a little tongue-in-cheek remark about how teachers have their summers off.  Unless I wanted to pick a fight, there was no point dealing with any snide remark.  I don't like to fight.  I am like Bugs Bunny, as a video recently pointed out, who always shied away from fights; but then he is always poked! ;)

"Yes, this is the first summer that I am not teaching any class" I replied as I continued to walk.  I worried that if I stopped, then the friendliness might be at grave danger.

"Oh like a real vacation then."

I smiled and continued to walk.  How do I explain the concept of a life in furlough?

Over my years here in the US, I have come to understand that Americans have an innate distrust of anyone who seems like is not working long days.  Working late into one's life is a badge of honor to many.  And working long hours--"I am so busy"--is another badge of honor.  Pretty soon, people all around me walk with many badges while, to them, I am doing nothing to earn badges.  It is almost as if I am, ahem, un-American!:
The United States is famously a nation of people who think they should be on the job—and be on the job and be on the job. We work more hours than the Japanese. We work more than the Germans. We’re the only first-world nation that does not mandate vacation time or sick days. And let’s not even discuss our maternity leave policies.
Yet we don’t seem to be aware of how second-tier our standards are compared to other nations.
The Protestant work ethic has seeped into the Catholics, the Mormons, the Hindus, the atheists, ... Wait, it gets worse, writes that author at Slate:
If you don’t take part in this orgy of work and more work? Something must be wrong with you— and that’s you, specifically.
How do I begin to explain that I intentionally chose this profession even though it pays less than other professions that I could have easily signed up for?  And that the nature of this profession is that we have only nine-month contracts, which results in an appearance of leisure time, even though I am working every day?

At least, they don't beat up on me.  But, the political rhetoric in this country beats up on the poor and the low-income households.  As if they are all poor only because they are lazy bums who don't work long hours--even though the data clearly show otherwise.  What gives?
Here’s a thought: In an era in which decent, high-paying jobs are hard to find, and in which the workforce-participation rate is at lows not seen since the late 1970s, gainful employment turns into something of a status item. That allows us to rationalize the increasing hours we put in on the job—often done because we fear the consequences of saying no—as choice. Then we turn around and demean others who don’t work.
It is a strange life that we lead.


Anne in Salem said...

Work is the measuring stick of a man only if the one measuring has a limited life. One who has different values - family, culture, faith, volunteering, friends, travel - will view work time with proper perspective - as a necessary and possibly rewarding part of life, but merely part of life.

Are American workers as productive as those in other countries? Mandated vacation and sick time is not the solution; PTO is scapegoat. It is a matter of working better, not longer.

"I'm so busy" is indeed a badge of honor. I wonder about the choices of those who utter the phrase. With what are they filling their time? If they generated more satisfaction from their activities, perhaps they would say "I have such a full life" rather than "I'm so busy."

Sriram Khé said...

We agree on everything you have written except here: "Mandated vacation and sick time is not the solution; PTO is scapegoat. It is a matter of working better, not longer." I suppose this bottom-line is why you vote for a certain party and I do not for any party! if neither one will budge from our respective positions, then we will always disagree on this ;)

Shachi said...

I LOVE Anne's "I have such a full life" comment - I will use that from now onwards :)!

Question for you - where should I move to achieve this desired work-life balance that I'm having a hard time with here? I'm seriously considering possibilities :).

I'd love to work only 9 months a year....with lesser pay but more leisure time. Even though I stick to a <8 hours/day schedule with plenty of vacations scattered in between, I feel I work more than I'd like to. I am slowly working up a case for my management to only work 5-6 hours a day, for the rest of my career, and I am really hoping they approve it. There will be a lot of downsides to it, and in a bad economy, I will be the first one to get cut, but I'm ready to take that risk.

Most of this is driven by the materialistic culture in this country....most of my friends who bought homes along with us have moved on to larger homes. We already have a 4 bedroom house with a living room, family room, and a decent sized backyard. Other than for investment purposes, I don't have any need to buy a bigger house. Same with others, but they desire more. Homes are huge but hearts are small. Expensive cars, expensive gadgets, fancy vacations where they lounge in a resort all day and eat all-you-can-buffet (blasphemous). It is sad to see that all around.

Ramesh said...

The work ethic in your culture, is what I admire the most about your country. I submit, its a quality to be admired, rather than derided, even when carried to the extreme. A contrast to, say the French, is stark.

I am a believer in stages of life. There is a stage you should work hard, and where work becomes the first priority. You gain economic self sufficiency that way. It is for each to define what the level of wealth creation that is appropriate for him or her. Many don't and pursue an endless rainbow, but that is a different problem.

Once you reach that level, you can then take a more balanced view of life. In your culture that might still be "working hard" (and I admire you for that), but it may not be in a wealth creating occupation role. It may be other areas of interest. It may have a higher proportion of leisure time. I would argue that you are actually working hard - its just that in the summer break you may not be paid for it (anybody subjecting himself to Tolstoy and Nabokov is working insanely hard in my view :):) )

All in all, the ethic of working hard is a trait to be admired and is one of the strong points of America. I would suggest it is better to have this in excess than to have a deficit.

Sriram Khé said...

Shachi, as you can see, Ramesh has a take that is very different from mine. I point to that difference to highlight something that I bet you already know all too well--these are individual preferences and decisions based on one's own approach to life. I have always believed that I lucked out in a big way by getting on to a way of thinking, working, and earning that makes my life possible in the manner in which I would like to live. While I have clear ideas on what I believe is better, Anne's take on paid-time-off and Ramesh's take on working hard are not how I want my life to be ;)

The flipside issues--like putting your job on the line if the company experiences tighter $$$ conditions--are not light issues either. I am reminded of a friend's father from decades ago who commented that the working life in the US is like riding a tiger--the ride is good as long as we figure out how to stay on top. But, should we fall, the tiger will eat us alive.

BTW, in an exchange quite a few months ago, Ramesh had commented that well-paying jobs almost always seem to say that you work 50-plus hours every week and we pay you a lot, or you don't have a job. It is not as if one can engage in a tradeoff anymore as in working for 30 hours a week and a corresponding lower compensation!

I do agree with you that most of "why we work" is driven by material objectives of $$$, fancy homes, fancy gadgets, fancy vacations, ... to each his/her own. How does one balance the different things to lead a "full life"??? Ramesh has found a balance his own way. Anne has worked out things her own way. Mine is an entirely different way. I wish you well as you carve out your own path.

Sriram Khé said...

Perhaps of interest to Shachi, and others too ...

(I am copying/pasting here the entire piece from the Financial Times. I never do entire copy/paste because of IP and business ethics concerns; this time is a rare exception.)

After a decade spent practically living in the office, I am trying a new regime. I do my work during working hours — I get in at 9 and leave at 5.30. I’m getting more done than when I spent 11 hours inefficiently in the office. But my workmates don’t like it, and keep making sarcastic comments about my slacking and working to rule. Is it possible to keep a reputation for hard work and commitment when you leave work punctually every day?
Publisher, female, 38

Lucy’s answer

I am not at all surprised to hear that you can dispatch all your work between 9 and 5.30. There is hardly an office job in the country that can’t in theory be done within a normal working week.

Yet one of the snags with office work is that what you do is not just invisible, it is subjective. That is why people do not measure what comes out (ie work) but what goes in (ie hours) instead.

The second problem is that hours are not just a proxy for output, they are a status symbol. In flat hierarchies, where there are not many rungs on the ladder to climb, hours signal ambition and future seniority.

The third difficulty is that work is only one of the things that has to be done in the office. The rest is bonding, politicking, gossiping and feuding. It goes without saying that these activities are idiotic and unproductive, but they have to be done if you want to advance. If you insist on spending eight hours a day with your head down, you are failing to do any of them.

So either you continue to work to rule, in which case the taunts will go on until your colleagues write you off as a member of the inner circle and reason that there is no further point in needling you.

Or you play tricks. Normally I’m not in favour of tricks, but in this case, as the prevailing rules are so idiotic, gaming them makes sense.

I suggest you decide not to work 9 to 5.30, but to do 40 hours a week in unpredictable bursts. On one day you could work 8 to 8, and on the next “work from home”, and do virtually nothing.

Or, if you prefer to do a similar amount every day, you should shift your eight hours so that at one end or another you are overlapping with the long-hours crowd.

In general coming in late looks much less bad than leaving early, so why don’t you frequently turn up at 11 or 12? Everyone will assume you have been to a meeting — then when you work til 8 you will fool everyone into thinking you are back on your 11 hour-a-day pattern.

So long as you do that, and so long as you accompany your short, irregular hours with frequent complaining about how stressed and over burdened you are, there is a good chance you will get away with it

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Shachi said...

Sriram - Thank you for sharing the FT article.

In my case, I don't have a choice to stay back late on most days. The kids school closes at 5.30pm and I HAVE to pick them up. I think atleast where I am, every one who has children has that issue, so I have not had issues with coming in at 9 and leaving at 5.

Politics without ethics does not go well with me, so some of the tactics mentioned in this article are appalling to me.

The issue is when you have a team of say 6 people - and you are the only one with children and/or working spouse. It's true for my team, for example. Now others never have unexpected absences due to illnesses, other commitments, and they can travel on a whim or come early/stay late whenever needed as well. I simply can't. I miss out on quite a bit and then I am left to catch up and constantly juggle to keep up with the team.

I agree to Ramesh's point too - working hard in your early years and carving out a niche for yourself is very important. So is living frugally and saving/investing from early on. I sort of did that and am reaping the benefits now, when I need it (flexibility, time off, etc) the most. And as he said, I want to now devote more time to things that may not bring in wealth, but will bring in peace and satisfaction.