Engineers of the world ... relax

May 3, 2001
"Doesn't this sound like a vision of hell? While we are all competing or dying, when will there be time for sex or music or books? Stop the world, I want to get off."

Machine Design, Editorial Comment
May 3, 2001

Recently, I came across this opinion about the modern, 24/7 work world:

Who would dare utter such blasphemies in the Age of Connectivity? A lonely Luddite holed up in a cabin in Big Sky country? A cult leader fleeing the evils of the modern world, and preaching to loyal followers?

Not quite. The words are those of Howard Stringer, chairman of Sony America. Not exactly an antitechnology company. He made the remarks at the recent Davos World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in response to the description of corporations in the 21st century. One simple but brutal truth emerged at the forum: To succeed and stay alive in business, you must be willing to work 24 hours a day, or face being left behind.

In many ways, that world has already arrived. Cell phones, pagers, Palm Pilots, and other wireless devices let their owners stay only a ring or beep away. Even with last year's dot-com debacle, no one seriously doubts that the Internet and the networked world are here to stay. The next stage is to make it all more pervasive, connecting devices like refrigerators, toasters, and even your wardrobe to the Internet.

But as the world becomes more interconnected, the Frankenstein syndrome looms large. Do we control technology or does it control us?

Historically, a new technology almost always falls short of its promise. The Industrial Revolution was supposed to bring us a better life. Early in the 20th century, we were told technology would free us from grueling manual labor. Leisure time would increase as machines did everything for us. The world would become a workers' paradise.

Many labor-intensive tasks did indeed get automated. But we don't seem to be working less and studies show we all feel more stressed. A few years back, Japanese workers could claim the title of the most overworked and stressed-out people in the industrialized world. Today, U.S. workers average two more weeks of work a year than their Japanese counterparts. This is nothing to be proud of.

The extra hours and stress have a lot to do with our idea of vacation time. Compared to other industrialized countries, American workers earn fewer annual vacation days. Still, many people don't seem to take advantage of this hard-earned compensation. I know several colleagues who stockpile vacation days for some eventual trip that never seems to materialize. And of course, wireless electronic gadgets assure that you are always "in," even when on vacation.

Europeans, on the other hand, have a much saner approach to work. Germany and Sweden in particular have generous vacation policies, with Swedes averaging up to 32 vacation days annually. Not that Europeans have a lousy work ethic. Their priorities are just different, reflecting a more well-rounded view of human life, one that isn't consumed by work.

Don't bother calling me a socialist or a slacker. In no way am I a technophobe, and I manage to carry my weight at work. I do believe in balance, however.

A few years ago, one writer summed things up this way. He commented that 100 years from now, the project that currently demands 60 hours-a-week of your time, will most likely end up in a landfill.

Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

, Associate Editor)

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