Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: work (page 1 of 2)

Aging and work

Last week I was on BBC Radio 4’s morning show talking about REST and the need to change work and careers in a world where life expectancies are going up. Since then, I’ve seen several other pieces about this subject.

In the Globe and Mail, Linda Nazareth asks, “Should we consider delaying full-time work until 40?” As Paul Johnson has pointed out in our BBC Radio 4 conversation, you could see retirement as a system in which we bank the time we’ve saved by improved productivity at work, and spend it at the end of our lives. But, as Nazareth points out, longer lives should make us rethink retirement, and not just along the lines of raising retirement ages:

if everyone’s lifespan is getting longer (and hopefully healthier), maybe we should think about how traditional work lives could change. Some figure this should simply mean everyone working a couple of more decades, which would give them more income in the years when they are indeed retired….

Another model suggests that we think of work more creatively, not as something that we do intensively for several decades but rather as something that we dip in and out of over the course of our lives.

In conversations about the challenges of work-life balance, I’ve argued that one of the big problems we all face (but women in particular) is that we work in a system in which we’re expected to invest most intensively in our careers at exactly the same time we start families. And forget about prioritizing one over the other: we’re supporsed to work like we don’t have kids, while raising kids like we don’t have jobs.

I’m hardly the only one to notice this: in her article, Nazareth draws in part on the work of Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, whose work on extending careers could help ease these pressures was the subject of a recent article in Quartz by Corinne Purtill:

For people smack in the mad mid-life rush of managing full-time careers, dependent children, and aging parents, nothing feels so short in supply as time.

But there is time to get it all done, says psychologist Laura Carstensen…. The only problem is that we’ve arranged life all wrong.

A woman who is 40 years old today can expect to live another 45 years, on average, while 5% will live to see their 100th birthday. The average 40-year-old man will live another 42. For many people, most of those years will be healthy enough to continue work that doesn’t involve intense physical labor. So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?

Rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, Carstensen argues, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.

I wrote about how Australian historian Inga Clendinnen pioneered this kind of model decades ago, and that her example suggests that we think of work-life balance as something that plays out over years and decades, and that our lives would be better and easier (or at least we would be more forgiving and realistic about our lives) if we didn’t expect every day to be a jewel of work-life balance.

I also suspect that shorter working hours could help with this, by allowing more time for important but competing activities, and by offering a model of work that would support longer, more sustainable careers.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 4: Jessica de Bloom and the Science of Vacations

Since we’re in the middle of summer break, I thought it would be fitting to take a break from the shorter hours interviews, and talk about something that’s on everyone’s mind: vacations.

Many of us have a conflicted relationships with vacations. We expect a lot from them, we spend a lot on them, but we don’t always get everything we want from them. When we go somewhere new, our default mode is to pack the days full of activities (this is doubly true if you have children), then we come home feeling like we need a vacation to recover from our vacation.

If we want vacations that are restorative, that recharge us and restore our energy, is there a better way?

In this episode I talk with Jessica de Bloom about the science of vacations. De Bloom is one of a number of academics who have been studying the psychology of restorative activities. I originally discovered her work when I was writing Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, and so it was a pleasure to talk to her in person about her work.

De Bloom’s work has some counterintuitive conclusions about vacations and breaks, and if you like getting away but feel like you’re not getting what you need out of your time away, this episode is for you.

Mentioned in this episode:

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 3: Spencer Kimball and Free Fridays at Cockroach Labs

In this episode I talk to Spencer Kimball, cofounder of Cockroach Labs , a startup that’s reinventing how databases work. It’s kind of technical, but fortunately Spencer does a great job of explaining what they’re doing. He also does an excellent job of explaining Cockroach Labs’ “Free Fridays,” and how they’ve designed their work week to give everyone one day a week to work on their own projects, even as they build a product designed to compete against products made by giants like Microsoft, Amazon and Oracle.

I also talk to Clive Thompson about why 20% time is a significant perk for software developers, and more gnerally, the place that free time plays in the professional and intellectual lives of programmers.

Mentioned in this episode:

The gendered consequences of “Do what you love”

The Atlantic has an article arguing that our belief that you should be passionate about your work has the unintended effect of discouraging women from working if they don’t land in a high-paying, high-reward job. When you already have competing demands from home and children, it’s easier to decide that those things should take priority over employment. From “When ‘Love What You Do’ Pushes Women to Quit:”

the idea that one should feel fervently about one’s work disproportionately affects women, who may already feel that their job is a hardship for their family. For women who don’t inherently see their role in the family as “economic provider,” staying in a job that might not pay much and that they’re not crazy about feels frivolous and selfish.

Perhaps it’s worth stating the obvious: Passions often don’t translate into lucrative careers. Our friends’ passions included acting, singing, sports teams, and yoga—all activities those friends tried to monetize at one time or another, for very low pay. While intellectually most women know they won’t earn much chasing a dream, the reality of trying to balance a low-paying job with raising a family and running a household, especially if your spouse way outearns you, is enough to make many women leave the workplace, particularly those women who don’t feel they must be economically independent.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 1: Stephan Aarstol and the five-hour day at Tower Paddleboards

Digital Surfway

So the first episode of my podcast Rest with Alex Pang is now up: it’s an interview with Stephan Aarstol, the founder of pioneering stand-up paddleboard and beach lifestyle company Tower Paddleboards and author of the book The Five-Hour Workday.

Aarstol’s name has come up in a number of other interviews I’ve conduced with founders who have implemented shorter working hours at their companies, and so it made sense to start with him and the Tower Paddleboards story.

You can listen to the episode through the player below, or you can subscribe here (I recommend the latter). Either way, enjoy!

Signals, complexity, and knowledge vs data in baseball

Okay, first a caveat: I go to a few Oakland As games every season, but I’m not a baseball fanatic; I married into the game. My wife agreed to move with me to Chicago 20 years ago when I found an apartment within walking distance of Wrigley Field. Proposing to her also helped, but I’m not sure which was the more important factor.

So I’m not a baseball expert by any means, but I still found this article about how “The Rockies Believe They Have an Unbreakable Code,” and more generally how signaling is turning into a point of contention over who makes decisions about pitches, pretty interesting.

Last Sunday, the Washington Nationals broadcast noticed an unusual card sheathed in clear plastic on a wristband that was adorning the left arm of Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta…. The wrist card wasn’t just something the Rockies implemented Sunday. Iannetta has worn the card since the Rockies’ season began in Arizona….

While other teams might have already done something similar, this wristband — or, at least the scope of it — seemed to be unusual in nature. And with the amount of information available in today’s game, when it’s possible to know every batter’s performance against every pitch type in every count, I have wondered if teams would try and get more information to catchers and players on the field.

Mariners’ outfielders are carrying cards in their back pockets to help with positioning this season. In college baseball, the coaches — lacking the trust in their young battery — often call the vast majority of pitches, which can slow things down.

So what’s on the card?

Iannetta said the information is mostly related to controlling the running game, and he explained some of the mechanics of the process. “It’s just a random three-digit number that corresponds to a sign and then we have 10 different cards with random numbers,” Iannetta said. “As soon as they [the MASN broadcast] zoomed in… we heard about it and switched cards immediately. We switched to a different card with a whole new set of numbers. There’s no way to memorize it. There’s a random-number generator spitting out a corresponding number [for the cards], and the coaches have the same cards.”

So the signals are no longer part of a language that each team possesses, or that evolves between specific pitchers and catchers; it’s now more like coded signals in the military.

What’s also interesting about this, though, is that it foreshadows a change in who control the calls, the catcher or the coaches.

In college, the coaches already do so, mainly to keep the game moving. But in major league baseball, there’s a potential competition between two very different kinds of expertise.

On one hand, the catcher possesses a lot of on-the-ground knowledge. They know how confident each hitter is when they come to the plate, can observe how forcefully they’re hitting, whether they’re in the zone or distracted, etc. They also know their pitcher’s performance. “On any given night,” the article says, “the pitcher is going to have a different feel, a different comfort level, with certain pitches that will be unique to that contest.” Put that together, and a good catcher can really shape the play.

On the other hand, coaches now have a staggering amount of data about players, and there’s a temptation to use that to shape the game by allowing coaches to call more of the pitches.

But as the signaling system gets more complex, and you can change it up more often, there’s an opportunity to either use it to deliver more information to catchers, or to displace the knowledge of catchers entirely and rely on big data.

What’s important here is that it’s not that one form of knowledge or expertise is necessarily superior to another; they’re probably best seen as incommensurate, as forms of knowledge that are so different it’s like comparing apples and manta rays. But you can imagine coaches deciding that they want more control over the game, or thinking that big data will let them use less experienced catchers, or simply being super-impressed at the statistics and all the cool things you can do with it. In order words, adopting what looks like a data-intensive and rational system for reasons that actually aren’t that rational.

Finland’s basic income experiment ends

Finland has been running a limited experiment with Universal Basic Income, and has decided to pull the plug.

The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention as a potentially promising way to restore economic security at a time of worry about inequality and automation…. [However the] Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work.

There are UBI experiments going on in other parts of the world, but the fact that Finns are skeptical of the no-strings-attached approach to basic income, that suggests that other countries with less social cohesion and trust in government will find UBI to be a steep climb. Further, as the article notes,

This may be the main reason that basic income has lost momentum in Finland: It is effectively redundant.

Health care is furnished by the state. University education is free. Jobless people draw generous unemployment benefits and have access to some of the most effective training programs on earth.

“In a sense,” said Mr. Hiilamo, the social policy professor, “Finland already has basic income.”

I find the idea of a basic income intriguing, but I’m not really sure what to make of it. My concern isn’t that giving Those People money will just lead them to waste it; the studies I’ve seen suggest that on the whole, people in UBI experiments are more thoughtful stewards of that money than the Rich Kids of Instagram. But the idea that UBI can be used to bribe people into accepting the robot revolution, or that people will trade cash for the dismantling of the state (which is what people like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray have envisioned when they advocate UBI, as I understand it), don’t fill me with confidence that it would be good policy.

“a life spent dutifully responding to emails is a dull one indeed. And ‘wasted’ time is, in fact, highly fulfilling”

The World Economic Forum blog has an Olivia Goldhill piece that argues for the importance of “wasted” time.

when we spend so long frantically chasing productivity, we refuse to take real breaks. We put off sleeping in, or going for a long walk, or reading by the window—and, even if we do manage time away from the grind, it comes with a looming awareness of the things we should be doing, and so the experience is weighed down by guilt….

The truth is, work expands to fill the time it’s given and, for most of us, we could spend considerably fewer hours at the office and still get the same amount done.

It also has a nice plug for REST, and the Nautilus excerpt of the four hours chapter from a few weeks ago (which has generated a lot of press, proving that you never know what’s going to take off).

Automation, leisure, and the problem of avoiding “overwork for some and starvation for others”

In her essay on the meaning of leisure, Washington Post editor Christine Emba notes that Uber recently announced that it would debut self-driving cars in Pittsburgh later this fall. This, she argues, marks another step toward a more-automated world, and underlines our need to think more clearly about the problem of leisure. As automation reduces the number of hours we need to work, we’ll need to be wise about how we spend that time.

But there are very different ways automation could affect leisure, and we can’t talk about “automation” without talking about who controls and benefits from automation. Let’s use the Uber situation to imagine two very different scenarios.

A tiny bit of background: What Uber is doing is retrofitting a bunch of Volvo SUVs with sensors, cameras, lidar, and computers that will drive the car (though a human will still be in the front seat as backup). So they’re not making self-driving cars; they’re making existing cars self-driving.

This is a crucial distinction, because it means this technology could be deployed in two very different ways.

In one scenario, Uber uses the technology itself to automate its own fleet of self-driving cars. In Pittsburgh, the cars prove a success (and if you can imagine any company making the argument that too few people were run over to stop deployment, it’s Uber), and the technology spreads to others cities. A year from now, Travis proudly stands up at the annual meeting and announces that 50,000 people who used to be contractors for Uber are now back on the streets. They were shock troopers in the greatest high-tech disruptions of a service industry in modern history, and now we’ve been able to cast them on the ash-heap of history. Suckers!

In the other scenario, though, Uber sells the self-driving car kits to anyone who wants to drive for Uber. (Once again, the number of kittens and grandmas who get run over during the trials is considered to be within acceptable parameters.)  A year from now, Travis proudly stands up at the annual meeting and announces that 50,000 people who had been driving for Uber are now in the robotics business: they buy cars, outfit them with self-driving car kits, and lease them back to Uber. These people have gone from being mere drivers, to being managers, small businessmen, entrepreneurs, etc.; they continue to work with Uber to push the boundaries of innovation blah blah blah; and Uber benefits from all this technology without having to buy a single damn car. It’s as if Henry Ford’s autoworkers had built their own factory lines, using their money rather than Ford’s.

See how they’re different? In one sense the outcome is the same: the workers drive fewer hours. But there’s a dramatic difference between being thrown out of work by the technology, and being in the robot business.

In his “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell wrote about how automation was being unevenly applied, and that capitalists preferred to create “overwork for some and starvation for others,” rather than a world in which we all worked fewer hours and let the machines take care of the rest. This is a problem we face again; only with these technologies, we have a better shot at spreading around ownership in ways that enhance rather than degrade the living standards and livelihoods of workers.

Shorter working hours don’t always reduce work-to-family interference

One of the strategies that companies and countries use to try to reduce “work-to-family interference” (a term sociologists use for a concept that’s fairly close to work-life balance) is to shorten work hours. The theory is that shorter work hours give people more freedom and time with their families. Good things, right?

Well, a new study by Leah Ruppanner and David J. Maume on “Shorter Work Hours and Work-to-Family Interference: Surprising Findings from 32 Countries” published in Social Forces finds that things are a little more complicated. Here’s the abstract:

For many, work interferes with their home life. To mitigate this encroachment, many welfare states have legislated shorter workweeks. Yet, the effectiveness of this policy on work-to-family interference is mixed, thus requiring additional investigation. We address this gap by applying multilevel data pairing the 2005 International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) for individuals in 32 nations (N = 20,937) with country-level measures of legislated weekly work hours, mean reported weekly work hours (aggregated and differentiated by gender), and individualistic/collectivist orientations. We find that legislated work hours have no impact on individuals’ reports of work-to-family interference. By contrast, shorter normative weekly work hours, aggregated and by gender, are associated with greater individual work-to-family interference. We find an equivalent pattern in individualistic countries. While we document individual-level gender and parental differences, we find no differential effects of long workweeks for these groups. We explain these associations through the heightened expectations perspective, arguing that increased resources heighten expectations of work–life balance and sensitivity to work-to-family interference.

So the problem is that for lots of people, having more flexible schedules or more time creates a higher expectation that you’ll do a great job juggling family and work. Implementing the solution unintentionally creates a new performance standard, and keeps the problem hard to solve.

This is a classic problem in economics, first (I think) articulated in Jevons’ Law. In the 19th century, Stanley Jevons observed that as factories became more efficient, factory owners didn’t consume less coal, and thus save themselves some money; instead, they consumed the same amount of coal (or even more), and used the “savings” to produce even more goods. Likewise, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan explains in her book More Work for Mother, the electrification of household technologies didn’t lead to a decline in the number of hours women spent doing housework: instead, it led to higher standards of cleanliness, and a gendering of housework that freed men from household obligations.

This is not to say that more free time, or other savings, are automatically bad; but these studies all make clear that we have to be thoughtful about these gains, and not fall into the trap of unintentionally raising our standards and thus setting ourselves up for failure.

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