The Work Is Too Much With Us

Postcard from Chicago, Illinois

Are you an infomaniac?

That’s infomaniac (in´fo-ma´ne-ak): One addicted to e-mail, instant messaging, and texting. Correct usages include references to teenie-boppers, procrastinating college students, and—as I have recently discovered—consultants.

Yes, I have sold my soul to the corporate world, and for the last seven weeks, I’ve been hiding from the sticky Chicago summer in an office that contains more laptops, Palm Pilots, BlackBerries, and Treos than people. To the casual observer, this situation is understandable—maybe even expected—considering the sheer volume of work the office manages.

Unfortunately, the ratio only somewhat improves when I go out on Friday nights. I don’t mean to suggest my coworkers don’t have any fun. Far from it—in some ways it is like having your college experience last forever.

Of course, that’s until someone pulls out their BlackBerry between beers and hurriedly steps out to call the office. Then, I’m reminded of the horror stories that once comprised my entire conception of the business sector. “You’ll work 90 hour weeks,” nay-sayers told me, “they’ll own your life.”

My experience suggests such tales are blatant exaggerations. But it is true that if you’re not careful (and sometimes even if you are), work can pervade your life. And it’s not just consulting. There’s a far larger culprit afoot—our collective American obsession with work.

You can see the formative stages around you every day: high schoolers piling on the extracurriculars to develop well-rounded college applications, undergrads trying to best their peers at the who-has-the-most-work game, and the popular stereotypes of lawyers, bankers, and other corporate stiffs. Unfortunately, I catch myself falling into the mindset as well, my moments of reprieve usurped by a preoccupation with looming deadlines.

And I’m not alone. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety reports that Americans are working longer hours, more days a week, and increasingly eschewing vacation time. We’re worried about the future, we’re stressed, and we’re unhappy.

And, of course, we’re all infomaniacs. The Brits may have coined the word, but the archetype was born right here. Of those workers who do take time away, two-thirds check their office e-mail while they’re supposedly out of the office. Cell phones were bad enough, but now wireless-enabled handhelds mean accountability never really ends. And when nobody ever leaves the responsibilities of the office, it becomes increasingly difficult to give our full attention to our conversations, our relationships, and even ourselves.

Knocking off one item after another on a seemingly endless to-do list is certainly one way of passing the time—but there is no reason to resign ourselves to such a state of affairs. Sadly, most of us don’t seem to be fighting back—over 20 percent of working adults said they would actually be “happy” to take a call from work that interrupted a social occasion.

Maybe it’s an ingrained cultural attitude à la Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic,” or maybe social pressures are demanding we maintain an ever-escalating lifestyle. Betrand Russell once commented that “one of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Perhaps we’re all just going crazy.

But whatever the explanation, a world where everyone is defined solely by his or her career seems dreary in comparison to the throng of brilliant and dynamic individuals that share our classrooms—each with their fields of study, quirks, passions, and aspirations. Maybe that’s why the thought of leaving Harvard and heading out into the real world can be so unappealing.

Inevitably, though, the world beyond the gates is waiting for us, and as technology makes that world increasingly smaller and our responsibilities find new ways to follow us home, we’re going to have to collectively learn to say “no”—and every so often to turn off our phones, our pagers, and our Palm Pilots. Maybe then we can be crazy about life instead of crazy about work.

Hannah E. S. Wright ’06, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. She is also an infomaniac, but as a good social studies concentrator, she constantly questions her urge to check her e-mail and pick up her phone when she’s out with friends.