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Anywhere but here. BOOK REVIEW: ELSEWHERE U.S.A.

Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety by Dalton Conley [Pantheon Books, New York 2008]

elsewherecoverHear ye, you wordsmiths of the web, you purveyors of pages, you iterators of information: Welcome to Elsewhere, U.S.A., a state of mind in which you are constantly moving; You are slinging nothing but ideas and giving up your leisure time to do it; You are working from home but are always available to the company via your Blackberry (which you are using to schedule your babysitters and manage your children); You hold the fear of the layoff or of lost earnings if you dare close your laptop long enough to have a McMeal with your family; You love your loft space or your recently-converted suburban bedroom/home office, until, of course, you get a look at your neighbors’, after which you shall work more feverishly than ever to stave off the envy and hopefully get that promotion or new account that will allow you, too, to put in the latest in soundproofing technology and remote-control window shades. Your very personality is being pulled apart by millions of messages. Welcome to Elsewhere, that constant state of motion and distraction that takes you anywhere and everywhere but here.

Dalton Conley, NYU sociologist, sounds the welcoming bell to you and me, the Weberati. We can do our jobs from anywhere with a decent internet connection. We work in information and produce ideas for a living. If we work for a manufacturer of actual physical products, we work far from the production line, most likely never experiencing a factory even on a training tour. We are today’s middle-class, white-collar worker. We work from home, we take our laptop on vacation, and we answer emails on our iPhones during the time-outs of our kid’s basketball game. We have this idea that if we just “get one more thing done” before bed, that our hours are well-spent, that our everlasting souls will be cleaned by hard work and that God will shower us with prosperity.

This latest book from prolific writer and academic researcher Conley traces the history behind the combination of work and leisure (“weisure”). Conley starts out the book unflinchingly nostalgic for the good ol’ days, when loyal IBM-ers were admired for their willingness to sing company songs and wear ties, as long as they had their nights and weekends free to play bridge and golf. Conley waxes on a bit about how leisure time was actually once meant for relaxation, instead of the multi-tasking work space it is today (I personally found this nostalgia to be a bit contrite, as Conley and I are both members of Generation X and only experienced those so-called halcyon days via our parents’ memories.)

Leisure and work are becoming mixed, says Conley, as companies like Google increasingly become one-stop shops for their employees. There is on-site laundry, showers, meals (which are free at Google, something Conley was amazed by), doctors, nurses, tax accountants and sometimes daycare. Practically any service the company can help you outsource will be available to you so you can spend more time working. You can “work from home” to spend more time with your kids, but your kids say you won’t look up from the laptop, and your co-workers can hear Rock Band II in the background of your conference call. Meanwhile, you notice your neighbor that holds the same job you do but for another company, has a new Mercedes in her driveway and you wonder how she earns twice your salary. You work harder and longer, ticking away any hours you aren’t working as lost income. You get so used to this state of always looking at the next thing you must do/have/say/be, you never look inward. You get splintered into many different roles, shattering your one individual into what Conley calls an “intravidual.” Nostalgia aside, Dalton has a point.

Still, even though I know Conley was addressing me and my fellow techie folk, I couldn’t help but be a bit offended by the characterization. The term “Blackberry Mom,” [cover/title, pg 1] is as offensive and marginalizing as “Soccer Mom,” and it should’ve tipped me off on the tone of the book. If you are in my Weberati crowd, you will probably be offended on page 56 when Conley calls open-source software “communism” without noting how open-source actually spurred innovation in the private sector. You’ll also probably (well, hopefully) be offended on page 73 when he treats the modern norm of working women and their influence on the workplace with this line: “You can take the woman out of the kitchen but you can’t take the kitchen out of the woman.” That’s really the only media bait in the book, though.

The book reads like a textbook, but the it deserves the effort just on the amount of information it contains. The Appendix alone, with its collection of intriguingly titled articles, is a fair exchange for the purchase price. Unfortunately, Dalton takes a while to get to his main point. The long introduction lays down loads of social history to set up the story. The first 62 pages lay thick groundwork for his theory of what is happening with the state of the working person today. He goes through American social history, namely the social changes brought on by the industrial revolution, and emphasizes the occasional example to demonstrate how our work/life balance and our politics have changed, like the dwindling participation in unions over the last 50 years.

The author’s purpose of the book isn’t found until page 63:


So, we have gone from a country with high ceilings and fans to low ceilings and air-conditioning; we have gone from an economy where many workers serviced one machine to one in which each American has dozens of machines working for them over the course of a given day; we have gone from being a nation of wandering renters to ever more tooted homeowners; we have gone from a country that experienced race riots in the 1960s–during a period of economic growth spread relatively equally across income deciles–to a country of almost Third World levels of economic inequality, where solid majorities vote to repeal the estate tax. We used to enjoy our free time and left the Europeans to work more than us; now we have more kids to take care of than they do, even as we work significantly more hours.*

No one single factor–not air-conditioning or computers; not female labor force participation; not tax policy alone or immigration–has caused these dramatic shifts. In fact, it is probably a futile exercise to ask how much tax policy drove the development of computers, how much computers drive income inequality, and how much income inequality drives commuting distances. Better to take a deep breath and unfocus the eyes to try to take in the entire mosaic that makes up the social landscape of today.

*Americans work an average of 25.1 hours per week (averaged across all working-age persons) in contrast to Germans, for instance, who average 18.6 hours, We work over 6 more weeks than the French per year. See Alberto ALessina, Edward L. Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, ‘Work and Leisure in the U.S. And Europe: Why So Different?’ Working Paper no 11278, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass., 2005.”

I wish those two paragraphs and the citation were on page 1; they would’ve helped me parse out Conley’s academic prose. Although I appreciate the book being chock-full of information, as I read I kept wondering when he’d reveal his point.

Conley does get to his point, eventually, but at times his logic seemed a bit dubious. I was taken aback on page 56 when Conley cited a 2005 study, using the results as a base for his claim that most people still work for the same company for over 20 years. This may be true for the Baby Boomers, but not for any of us under 40 right now. I’m in my 30’s and I don’t know anyone who has worked for any 1 company in their careers, not even my friends who are medical doctors. We are consistently told by career advisors that after 5 years we should be looking for another opportunity, lest we appear habitual, lazy, and unwilling to learn. We believe that the retirement age will be raised to 75, there will be no social security pensions, and we will have worked at so many different companies and had so many varied careers that we will have lost count. Looking at Conley’s one-company-for-20-years claim in detail, the facts become clear. The study, cited from Working Paper #11878 from the National Bureau of Economic Research (where Conley holds a Research Associate position), looked at retirement age workers (ages 58-62) in 1969, and found that they had worked, on average, for one company for 21.9 years. The study then compared their 58-62 years old counterparts in 2002, and found that they had worked, on average, for one company for 21.4 years. Conley claims that despite our hectic schedules and our 24/7 mobile offices, we’re still all working for the same company, just like the IBM Man in 1950. When we, the GenXers, get to be 58-62, my guess is that number will drop from 21.4 to about 10.6.  I’d like to see a similar study of people who are 42 years of age right now and see how many different places they’ve worked. Then I’d like to see the same data on people aged 32 today. 21.4 years at one company is a pipe dream for the average Generation Xer. Conley’s choice to cite this study to support his everything-old-is-new-again-but-we-work-more-than-the-IBMer-of-1950 was misleading at best. This slight massaging of statistics is common practice for academics, economists and media members alike, so it’s difficult to make a case against Conley for doing it. There are infinite ways of massaging statistics and relegating the details of data to footnotes in order to support your point, so when numbers are involved, caveat emptor.

Despite the nostalgia and the numbers games, Elsewhere U.S.A. and Professor Conley earn respect. Conley’s points about materialism and the ever-increasing gap between the classes are a sharp slap upside our credit-busting heads. Conley is, plain and simple, one of us, and he keeps us well informed of the changes in our lives that we are too busy to notice. Although Conley avoids Twitter, he knows the scene. He references some books that are well-known in the social media circles I run in (e.g., Anderson’s The Long Tail) and knows the pressures we face in an outsourcing, all-consuming workplace. He’s just as guilty as the rest of us, but he’s a sane voice in the fog of our all-too-modern, fast-motion lives.

Please listen to my interview with Dalton Conley about Elsewhere, U.S.A., where we discuss what he discovered about himself on his solo trip in Europe as a young man, how we are all becoming splintered into a thousand tiny pieces, and what these changing norms mean for all of us.

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