Opinion

Rat race update

In 1930, even as the world was mired in the Depression, John Maynard Keynes published a jaunty little essay that predicted the emergence of post-materialist angst. In a piece titled "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," the world-renowned damn-the-deficit interventionist economist, whose star has been rising again along with that of the Obama administration, wondered how humans of the future would react once they had transcended the "struggle for subsistence."

Using the language of the day, he predicted that society would suffer a "nervous breakdown" of "the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women ... who cannot find it sufficiently amusing ... to cook and clean and mend yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing."

A believer in man's ability to adapt, Keynes didn't think post-materialist humans would be trapped by boredom forever. "For many ages to come," he continued, " ... everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual for the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. ... Three-hour shifts or a 15-hour week may put off the problem for a while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy ... most of us!"

For all his prescience, Keynes would probably be shocked to learn that in the contemporary U.S., the well-off are now actually working more hours than their lower-income counterparts. He'd also be surprised to learn that the daily angst of top wage-earners is caused less by the boredom of leisure than by the omnipresence of work. Sure, the financial crisis has everybody running scared, but at this point, many of the layoffs are at the bottom half of the income scale. In the meantime, higher-end "knowledge workers" are struggling to not just keep jobs but balance their fragmented lives

Keynes and others believed that technological advances would not only create wealth but free a large portion of society from day-to-day deeds. What he couldn't have foreseen was technology's ability to bring work into even the most intimate corners of our private lives. Today, a lot of us are never quite clear from our professional duties.

Our cellphones -- with their text messages and e-mails -- can find us in bed or lounging by a pool. Worse yet, last week in my hotel room in Washington, there was an Ethernet jack in the bathroom in case anyone needed data transferred immediately. In other words, even as technology has made the creative class much better off in absolute terms, it has also brought heightened demands on their attention.

In his new book, "Elsewhere, USA," New York University sociologist Dalton Conley argues that new technology, along with changes in the economy and family structures, have given birth to a new breed he calls the "intravidual." Because the boundaries between home and office and work and leisure have largely disappeared, he says, multiple flows of information are constantly clamoring for attention. Intraviduals can scarcely afford to focus solely on work while they're on the job, or only on the family when they're at home. Their multiple selves, he argues, are being pulled from all sides, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

If that weren't bad enough, the nature of the work they do also leaves many highly paid information workers feeling alienated. Not only are they working longer hours, but they're feeling less connected than ever to the fruits of their labor. How does one calculate the true worth of a lawyer writing a brief? Or a hedge-fund manager overseeing the selling of undervalued securities? As Conley puts it: "Value is elusive in our economy. Often, we are just guessing. So our own worth is therefore elusive too. Anxiety about that worth is thus a rational response, as is our suspicion that we may be frauds."

None of this is to say that there should be a lot of hand-wringing over the trials of upper-income Americans or that an attack should be mounted against the "leisure" time of the working class. But understanding the updated nature of the rat race only helps us better understand precisely what ails the rats.

Like Keynes, Conley has a prediction to make, but his is a little less rosy and a little more prescriptive. The successful individuals and companies of the future will be the ones who best "blend and bend," who accept intraviduality and resist the desire to build walls between the domains of their lives.

A generation ago, Americans talked a lot about having to find their true selves. More and more of us, once the financial crisis is over, will be trying to figure out how to keep our multiple selves in one piece.

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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