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PERSPECTIVE ON JOBS : A Spy in the House of Work : Those long office hours are not all labor. The ‘90s neo-leisure can be a ‘power breakfast’ or ‘working dinner.’

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<i> Karen Karbo writes from Portland, Ore. Her third novel, "Nipple Confusion," will be published next summer by Overlook Press. A slightly different version of this article appears in Fast Co., a new business magazine</i>

Ihad heard all the reports about the overworked American worker. I had even read Juliet B. Schor’s anthem to overworked Americans, creatively called “The Overworked American.” It took me hours of hard work. I read in grueling detail how the advent of faxes, cellphones, E-mail and other labor-saving devices has only proved labor-producing. She cites a Harris Poll that says, “Since 1973 free time has fallen nearly 40%.” This new development Schor blames on the miracle of information technology, thanks to which we now work the equivalent of one extra month per year.

I say she’s wrong.

Leisure is not in decline. It’s dead and has been for years. According to my dictionary, leisure is “time free from work or duty, when one can enjoy hobbies or sports.” Do you know anyone who does anything after work--other than watch “Seinfeld” or play Nintendo?

But can we really blame the 65-hour work week on information technology? No way. For one thing, the 65-hour week doesn’t mean 65 hours of work. Nobody who works “full time” works full time. Actually, the only people who do work full time on the job are postal workers. And look what that’s done for them--turned the post office into a branch of the NRA.

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I figure at least 50% of a heroic 65-hour workweek is spent pursuing the invisible, undocumented life of neo-leisure. Neo-leisure, formerly known as goofing off, is what knowledge workers do for R&R.; It’s why every package of Windows comes with Solitaire pre-installed. It’s why bean counters have been trained to check office bills for 1-900 phone-sex calls. It’s why so many subscribers to America Online use it to download games.

According to overwork experts, the workday today goes all day, beginning at dawn (power breakfast) and ending after midnight (E-mail check followed by flossing). So I decide to go undercover and check out how much is spent in neo-leisure.

Wednesday morning, 9:45, I slide into the Starbucks coffee spot nearest the U.S. Bancorp Tower, the tallest building in Portland, Ore. It is corporate home-away-from-home for the usual collection of mega-law sweatshops, the local factory outlets for Paine Webber, Deloitte & Touche and an assortment of other franchises whose names end in the letter “e.” In other words, a veritable hive of neo-leisuring drones.

I get in line behind four Young Turks. They’re exceptionally young, even for Young Turks, with short bright hair and red chins shaved a trifle too exuberantly. This is the Age of Recycling, so each Young Turk carries a “grande”-sized paper coffee cup with plastic take-out lid saved from a previous coffee break. Each also carries a white pad. In these parts yellow pads have become politically incorrect--every Young Turk worth his salt knows that dye contributes to water pollution. The pads denote Meeting, not Coffee Break. I sit down at the table next to them, inconspicuously poised to catch an earful of arcane business talk.

They arrange the white pads in front of them, hunker forward, fiddle with their pens, sip their coffee: One of them picks up a copy of USA Today. He reads the entire Golf Tips column. Out loud. For 30 minutes. When he finishes reading, he leaves. His chair is immediately taken by another co-worker who gives the remaining Young Turks the bird’s-eye lowdown on why Mr. X has changed offices with Ms. Y. The real deal: His cubicle was closer to the heartbeat of the office, but he desperately wanted a window. Then they all leave.

Watching this drama unfold took me back to my own career in neo-leisure. I neo-leisured for a nonprofit organization, where I held down one of those look-busy jobs that couldn’t be cut from the budget because of the way funding dollars flowed. It was the ideal place to hone my skills: the seamless segue from business phone calls to personal phone calls; the working lunch that turns out to be all lunch and no work. It was completely exhausting. I was thoroughly overworked.

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Since those early days of neo-leisure, of course, the field has become professionalized. What knowledge worker today doesn’t recognize the four basic food groups that comprise the workaday world of neo-leisure:

1. Padding lunch hour or coffee break with personal errands.

2. Kibitzing on the electronic bulletin board.

3. Chatting with colleagues about personal stuff, after opening with any quasi-work-related gambit. (One unexpected and delightful byproduct of the neo-leisure movement is the rebirth of the art of conversation.)

4. Are you reading this at work?

It didn’t used to be like this, back in the old economy. Back then, there was real leisure. It meant getting off work at 5 with all the other working stiffs, nudging your way home in traffic during the peak of peak rush hour, only to be accosted by the kids the second you trudged through the door. This was followed by a brown-green-and-white dinner, the nightly news and then, once the kids were in bed, the unbridled fun of a few bleary-eyed hours to fiddle with your ham radio.

Those days are gone, as obsolete as other artifacts of the 1950s.

Here’s the way it works today for a friend of mine whose life is marathon ad copy at a scorchingly chic agency in New York. On most days, he knocks off at the humane hour of 6, makes the rounds of his favorite strip clubs with other members of his creative team, then returns to the office to play video games and “concept” way past the midnight hour.

He enjoys moaning about his killer hours. Overwork is the goal. To go home at a decent hour is to be thought a shirker, a weenie, a wuss.

As with every other trend worth mentioning, Californians are out ahead of the rest of us; and people in the film business are way out ahead of other Californians.

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The Masters of Neo-Leisure are Hollywood film execs. All days are divided into three parts: the breakfast meeting, the lunch meeting and the dinner meeting--connected by drive-time.

For some there is a fourth component, a secret bit of unclassifiable business that isn’t much discussed. It is the nap date. After lunch, around 3, when he’s tired of sitting in the car all day long, his eyes stinging from the smog, an executive or producer might invite a starlet to share a nap with him at a favorite hotel. In the old economy, this passed under the corny rubric of “afternoon delight.” But as neo-leisure it is much more refined. Sometimes, it really is a nap. Driving around to all those restaurants can be exhausting. Sometimes, it is an opportunity to talk business. Sometimes, it is a lusty coupling, which is not actually neo-leisure but business. (Big business, as Heidi Fleiss will attest.) In any case, it is a write-off. The top guys in Hollywood are so good at neo-leisure that work is dead.

There is no sign of it being reborn any time soon.

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