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When Work Didn’t Follow You Home

In a recent article written for Slate, journalist Dan Kois recounts the shock his younger coworkers expressed when they discovered that he had, earlier in his career, earned a master’s degree while working a full-time job. “It was easy,” he explained:

“I worked at a literary agency during the day, I got off work at 5 p.m., and I studied at night. The key was that this was just after the turn of the millennium. ‘But what would you do when you had work emails?’ these coworkers asked. ‘I didn’t get work emails,’ I said. ‘I barely had the internet in my apartment.'”

In his article, Kois goes on to interview other members of Generation X about their lives in the early 2000s, before the arrival of smartphones or even widely available internet. They shared tales of coming home and just watching whatever show happened to be on TV (maybe “Seventh Heaven,” or “Law and Order”). They also talked about going to the movies on a random weekday evening because they had nothing else to do, or just heading to a bar where they hoped to run into friends, and often would.

The threads that kept catching my attention, however, were about work communication. “The very idea that, once work hours were over, no one could get hold of you—via email, text, Slack, whatever—is completely alien to contemporary young people,” Kois explained. But this reality made a huge difference when it came to the perception of busyness and exhaustion. When work was done at work, and there was no chance of continuing your labors at home, your job didn’t seem nearly as all-consuming or onerous .

There’s a lot about early 2000s culture I’m not eager to excavate, but this idea of the constrained workday certainly seems worthy of nostalgia.

17 thoughts on “When Work Didn’t Follow You Home”

  1. Very insightful article. It seems like this fear of missing out has spread in the corporate world. The speed of reaction to emails has become a signal of how corporate and dedicated a professional can be. This absurdity is well-established, and will contribute to more and more superficial work. Quality work takes time and consistency, and this type of frantic environment kills our intelligence and peace of mind.

  2. Boundaries! Yes! It is good to see Microsoft inserting tools to help us respect boundaries. I refer to Outlook promoting a sender to schedule delivery of an email during the recipient’s work hours.

  3. As someone who was also working during this period, I think it’s also important to recognize that for lots of people, this just also staying at the office for long hours and not going home until they were done. Boundaries can and should be better enforced, email availability expectations should be better managed, etc., but it’s not as if everyone just went home at 5:30 and called it a day before email.

  4. However, Teams (Microsoft’s answer to Slack and Zoom rolled into one) mimics social media and its addictive properties. It causes way too much communication. At my workplace we are back in-person but we are still, IMO, communicating way too much on Teams (as in “in each other’s faces” all the time) and and too many meetings are online. I miss even more recent history than this article portrays…the pre-pandemic days when we would occasionally communicate with phone calls and emails just with those we were collaborating with on projects…and the large group discussions were left for a monthly in-person meeting. Now it’s “here comes everybody,” all the bloody time.

  5. At my last job as an attorney, my employer would not pay for internet, a smart phone, or even an old blackberry that most of the other employees had issued by the company. Since the employer would not provide connectivity, I did not have any. I worked a 10 hour day six days a week and went home. If somebody wanted me then they had to call on the old landline protected by the wiretap laws since I did not have internet. If employers want access then they should be the ones paying for it. I can’t understand why people check their work email when they are home when it is costing them their time and money for an ISP and computer. If it is important then they will call you. Furthermore, email is not secure and you should not be checking email at public wifi hot spots since it is a security risk.

  6. Technology was supposed to help us improve the quality of life and even reduce our working hours, right? And it did so, if we think back to the industrial revolution, when working hours were reduced due to the new machines that took over or sped up monotonous tasks. Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15 hour working week for 2030 due to the advances of technology, back in his famous theory from the 1930s…but nowadays we’re so far from it…
    Even AI in the form of large language models like Chat GPT is being used to reduce the time someone needs to write a text for example, but what do we do with the freed up time? Do we invest it in family, relationships, community, quality leisure or hobbies? Nope! We use it to work some more!
    The root of the problem may be in the capitalist economy: a system that uses growth as the only constant for measure and success. But that’s another story for another article. 😉

  7. When I was growing up in the 1970s, my Dad who was an engineer was often working at home in addition to his work at the office/factory. So, for professionals, the lack of the internet didn’t mean that work necessarily stayed at the office! I’m an academic who’s also always worked at home since I was a student in the 1980s….

  8. My family took a two-week beach vacation in the 1970’s, when my father was a project manager for a civel engineering company. Our rented beach house did not even have a land line phone. Apparently, a big issue came up on the project, so they sent a courier to our beach house to tell my father to call the office. He then drove about a mile to a pay phone to call in. 🙂

  9. I see your point and agree mostly. However, I wonder if some people have not benefitted from not having to do work between 9 and 5 daily? As a working parent, I wonder if I could have a similar job if work didn’t leak into private life. What’s your ideas on that?

  10. I am seeing a lot of the, ‘In the old days…’ and ‘Well, I used to…’, comments on this well written and timed article.

    Let’s remember a) the fact of somethings being historically different doesn’t necessitate it’s being correct or good, and b) your personnel willingness to engage in an activity does not mean other individuals, or society as a whole, must dutifully fall in line with your actions.

    On Perceived Historical Averages of Hours Worked: Generally, and historically speaking in the West, most individuals who voluntarily (no one was holding a gun to their head) agreed to regularly work longer that normal office hours, take work home, etc., were comparatively compensated very well (pay, perks, real or perceived benefits, etc.). In addition, generally the individuals who perused and excelled at these types of jobs were above average (i.e., not the norm) in their personal drive and strong personality. Today, a vast majority of the modern workforce is being held to this standard. Also above average, was this above average individuals’ ability to manage time well; for example, yes you stayed at the office late, however, you also took a two-hour, two-cocktail ‘business’ lunch in which 20 min. was spent discussing business. Finally, as stated in the article, when you were off on vacation/holiday, you were OFF unless, all hell was braking lose. This all points to an apples to oranges comparison for decades of 1950-1990 and 2023.

    On The ‘You Must Do As I Did’ Mentality: Your, or your fathers, or your great uncles Franks willingness to be generally overworked commensurate to the agreed upon job description, contract, or total compensation received…in a Free Market Economy…is no one else cognitive dissidence to figure out but the employees. Of course, the issues start to arise when one individual’s poor deal making decisions start affecting others (‘Bill is willing to be overworked/take emails/phone calls/etc. outside work hours, why aren’t you??’). Also, one must consider the breakneck speed at which most work is now generally expected, and demanded, and take into consideration the affect that has on the modern worker when calculating the wage/time quotient of yester year and today.

    Finally, for the person who brings up the, ‘I/we had no choice, I/we couldn’t afford to lose my job’ argument; unless you are talking Great Depression Era, this would represent a finical decision and planning discussion, not a free market workforce one.

  11. I’m 58 and I miss this separation of the different areas of our life. I’ve talked to many younger people and they don’t remember a world where, when we left the house, we didn’t bring our phone/television/radio/music/encyclopedia/photo album/mail with us. We shut off the TV or hung up the phone and we went out and nobody could get in touch with us until we got home (and maybe they left a message on our answering machines).

    I miss those days. I like being disconnected and still try to live like that the best that I can.

    Bob Sassone

  12. I’m old enough to remember the days before everyone had any phones in their homes! My Dad used to play rugby for a local club and as none of us had phones, he would be notified of selection for the Saturday game by a postcard which arrived on Thursday.

  13. Indeed. Work fills the time allotted to it. If you know (even subconsciously) that you can take work home with you, it becomes easier to give yourself permission to dilly-dally during work hours. And it becomes easier for everyone to dilly-dally at work during work hours and in such a way that they feel less guilty disrupting others because, hey, you can just work later just like I can, right?

    This is especially true when you are young and single. Some people have families and they do not have the time to drag out their tasks until the late hours of the night because of the severe consequences of neglecting their other responsibilities. Young people are also often under the delusion that only the moment exists, and that they will live forever and stay young forever. Nope, you *only* ever get older and you will be old sooner than you realize. And then you’ll be leaving annoying comments like this one in the comment section.

    But even single people should be able to appreciate how stretching things out means you can do less with your time. It’s not like you fill those in-between moments with valuable activity. You usually procrastinate doing worthless things. Besides, task switching isn’t free. You have to build up context which allows sustained deep work to take place.

    We’ve lost the culture of maturity and seriousness. FOMO is a symptom of that. Self-promotion and social media are a symptom of that. We prefer engaging in shallow put-ons instead of being adults.

  14. This was only a feature of adult life. If you were a student work definitely followed you home. Once you got into middle school (or junior high schools) you could have at least half a dozen teachers who didn’t talk to each other and all thought it was reasonable to expect you to do at least 30 minutes of homework per night for their class alone.

  15. And WFH, without careful configuration of software and (very careful reconfiguration of the worker’s wetware), just exacerbates the problem.


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