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Q&A: Judy Wajcman on the Scapegoating of the Email Inbox, Busyness as a Status Marker, the Division of Labor at Home, and More

Last April, an erroneous story got passed around online that the French government was considering making it illegal for people to answer work emails after 6 p.m. It was soon discredited—the proposal came from two unions, in the context of a contract negotiation, rather than from the government—but not before the mischaracterized version was picked up by what seemed like every single news site in America.

The Economist later theorized that the rumor’s popularity was due to its fitting so nicely into our stereotype of a lazy France. But I would argue that it struck a nerve because everyone everywhere feels so overworked that the story provided a brief, exciting fantasy—even if it turned out in the end to be too good to be true.

I was reminded of that story when I read Judy Wajcman’s new book Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (University of Chicago, 224 pages, $24), about all the ways in which technology is (and isn’t) changing our daily behavior and our perception of time. Too often, she argues, we blame the technology for making us feel so stressed and tethered, when we’re the problem, of course. She spoke to me recently over Skype from the UK, where she teaches sociology at the London School of Economics.


I think a lot of people will be surprised to read about that statistic you cited early on in the book, that working hours are actually the same now, in the 2010s, as they were in the 1970s.

Yes, people who do these time-use surveys say that if you take the average working hours over the last fifty years—so we’re not just talking about the recession—overall, people are not working longer hours. But it’s absolutely true that working hours have polarized, in that there are a group of managers and professionals who work incredibly long hours, and there are many more people who work part-time jobs, casual work, low hours, and who are unemployed.

Another thing is, these academics who time-use research argue that people tend to exaggerate their working hours. All this stuff comes from self-reported diaries, and they reckon that people self-report much longer hours than they are actually working—which is partly to do with a culture that values long hours, and productivity, and busyness.

You also point out in the book that, hundreds of years ago, leisure time was a status marker for royalty and the aristocracy. But now, busyness has replaced it. When did that start to shift?

I just read something by a sociologist who has interviewed managers and professionals in Norway, France, and America. He argues that this self-identity of working all the time is a much more American phenomenon; the French and Norwegians stress the intrinsic quality of the work more, and the Americans stress that they’re getting paid a lot. It is a sign of status, and part of their identity is working all the time. I couldn’t say exactly when that came about, but I think it is an interesting shift.

You see it in Silicon Valley, whenever you see an interview with a new entrepreneur, all of them talk about how they’re available 24/7, that they’re just working all the time. It’s incredible, the pride in that over-work. I flicked through that book about Google, and the authors literally have a section called “Overworked in a good way,” in which they say that work-life policies are an insult to smart workers. They say they work with young moms who will “go quiet” for a few hours after six o’clock, but then after nine o’clock, they’re back on email and they know they’ve got their attention. That to me just sums up the ethos of Silicon Valley; it’s like, incredibly hostile to having any kind of life.

One of the things I was trying to get to in this book is that people blame mobile phones and the Internet—it’s easy to feel like we’re just victims of technology. There was a study by some Stanford colleagues of mine that looked at “email overload,” and how the email inbox has now become the symbol of overwork. You don’t tend to say that there are fewer of us doing the job, that there are these new performance measures and all these new pressures; you just tend to say, “Oh God, my email inbox is so overloaded!” It’s symbolic of a whole lot of other things.

In your book you write that women have less “temporal autonomy” than men. What do you mean by that?

I’ve always been interested in the leisure time that women and men have—the amount of leisure time, but also the quality. Looking at parents and kids, it is true that fathers are spending much more time with their kids than they used to do, and that is a fantastic thing. If you actually look at leisure time, what you find is that women still have less leisure time than men, and, what’s more interesting, is that women’s leisure time is much more often spent in the company of their husbands and children. What men have more of is leisure time on their own.

When we wrote this up for an American journal, we got this really hostile response, saying, “Are you trying to say that time with kids isn’t as good as time without your kids?” I said, well, it is different. Uninterrupted segments of leisure time, on your own, is actually more “restorative”—that is, you experience it as more leisurely—than the wonderful time that you spend with your husband and your kids.

You also talk about the role of technology in the home. Looking into the future, for instance at “The Internet of Things,” can we predict how those changes might affect the leisure time of people who do housework—which are still mainly women?

Oh, please don’t end this thing on a negative note.

Haha, but that’s our favorite thing to do!

Well, when we look historically at the introduction of various technologies into the home, one of the things we find over a long period of time, is that it doesn’t seem to, in itself, transform the gendered division of labor. Men still tend to do more lawn-mowing and outdoor stuff, women still disproportionately do laundry; there is still a pretty traditional sexual division of labor in the home. What is going to change that is cultural shifts in relationships between men and women. The fact that fathers are doing much more childcare than they were fifty years ago is nothing to do with technology, and is all about redefinitions of masculinity, and parenthood, and fatherhood.

People talk a lot about “quality time with children.” Actually what we mean by “quality time” is slow time. My mother died recently—she was ninety-six—and I used to go to the home where she was in Melbourne to spend time with her. It’s just time, you just sit all day in the home. Time goes very slowly in an old persons’ home. What is important is that you are giving time, you know? There’s all those ways in which slow time, which isn’t monetized or paid for, is very different, and we value it enormously.

Sherry Turkle’s book has a whole section on the Japanese nurse robots. She says, do you really want your mother being looked after by a machine, even if the machine manages to sound like a person who cares? I don’t want a world like that! The engineers of nurse bots probably think it’s great, though—let’s automate that service work, and we won’t have to import Filipino maids to do it for us.

Right, there’s no replacement for a human being in the room.

It’s spending time. What else is friendship about, than giving and spending time? I think machines can’t accelerate that time, and we don’t want them to. I don’t want machines to do that kind of work, actually. I would like to revalue what we do, in order to have a more caring society, to have a better work-life balance, and to live in different ways. How’s that for an ending?