Two days left before Christmas and I am on a train from Berlin to Hamburg, trying to set up a wireless connection from my phone to my computer. It is only after having cursed my cellphone provider and having stared out into the blackness beyond the window that the utter absurdity of this scenario strikes me: These are my first few hours of vacation and I am desperate to get a few more emails out of the door, to begin the free days with a clean slate as it were. Remember how they say that a reporter’s work is never done?
We were sitting at a Russian restaurant a few days ago, next to a strange array of tinted glass filters, boiling flasks and rubber stops. The waitress was ignoring us, so we sipped our drinks and talked about the past year. Both my housemate and former housemate had spent the year like me, working a lot, learning even more and coming to grips with what it means to spend three quarters of the waking day huddled behind some kind of screen. As the conversation moved into the direction of last year’s electricity bill we agreed that they would handle the numbers while could stick to words, and so I found myself doing emails from the phone. When I bopped my head up after a while, the electricity bill had been sussed out and we picked back up on the topic of emails. “The trouble is that we have effectively entered a phase when everyone is expected to be reachable all the time,“ said Janka. Smiling, she added “Work-life balance is a buzzword of the past, at the office we now call it ‘work-life integration’.“
This permeability of everyday life is both a blessing and a curse. It means that work can be done at hours much more flexible than ever before. Among my friends I can hardly find anyone longing for the days of working on the clock, leaving work at the stroke of five. As The Atlantic put it so fittingly: The freelance surge is the industrial revolution of our time. You don’t even need to freelance to feel this; everyone who has ever worked from the comfort of their own bed would agree.
Nevertheless, it has become increasingly hard to draw any kind of line between work and free time – you may have left the workplace, but it certainly hasn’t left you: There’s always something to prepare for the next week, always that extra email to write and increasingly an expectation towards others that they, too, will check their accounts, will respond to your requests and be available for that overtime work when you depend on it. That way, it counters exactly the kind of workers’ rights that generations of people bitterly fought for. The catch is ultimately that I am not even sure I want to drop my pen at five – psychologically, the fluidity of working time seems to have as many benefits as it has downsides.
Maybe it helps to keep in mind the simple idea of my friend Vilmos, who’ll put in 100% of his attention at work to then take off a few months to escape to Asia. We were sitting by the river last year when he outlined the idea in the bright sunshine of a late summer day. “Why not leave for a bit, each year”, he asked, taking a sip from his beer. “If you can work 9 months and then fly to Thailand, you have effectively won at this game.” I reckon that 2012 shall be interesting year to work on this balance – after all, winning is humble enough of a goal.