Dreams of the Overworked
Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age
Published by: Stanford University Press
312 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503632639
- Published: August 2022
A riveting look at the real reasons Americans feel inadequate in the face of their dreams, and a call to celebrate how we support one another in the service of family and work in our daily life.
Jay's days are filled with back-to-back meetings, but he always leaves work in time to pick his daughter up from swimming at 7pm, knowing he'll be back on his laptop later that night. Linda thinks wistfully of the treadmill in her garage as she finishes folding the laundry that's been in the dryer for the last week. Rebecca sits with one child in front of a packet of math homework, while three others clamor for her attention. In Dreams of the Overworked, Christine M. Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian offer vivid sketches of daily life for nine families, capturing what it means to live, work, and parent in a world of impossible expectations, now amplified unlike ever before by smart devices.
We are invited into homes and offices, where we recognize the crushing pressure of unraveling plans, and the healing warmth of being together. Moreover, we witness the constant planning that goes into a "good" day, often with the aid of phones and apps. Yet, as technologies empower us to do more, they also promise limitless availability and connection. Checking email on the weekend, monitoring screen time, and counting steps are all part of the daily routine. The stories in this book challenge the seductive myth of the phone-clad individual, by showing that beneath the plastic veneer of technology is a complex, hidden system of support—our dreams being scaffolded by retired in-laws, friendly neighbors, spouses, and paid help.
This book makes a compelling case for celebrating the structures that allow us to strive for our dreams, by supporting public policies and community organizations, challenging workplace norms, reimagining family, and valuing the joy of human connection.
Working parents in America are trapped in impossible dreams of being an Ideal Worker, a Perfect Parent, and an Ultimate Body. Telling the stories of nine families in Southern California, tied together by their connection to a single company, we examine why everyday life feels so hectic and unrelenting. Impossible expectations for working, parenting, and living are amplified unlike ever before by smart devices. We reveal that rather than individuals succeeding because they have a phone in hand, beneath the veneer of technology is a complex, hidden system of support—people's dreams are being scaffolded by retired in-laws, friendly neighbors, spouses, and paid help.
The Ideal Worker gets in early and stays late, spends nights in front of the computer answering work-related emails, and—in prioritizing work above all else—happily jumps on a plane for a last-minute work trip. The Ideal Worker is available to work at all times and directs people to support organizational priorities, despite social and individual costs. These expectations reward overwork and constant connectivity, and they penalize those with home responsibilities (often women). Despite the impossibility of ever achieving Ideal Worker status, intense loyalty to the firm and to colleagues as "family" further drives attachment to the myth and pride in professional accomplishments.
The Perfect Parent spends intensive "quality time" with children: having family dinner and showing up to recitals and sporting events. He or she takes children to numerous extracurricular activities and actively monitors homework and "screen time." The fact that it is not possible to manage all of this simultaneously (for example, family dinner cannot happen when multiple children are in multiple enrichment activities) means that parents constantly feel as if they are falling short. Yet in prioritizing family above all else, the Perfect Parent myth keeps a parent (generally a woman) in the home. The gendered expectations for parenting mean that men and women serving as the default caregiver do so within a societal frame that devalues caregiving.
The Ultimate Body regularly and consistently exercises, tracking achievements and pushing fitness to higher and higher levels; he or she eats well and keeps up on the latest trends in food, prioritizing the body with time and attention. Despite its importance for health, sleep is often what is traded for a chance to get in some exercise. The Ultimate Body myth encourages people to take ownership of their bodies as a project of self-fashioning, without respect for biological constraints: in effect placing the burden for health and wellness on individuals. Changing messages about what is healthy, combined with the other myths taking priority, means that being the Ultimate Body is perpetually out of reach for most.
Technologies such as smartphones help people do more and be more flexible. Working can be done remotely, while excellence is still maintained; parenting can be done constantly, ensuring a child is never left unsupported; fitness can be measured, quantified, and shared. But in increasing the ease with which people pursue their dreams, technology has also made true perfection even more obviously out of reach. Even while people accomplish more with their devices, their worlds collide with more frequency as well, creating more moments when people try but fail in their simultaneous efforts to work, parent, and live.
As people send work emails from home, coordinate with babysitters at the last minute, keep kids on a digital leash, and track and share their latest fitness feat—expectations of what is possible shift. Information and communication technologies have blown open the shared capacity for connection, coordination, and surveillance. Mobile technologies tighten the strings of connection between people by requiring increased responsiveness and accessibility. In other words, people have used these technologies to intensify what it means to be an Ideal Worker, a Perfect Parent, or an Ultimate Body. Rather than serving as an individual tool, these devices actually act as a source of connection, tying people to and enabling them to rely on others in more and deeper ways.
Society valorizes the performance of the myths—availability to work, active engagement with children, healthy eating and regular exercise—but the myths are silent on what it takes behind the scenes to make those idealized behaviors possible. Every household has invisible work that needs to be done. Immense amounts of Physical Work, Mental Work, Coordinating Work and Emotional Work take the time and energy of someone. Such work is rarely valued and often unrecognized. But this is the invisible work behind people's efforts to work, parent, and live.
Families cultivate and rely on a number of different structures of scaffolding to do the invisible work of the household. Each structure helps people get through the day in a manner generally aligned with the myths of perfection: food purchased, meals cooked, houses cleaned, kids cared for, spreadsheets filled out, colleagues responded to, and maybe some exercise. Families solve the demands of invisible work differently, but striving for the myths of perfection requires help. People need others to scaffold their efforts to live their dreams. Single working parents are on the hook for finding their own scaffolding; stay-at-home parents provide scaffolding for their working partners; couples with two careers find a way to develop and maintain a lattice of scaffolding in order to work, parent, and live as best they can. Our dreams are being scaffolded by retired in-laws, friendly neighbors, spouses, and paid help.
By making scaffolding visible and valued, and rethinking how scaffolding fits into daily life, people can begin to take action to help themselves, and others, live their dreams. U.S. culture needs to value caregiving and domestic work and see it as real work. People can re-envision their workplaces and families, build new forms of community, and support redesigning the infrastructure that they rely on to get through the day. We outline a series of actions on how and where to begin.
We outline steps that you can take, as individuals, families, community members, employees, and citizens, to make striving for your dreams more manageable. Ask less of yourselves but more of your devices, families, organizations, and politicians.
"This marvelous book captures the contemporary experience of nine families, allowing them to speak for themselves about their dreams and how they cope with everyday life. Uniquely, it celebrates the fact that it is the dense web of social connections or scaffolding that enables family life to thrive in the digital age." ~Judy Wajcman, London School of Economics
"What makes this book unique is its tough love message. Left to its own devices, technology makes us more likely to buy into myths of our perfectibility. The way out begins with our deep understanding of our vulnerability. From there, these savvy and humanistic researchers can help you design a customized plan for individuals and organizations. But it's going to be a plan, not a gimmick." ~Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
"Christine Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian embarked on an ambitious project to understand how technology shapes our lives and wound up producing an intimate and urgent portrait of American families stretched to the breaking point. An important work, Dreams of the Overworked busts some potent myths and makes a compelling argument for large-scale changes necessary in public policy and our overworked workplace cultures to allow American families time to breathe, and thrive at work and at home." ~Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One Has the Time, director, The Better Life Lab at New America
"Work-life balance might be a myth, but the evidence that better rhythm is possible is very real. In this thoughtful, readable book, two experts share what they've learned about how to prioritize work, family, health, and relationships without making yourself insane." ~Adam Grant, New York Times-bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take
"Beckman and Mazmanian show the stakes in everyday life as we pursue perfection. Whether being the best parent and worker or having a perfect body, we try achieving the unattainable by working hard and efficiently to do more and do it better. Dreams of the Overworked explores the internal work that fills our days—and our minds—as we navigate life, simultaneously alone and in a crowd." ~Chuck Darrah, San Jose State University
"Beckman and Mazmanian capture timeless and essential truths about blending parenting and employment. Their study of nine upper-middle-class families exposes the independent 'choice' narrative as an idealized fiction and reveals the power of interdependencies in well-run organizations and in loving families. This is a book about cooperation and dependence—dependence on both earning an income and being an involved parent; dependence on our children for their cooperation in the shared endeavor; dependence on our partners, extended family, and friends for their engagement and care; dependence on caregivers who, as Beckman and Mazmanian explain, provide the scaffolding that makes each unique work-family blend possible." ~Kathleen L. McGinn, Harvard Business School
"This wonderfully intriguing book vividly portrays the lives of nine California-based professional families with young children at home as they try to meet the competing demands of work, parenting, and being fit and healthy. By observing and participating in the home life of these families over extended periods of time, Beckman and Mazmanian reveal how invisible and undervalued support from extended family members, friends, neighbors, and communities is the scaffolding that makes survival and success possible; and they show how smartphones and other personal devices, which are supposed to help, may actually increase the stress of overwork. The example-rich writing is delightful and the informative endnotes fully cover a wide range of literature. By making vivid the everyday details of family work necessary to deal with the competing demands created by the myths of the ideal worker, perfect parent, and ultimate body, this book is eye-opening and a must-read for all." ~Lotte Bailyn, author of Breaking the Mold: Redesigning Work for Productive and Satisfying Lives
"In their excellent new book, Beckman and Mazmanian explore the Herculean task today's families face as they strive to live up to the unrealistic expectation of doing everything perfectly while also being bombarded by 'helpful technologies.' Their in-depth look at different family configurations frames the challenges—but, more importantly, potential solutions—that today's unique families need to understand in order to thrive in these changing times." ~Brad Harrington, Executive Director, Boston College Center for Work & Family
"We cannot see what we cannot name. Beckman and Mazmanian cover the familiar terrain of work-family pressures by following real families and telling their stories. In the process, they make much that is invisible visible, naming and defining different kinds of work and introducing the important new concept of scaffolding. They allow us to see society not as individuals making choices and decisions, but as webs of vital but under-appreciated and under-nourished relationships. I learned a great deal from this book; it's an easy read with a lot to say." ~Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
"How might the myths of the ideal worker, perfect parent/caregiver, and ultimate body play out as we live and work longer? Are there new myths that also need to be explored for overwork as we age and care for others over the life course? Beckman and Mazmanian have started us strongly on the path to answer such deep questions that remain in our struggles to thrive in our lives on and off the job." ~Ellen Ernst Kossek, Administrative Science Quarterly