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The Cutting Edge | Digital Nation

Tech Workers Are in Demand, but Field Has Dark Side

May 10, 1999|GARY CHAPMAN

College students who are nearing graduation this spring are entering a booming economy, in which unemployment is at a 30-year low and starting salaries and wages for jobs involving computers and the Internet are amazingly high. In some cities, young systems administrators who can run high-volume Web servers or large computer networks can earn more than $50,000 in their first year on the job. As the rock band Timbuk 3 once sang, "Fifty-thou a year will buy a lot of beer."

Sounds like a good time to be young, smart and computer-savvy, right? So why aren't more young people rushing into this job market?

The main reason is that there is a darker side to high-tech work these days, especially as workers age. Long hours, intense competitive pressures, disappointments and regrets, loneliness and boredom all take their toll on computer workers. And even the high salaries begin to look less appealing when housing prices are astronomical, free time is rare, and commutes are long and frustrating. The novelty of "cool" jobs wears off quickly as workers mature. The chief characteristic of most workers these days is a feeling of restlessness.

In a survey last year by George Mason University in Virginia, 40% of information technology workers reported that they would choose another field if they could relive their college days, with a majority of those indicating a preference for education or another nontechnical field. That was the highest level of regret in any specific occupational field, although, interestingly enough, more than half of all the respondents in nontechnical fields said they would now choose science and technology if they could.

"It seems that nontechnical people want to know more about technology, while technology people are finding there's more to life than bits and bytes," said Dr. Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University.

The demands of the "new economy" are severe on technology workers. Silicon Valley has even developed a new term for the lifestyle it imposes on Valley workers: the "total commitment" paradigm. Internet commerce is, as the saying goes, "24 by 7," meaning it must go on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without fail.

In a survey of 250 information technology workers done in October by ComputerWorld magazine, the average workweek was more than 50 hours, and about half the respondents reported working an average of six hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Almost two-thirds reported interrupting vacations to check in with work, and 70% missed family or social events because of work. Almost all IT workers carry beepers, cell phones or pagers to stay in touch with work.

"I can't remember the last time I actually did some enjoyable reading, like a novel. I can't remember the last time I went to a movie, either," said one worker interviewed for the survey.

In a more recent ComputerWorld survey, released April 27, IT workers reported frustration that they aren't typically involved in their firms' strategic planning or in defining corporate objectives. "Two-thirds of the 940 IT professionals surveyed feel slighted, ignored or undervalued," said the magazine. It is common to hear computer professionals say that they feel like high-tech janitors for corporations, with their responsibilities limited to keeping a server going or a network operating.

Computer work is often touted as exciting, stimulating and personally rewarding, but many people find it plain boring. Finding and fixing software bugs or responding to users' problems can be tedious and never-ending tasks. The fast-paced change of the technology industry leads to a feeling of "ephemeralization," as Buckminster Fuller called it 30 years ago, meaning a career in high tech can have relatively few benchmarks of tangible accomplishment.

The high-tech field also is notoriously hard on aging workers. It's an industry that values youth and new skills, and programmers over 35 face real difficulties trying to keep up with the technology and stay employed. There are numerous stories of middle-aged technology workers who are laid off and never return to their careers; in fact, less than 20% of programmers are still programming after age 40.

Job-hopping and the new ethic of being your own "brand," a feature of the extreme individualism of high-tech culture, can lead to loneliness and anomie in the workplace and in society at large. The average length of stay at a single job in Silicon Valley is a mere 18 months; human resource managers typically report that a resume that shows 10 years at one job is a liability, not an asset.

Sociologist Richard Sennett argues in his 1998 book, "The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism," that job-hopping and the individualist ethic of the new economy--what he calls "drive-by careers"--lead to a breakdown in the ways people develop their characters, or the ways they build a meaningful "story" of their lives.

"Rootlessness" is a widespread adjective used to describe the suburban, work-saturated and transient character of high-tech communities. Rootlessness typically engenders restlessness and alienation, two things that corrode character, Sennett said. And these feelings are only temporarily masked by frenzied personal schedules and trivial and ephemeral obsessions with pop entertainment culture, things that wear thin as people mature.

The mantra and rationale for the new work ethic among high-tech leaders is that it is "creating wealth," and there's no doubt that it is. But many people are starting to ask, "Wealth for what?"

The strains of work in the new economy are creating a pressure cooker that could explode at any time, leading to a new upheaval in our technology-obsessed society.

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Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

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