Slack? Nap? Snooze?
A follow-up to my Recline manifesto.
Spreading the word about the Recline Revolution also presents difficulties, since, as the Recline guru, I’ve become unwilling to do any media interviews that require me to leave my sofa. I’m counting on you, readers, to do the proselytizing for me.
We’re off to a decent start. I’m half-thrilled and half-horrified to report that "Recline!" seems to have generated more media commentary, web traffic and social media shares than most of my previous Foreign Policy columns put together. It’s sort of cool to be part of the Recline Revolution’s vanguard (though I’m not crazy about being told I’ve "gone viral": it makes me feel like Typhoid Mary, or one of those zombie-vampires from The Passage). Of course, I’m also now struggling with the sad knowledge that if I have any shot at going down in history, it will probably be as "epic slacker," rather than "brilliant legal and foreign policy mind."
Just to prove that Deep Thoughts can come from the depths of the sofa, I was planning to return to topics such as U.S. grand strategy and civil-military relations in this week’s column. But we’re only allotted 15 minutes of fame, which in the age of Twitter has been downgraded to 15 seconds. So — while I briefly have your attention — I want to take the opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions about last week’s column.
First, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I lied in last week’s column. (Yeah, sue me.) I never really leaned all the way in. I didn’t actually handcraft my children’s lunch containers out of recycled tires — I just faked it with fancy eco-Tupperware from Whole Foods. And I never truly stopped ducking out of conferences and meetings to read novels and take naps. I just pretended to stop. (And no one noticed! There’s a moral here somewhere.)
My column generated some criticism as well as compliments: some of my more earnest Twitter and Facebook commenters worried, for instance, that my self-proclaimed "hate" for Sheryl Sandberg was a little "extreme." Wouldn’t it be more measured, they asked, to just express some respectful ambivalence about "leaning in"? Shouldn’t I consider therapy to help me work through my excessively negative emotions? And didn’t I care that hating on poor Sheryl might hurt her feelings?
So I’ll tell you another secret: I don’t really hate Sheryl Sandberg. But would any of you have read a column entitled, "Why I feel that Sheryl Sandberg, whom I somewhat but not completely admire, is somewhat right about certain things while also being somewhat wrong about various other things"?
Either way, I doubt that Sheryl is sitting around moping about my column. She’s too busy to mope. Anyway, as COO of Facebook and the author of a bestselling book, I’m pretty sure she’s laughing all the way to the bank.
Sheryl Sandberg managed to monetize leaning in. As for me, I’m still trying to figure out how to monetize reclining. One of my editors suggested that Foreign Policy could make and sell Recline! T-shirts, so I spent a few happy moments composing possible Recline Revolution slogans: "A La-Z-Boy in Every Pot!" "Liberté, égalité, sororité, détendez!" But when I emailed my editor to suggest these, he didn’t respond; he had taken my column to heart and gone off to lounge on a tropical beach somewhere.
Despite my regret for the lost revenues, I could only applaud.
To another editor, I suggested that Foreign Policy could market Recline Revolution action figures — you know, tiny little plastic people with articulated limbs, who look like me. But then I realized they’d have to be "inaction" figures. Maybe tiny little plastic figures stretched out in La-Z-Boy recliners. And who’d buy those?
My last hope for monetizing the Recline Revolution lay in becoming a lifestyle guru — the kind of "executive coach" who gets paid vast sums of money to utter meaningless platitudes at corporate conferences.
I can utter meaningless platitudes with the best of ‘em. One would think I could market this talent, no?
Wistfully, from the depths of my sofa, I pictured myself standing — no, sitting — in front of a crowd of eager corporate executives, all anxious to give me money. "Take time to stop and smell the roses!" I’d tell them. "To thine own self be true! Feel free to move my cheese, as long as you don’t move my sofa!"
Seriously? Let’s not sell the Recline! agenda short. Because much as I love my sofa — and oh, I do — the goal of last week’s column was not, in fact, to urge you all to stop and smell the roses, much less snooze your days away.
It was not a call for "work-life balance," either, popular as that phrase has become. You can balance even the heaviest weights — if you happen to be an industrial scale. But if you happen to be an ordinary human being, it’s not so simple. Put an elephant on each of your shoulders, and you won’t be balancing anymore; you’ll be a squashed little heap of former-human.
That’s why it’s not enough to urge "work-life balance." For millions of people in 21st century America, the weight of work has become simply unbearable. For far too many, the disappearance of stable, full-time jobs with benefits — and the fraying social safety net — has meant a desperate struggle to find and keep multiple part-time jobs. For others — including the "luckiest" Americans — the problem isn’t struggling to pay the mortgage, but struggling under the crushing weight of the 24/7 workplace: the round-the-clock emails, the assumption that commitment can only be shown by long, punishing hours at the office.
Meanwhile, the "life" side of the equation has also gotten harder. In particular, my column noted the rise of the "intensive parenting" culture, which, like the modern workplace, increasingly requires parental ubiquity. More soccer games, more homework, more home-cooked dinners, more supervised play dates, more Mommy & Me music classes for tots, more, more, more! Even parents who aren’t employed — the so-called "stay-at-home moms" (and a growing number of dads) — are now working around the clock. After all, if all the other kiddies are getting stuffed full of Kumon math tutoring or extra language lessons, you worry that your own child will fall behind if you don’t offer the same. Add to that the expectations of teachers, family members, neighbors, and a sizable dollop of internalized guilt, and it’s almost impossible to stand firm against the intensive parenting culture.
The twin weights of work and family are particularly crushing for women. Given our gendered assumptions about who will take care of the house and kids, it’s women who most often find themselves in the impossible position of trying to manage the equivalent of two full-time jobs.
That’s also why "leaning in" isn’t the solution. Sheryl Sandberg is quite right to urge women to stop undermining themselves by speaking too tentatively, disclaiming their own expertise, and undervaluing their own experience. But competence and confidence aren’t nearly enough to combat the impossible expectations women face at work and at home. On the contrary, the reward for competence is more work, and all the self-confidence in the world won’t make you less miserable when your high-powered job and high-powered family life leave you too exhausted to think.
And despite my defense of reclining, dropping out is also no solution. The impossible demands of the workplace lead too many women to give up their own career dreams, since they seem impossible to reconcile with parenting obligations. That can be a sensible choice for some women as individuals — for some, it’s the only sensible choice — but it doesn’t change anything for the rest of us, or for our daughters; over time, it just exacerbates the problems.
Most Americans are willing to work hard, and we want to be passionately engaged with our work. My tongue-in-cheek call for more reclining is not a call for disengaging: It’s a call for us to create workplace cultures and family cultures that recognize that all of us are at our best when we have time to sleep, think, laugh, enjoy unstructured time with friends, partners and children, and even — dare I say it — get some time all to ourselves. When we have those things, we’re more creative, more resilient, and more productive. We’re better workers, better leaders, better parents, and better partners.
So what is to be done? How can we change the structure and culture of the workplace, and change the structure and culture of modern parenting?
There are some things we can do alone, as individuals, and some things we can only do together. In the long run, of course, we need the kind of structural and legislative changes that have already taken place in many other developed countries: We need better and cheaper childcare for working parents; we need laws that guarantee vacation time and a living wage; we need school schedules that reflect the realities of modern life instead of being based on archaic agrarian schedules and the assumption that every child has a stay-at-home parent, and so on.
That’s hard, and it will take concerted, collective effort over many years. But in the meantime, we don’t need to despair. There’s a lot we can do right now — starting tomorrow. First and foremost, we can have the courage to stand up against ridiculous expectations.
Here’s where all that Sheryl Sandberg-esque self-confidence really does matter: We need to stop being scared to speak up on behalf of sanity. We need to have the courage to tell the boss that we can’t make regular 6 p.m. meetings, because it’s time to go home and have dinner with the kids. We need the courage to say to our colleagues, "I don’t normally check email between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. Please call me if there’s a nuclear war; if not, I’ll get back to you tomorrow." We need the courage to tell the school principal that 11 a.m. school concerts are a burden on working parents.
When we do these things, we’re helping ourselves, but we’re also helping our friends, families, and colleagues. We’re modeling healthier ways to work for others — and every time we speak out on our own behalf, we make it easier for others to speak out as well.
We also need to speak out directly on behalf of others. In particular, we need to speak up for the low-wage workers in the mailroom or the maintenance department, and for the junior employees afraid to stand up for themselves. We need to make sure our subordinates know that we don’t expect them to answer non-emergency emails during their vacations, and we need to let our colleagues and fellow parents know that if they politely challenge the boss’s unreasonable expectations, we’ll be there to back them up.
Better still, we can work together. Make a pact with your colleagues and your fellow parents: Agree to remind each other that time in the La-Z-Boy will make us better, saner, more efficient, more creative, and more flexible. Agree to go to the boss or the school principal together to propose different ways of getting things done.
Not everyone has the luxury of standing up to the boss — many workers have good reason to fear getting demoted or fired. But if you’re reading this in FP, odds are that you’re lucky enough to work in an environment in which polite pushback won’t get you fired. Odds are, in fact, that you have a lot more power than you think. You might even find that your boss welcomes and praises your suggestions about how to make the workplace more humane — particularly if you show him or her the many studies documenting the bottom-line benefits of saner workplaces.
Who knows? Your boss might even join the Recline Revolution, too.