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On Point On Slacking 524

Wellington Grey writes "This week the NPR show On Point has an excellent episode exploring slacking and the American work ethic. (note that it's audio) It touches on some issues that may be of interest to geeks such as outsourcing, the church of the subgenius and the eternal conflict between wanting to be a lazy bum and wanting to work hard. What do slashdotters think: does America need more slack or more work?" It is summer vacation after all, right?
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On Point On Slacking

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  • Europeans (Score:5, Interesting)

    by digitalamish ( 449285 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:05PM (#15436755)
    Funny, but I am in the process of trying to figure out how to schedule the work I need to get done this summer around my european counterparts 8 weeks of vacation. Eight weeks, not including holidays! Funny, they never get labeled as lazy.
  • by stlhawkeye ( 868951 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:13PM (#15436849) Homepage Journal
    I have not met a single soul outside of the medical and legal profession whose actual and typical workload could not be accomplished in 30-40 hours of real honest work. The problem is that most of them spend at least 2 hours a day screwing around, reading Slashdot, reading CNN, chatting in the aisles, or doing make-work while waiting for somebody else to deliver something that they need to continue their legitimate work. Now and then we get a rush ("I told the client you'd have it by tomorrow." "That's 2 weeks of work!" "Well, get started!") but by and large I don't know anybody who doesn't spend at least 2-3 hours of their 10 and 12 hour days goofing off to one degree or another. Or, more commonly, 2-3 hours of their 8 hour days, which means they have to come in the weekend. This is invariably blamed on the boss, who is also goofing around but never shows up on Saturday.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:17PM (#15436897)

    It's not workload. It's stressload. BIG difference.

    I can have a metric shitload of work on my plate, and still enjoy every last second of it, and truly enjoy my job --- However, on the other side of that coin, I can have one thing on my plate so stressful that i'll become physically ill.

    High stress = depressed immune system response = more likely to come down with garden variety cold/flu bugs. I tracked it once -- During a long-duration "we really shouldn't be implementing this but management says to do it" project, my blood pressure went up 25 points, and stayed there for two months solid. I also left work early at least 3 times during that period, out of frustration or simply because I felt horrible, and had to call in sick/work from home for at least as many days.

    Solid work ethic comes when stress is low, regardless of workload; There have been times when being on call and coming in at 3 in the morning is actually fun. Slacking comes when stress is high, regardless of workload; At 3 in the morning, sometimes I wish I could just flip over and go back to sleep.

    We're all procrastinators of varying degrees, and thankfully, there are remarkably few truly worthless slackers. Most people have a surprisingly good work ethic, and are devoted to their jobs.

    The solution to eliminating slack is not to heap gargantuan problems on the shoulders of one employee, but rather try to identify what tasks really should be shared among several individuals in order to distribute the stress impact. Otherwise it's feast or famine for the average employee's workload, and the door is open to building styrofoam cup and paper clip sculptures.


  • by paiute ( 550198 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:18PM (#15436909)
    One day a gang of energetic citizens was diggin a trench with their hands, but a slacker said "That's too much work" and went off and invented the shovel.

    Time passes. Hard-working men are digging a canal with shovels. A slacker stayed home one day and invented the backhoe.


    Eli Whitney? Slacker. Too lazy to lift a flail.
    Fulton? Too slack to row.
    Edison? A slacker with good a good PR department.
  • Re:Europeans (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DigitalRaptor ( 815681 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:23PM (#15436961) Homepage
    My friend just got back from a 10 day business trip in China, and he had one piece of advice:

    "Learn to speak chinese, because these people are going to take over the world!"

    It's not the Europeans we have to worry about, it's the Chinese and the Indians (from India, not the reservation!) that are going to rule the world.

    They aren't "held back" by the same morality and environmental issues we are. When they want to build the largest dam in the world (which is an engineering marvel that will put out as much electricity as 15 nuclear power plants combined), they just do it, and don't worry about the environmental, social, or historical implications.

    China has 35 people for every one of ours, so they could invade with nothing but chopsticks and probably win. But they also have huge natural resources and are progressing very, very fast. Their navy will be as big as ours by 2012 (though not as advanced).

    Be afraid, be very afraid. (I say that only partly in jest)

    Oh, yeah, and they're bringing the bird flu with them... :}

  • by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:30PM (#15437038) Journal
    We worked our asses off in the 80s and 90s to create the Internet economy so that there would be good jobs for the American middle class in the new millennium.

    Carly Fiorina, Craig Barrett, Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, and Bill Gates then betrayed us by shipping those good jobs to the cheap-labor centers in India and China.

    Carly even stood up in a public meeting and insisted that it was the right thing to do.

    A trillion dollars in investment, gone in a few months.

    If it had been a war and we'd been harmed to the cost of a trillion dollars in writeoffs and lost jobs, we'd be nuking someone. But the war was lost because the people who were supposed to be on our side were on the enemy's side.

    There's a word for that.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:35PM (#15437099)
    Most studies (going back to to one done in 2001) show that Americans put in many more hours at work than Europeans - not only that but the difference has been increasing for decades. New Yorker published an article in 11/2005 about this citing that Germans put in 25% fewer hours over the course of a year than US'ans. French put in 28% fewer hours.

    One consequence is that Americans take the "extra money" to hire folks to do the things Americans no longer have time to do: mow the lawn, cook dinner, do the laundery, nanny for the kids, etc.
  • Re:Europeans (Score:5, Interesting)

    by no reason to be here ( 218628 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:35PM (#15437102) Homepage
    They aren't "held back" by the same morality and environmental issues we are. When they want to build the largest dam in the world (which is an engineering marvel that will put out as much electricity as 15 nuclear power plants combined), they just do it, and don't worry about the environmental, social, or historical implications.

    It's exactly that type of attitude that will keep them from succeeding. They cannot continue to abuse their native population without reprecussion. There WILL be an uprising, which will cause more than enough instability to take them down a few rungs of the super power ladder. It might not happen tomorrow, or even in the next decade, but it will happen.

    The environmental problems, well, that partly goes along with abusing the population. The people will get tired of having to blow all of the soot out of their nose first thing in the morning; people will continue to get pissed when they're forced to move because a regions about to be flooded by a huge hydro-elctric dam. And sooner or later, some big project is going to result in some sort of ecological disaster which the gov't there won't be able to cover-up and ignore.

    Of course, regardless of what happens in China and India, the US is going down the tubes.
  • by sckeener ( 137243 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:45PM (#15437188)
    I've found that in all of my jobs there are people willing to work and do their job and their are people who will just do what they need to get by.

    Interesting. Are you saying people should do more than they should be paid to do? Personally I subscribe to work smarter, not harder. I find that people that are preceived as working hard do well.

    My dad was a workaholic. He was a lawyer in the morning, fixed computers in the afternoon and worked on mainframes at NASA during the night. (He believed what the Navy told him...i.e. that he only needed 4 hours of sleep.)

    My parents got a divorce after 24 years. 24 years sounds nice except I was 14 and I have to wonder if I and my mother would have had a better relationship with my dad if he had just cut back on the working....been around the house more.

    Then there was my father-in-law. He's dead now. He worked multiple jobs too to take care of the family (3 daughters.) He died at 47 from colon cancer. His big plan was to retire and enjoy life.

    Personally I'd rather see less GNP and more GNH (Gross National Happiness) [] Working hard should never be a goal. Working smart and being happy should be.
  • Not enough slacking (Score:2, Interesting)

    by heresyoftruth ( 705115 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @01:47PM (#15437222) Homepage Journal
    I have worked as a nurse the last 8 years. It is insanely difficult not to work overtime even if your ideal is only 32 hours a week. I often look wistfully to the European work ethic where you are not called a slacker for only wanting 32 or so hours a week. Asking for a week off of your already earned vacation time is not like asking for someone else's left arm, etc.

    I am currently looking for a job, and trying to find a less than full time position. It's probably not going to happen, or they will tell me it's part time and up my hours. It's happened before with constant calls to come to work on my days off.

    I know other professions aren't as bad, but my husband is going to get his CPA soon, and has been told his dreams of working less than 40 hours a week were impossible. This remains to be seen, and we are still hoping.
  • Re:Europeans (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bombadillo ( 706765 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @02:06PM (#15437390)
    They aren't "held back" by the same morality and environmental issues we are. When they want to build the largest dam in the world (which is an engineering marvel that will put out as much electricity as 15 nuclear power plants combined), they just do it, and don't worry about the environmental, social, or historical implications.

    Actually they are "held back". A few years ago there was a flood which became a major flood due to deforestation. The Chineese government caculated the cost of the flood and how much the forest in the area was worth to prevent the flood. The Chineese raised the price of wood from that area by 300%. This rise in cost no longer justified the logging in the region.
  • Re:Europeans (Score:3, Interesting)

    by GeckoX ( 259575 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @02:13PM (#15437460)
    It's not always that simple. I've done that in the past. It wasn't feasible this time around.

    It wasn't so much losing the vacation time, it was being told I would be compensated flat out no question, and then completely ignored for 5 months when pressing for said compensation.

    Basically I could have taken that time sometime this spring if I'd forced the issue, but this would have put me in a position where I would have been perceived as not doing my job. I already get 1 week more than most people of my station where I work. (Good negotiating skills at a time when the company wouldn't give a monetary raise) To take 7 weeks this year, when my manager has changed and our department is in total flux...I would be out of a job, guaranteed. Pathetic, and it disgusts me, but it's internal politics which exist everywhere.

    Is there ANYONE on this side of the ocean working in the private tech industry that has a somewhat reasonable amount of vacation time and has no problem taking it?

    Anyways, all I'm really getting at is I think the world would be a MUCH better place if it was simply standard to have 8 weeks a year, for EVERYONE. Regardless of their station in life. If there was a standard, it would be a heck of a lot less likely that you'd feel internal pressure to NOT take what you deserve.

    Oh, and to all of you out there that have lots of vacation time and refuse to use it year after year after year: Quit it. You're sick, and you're not doing the rest of us any favors!!! If you're really that driven, think what you could accomplish doing something else for a couple of weeks out of the year! Diversify a bit! ;)
  • Re:Europeans (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @02:16PM (#15437499) Journal
    US standard issue is 2 weeks plus between 1 and 2 weeks of "sick" leave. 3 weeks total if you're employer has changed to PTO (personal time off, a way to reward healthy singles and childless couples). Most employees in larger (>50) companies can earn more vacation with seniority, about a day extra per year, which adds up to 1 week to the base 2 weeks. There are exceptions, of course, on both extremes, but that's about the typical here. It allows a week's holiday and the odd three-day weekend. Not enough, imho.

    Me? Oh, I get zero paid days off. I run a small engineering firm, and when I'm not at my desk (and not reading /., of course ;-) I'm not getting paid a single cent. Actually, I get negative pay, since I have to pay rent, insurance, and power bills even when I 'm not making money. The difference, I suppose, is that I can blow of a half an hour of work on /., and know how much it really cost me. I also make more, per hour, when I'm actually working, than my salaried counterparts. (Note: I still don't get paid enough, imho, but hey - that's life.)
  • Re:Europeans (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @02:26PM (#15437603) Homepage Journal
    They aren't "held back" by the same morality and environmental issues we are.

    We used to be that way, too. Not 100 years in the past, more like 50.

    I'm sure the chinese will follow a similar pattern. Sure they will be a huge force in the near future, probably stronger than the US in both economics and military power and very close to the EU (which is still growing in number of participating nations, remember). But even as a strong force, they will start to feel the impact themselves. The dam will be built, but they probably won't build a 2nd one once all the shit hit the fan. Anyone remember the Nile dam? When it was built, it was a marvel of engineering, too. Today it is widely regarded as a bad idea and if it weren't for the fact that Egypt needs the electricity, there would be talks about tearing it down.
  • by Ixitar ( 153040 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @02:27PM (#15437610) Homepage
    I have a very different experience. I very rarely work more then 40 hours in a week. I get my work done.

    The president of a past employer told me that he did not want people to work more than 40 hours in a week, except for the rare crunch times. He figured that if someone has to work more than 40 hours in a week, then management is failing at their job. He did not want people to be overworked, because productivity generally declines.

    My manager in that same company told me, just before going on vacation, that there is never a good time to take vacation. There is always something that comes up. You just plan it in advance and inform people of when you are taking vacation. Remind them on a monthly basis of the vacation plans. During the month before, remind them weekly. When it comes time to go on the vacation, just go. It is part of your benefits package.
  • Re:Speaking for UK (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ErichTheRed ( 39327 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @02:27PM (#15437613)
    SO the moral of the story is that the people are to blame for a) not preventing your government for bringing in anti-social work ethics (a.k.a capitalism) and b) for accepting the situation enforced onto you by your employee (bring back the Unions).

    Not as easy as you's really tough to unionize the "new world" of work. There's nothing stopping an employer whose employees strike from moving the work to some other country. That, and the techie pupolation really doesn't think unions are a good idea (even after their fifth 80-hour week in a row.) You can't easily get a new construction crew overnight, or a new set of electrical contractors to work on your building after the other ones leave. However, there are offshore coding and sysadmin firms clamoring for business who would be more than happy to step in.

    I would definitely like to see more vacation time and less invasion on personal time, but that costs money.
  • A Ten Day Trip? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ihatewinXP ( 638000 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @02:45PM (#15437782)
    Let me chime in.

    About 200 days into my trip living and working in Beijing you get a different feel for things. Now I am not saying in any way that Chinese isnt the language to learn and that China isnt going to run the global economy for the forseeable future. I dont have room to start on that complex matter. But... ill relate all ive learned and say "Yes" to both sides..

    There is a construction army here that I am listening to build the next generation of high rises (inculding the tallest building in Beijing about 1 mile away) at 2;28 am. It never stops. And its everywhere within a twenty mile radius. An amazing thing to watch unfold.

    One the one hand.

    On the other hand I walk past and through these crews everyday and see the same amount of laying back that I see on a typical highway crew in the States except horrendously worse. Office workers on a whole appear to have the same rep: lotsa hours, same amount fo work. I dont think they are inherently (or culturaly or otherwise) more productive / less lazy than anyone else ive met - but seriously, and think about this - there are that many more. China is a beast, it has been for the last 3000 years, and unified riding a wave of nationalistic expansion there isnt a lot it cant do. And its doing it, now.

    IMHO, from what I have seen. But in my defense I have been looking pretty hard through a variety of different lenses.

  • Interesting (Score:4, Interesting)

    by smcdow ( 114828 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @03:02PM (#15437957) Homepage
    I had occasion recently to travel with the president of the company I work for to attend some meetings (bleah). After the meetings, over a beer, he asked me what I thought of him taking the entire company (~100 employees) to a mandatory 30-hour work week.

    My twofold response was:

    1. Sign me up.
    2. You won't notice a drop in overall output (ie, perceived productivity would go up).

    He agreed with me on point #2.

    It remains to be seen if he will go through with his nefarious plan. I sure hope he does.

  • Re:Europeans (Score:2, Interesting)

    by zoomzit ( 860737 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @03:06PM (#15438014)
    This is why you move to California. We have a law here that forbids employers from instituting the "Use it or lose it policy." Perhaps another reason why California is the hotbed of technological innovation...
  • by CDarklock ( 869868 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @03:44PM (#15438317) Homepage Journal
    > I have not met a single soul outside of the medical
    > and legal profession whose actual and typical
    > workload could not be accomplished in 30-40 hours
    > of real honest work.

    As a former pastry chef, I disagree.

    It does not matter how hard you try, you CANNOT produce *good* milles-feuille in less than three hours. Sure, you can go through the motions. You can follow the steps. But you won't meet the criteria - if you roll the dough out too fast, you develop the gluten in the dough too much, and you end up with crap. If you don't roll it enough times, you don't get enough layers, and you end up with crap. If there's not enough salt, or not enough yeast, or not enough water, or not enough butter, or - God help you - TOO MUCH of any of the above, let alone if your butter is too warm or cut too small or not small enough, you end up with crap. And when you cook it, you'd better wait for the oven to FULLY preheat, and you'd better be absolutely sure the oven is neither too hot (which will burn it) or too cool (which will not puff the layers). You simply cannot screw up. Fundamentally, this is chemistry, and it's every bit as precise and critical as it would be in a laboratory.

    But most people don't understand that. They say sure, you mix this and that and these and those, and then you roll it out and do a double book fold three or four times. They never add cold water by drops to the hot water until it's exactly the right temperature for the yeast, and they don't stand over it watching the last few seconds tick by on the timer. Which is why they produce - you guessed it - crap.

    Today, I'm a software developer, and if you think PASTRY is complex... you don't know the half of it. These things take time. No matter how much you yell, or how little you understand, nothing you can do or say will make it happen any faster. It will happen when it happens. Fundamentally, it's bound by rules and processes which are every bit as rigid and inflexible as the laws of physics and chemistry.

    And yes, there are a great many people out there who grab a Linux distro and read a few books on programming, and then they write this and that and these and those and build a couple of data structures and chuck it through the linker. They never write a use case, they never take a class, and they never test their code. And they produce crap. Which is fine, because it's GPL, and that's what really counts, right? Right. (snort)

    But you can't compare those people to me. There is a big difference between what a talented amateur does - even though it is frequently amazing - and what I do. I can do what he does, but he can't do what I do. So just leave him to write mail processors and graphics filters, and I'll build the APIs and systems infrastructure that get the mail and the graphics onto his system in the first place. Don't complain that he's got his head down in the code all day every day, while I post on Slashdot and read a dozen different blogs. I am not doing what he is doing, so you can't compare my work to his in any productive sense.

    And I *still* make a damn fine cheesecake.
  • Re:Interesting (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @04:02PM (#15438469)
    Depending on what country you're in, this could be enough to change worker's status from full-time to part-time and limit benefits and safeguards that full-time employees are entitled to...

    That's not the motivating factor here, right?

    (Plus, he could be looking at dropping everyone's wages/salaries by 25%. That might not be so good for many people).

    (Just playing devil's advocate :)
  • by alexkj ( 657438 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @04:41PM (#15438832) Homepage
    The book The Lazy Way to success by Fred Gratzon has some interesting ideas on this. Gratzon has started 2 successful million-dollar companies, all without ever working a day according to himself. Book: [] My review: -lazy-way/ []
  • by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Wednesday May 31, 2006 @05:19PM (#15439219) Journal
    Unemployment rates don't include the millions who've simply quit looking for work.

    And they don't reflect the decline in wages. Newer jobs are way less valuable than the ones we created in the '90s.

    Here's a quiz: How many jobs has Bush created? How many undocumented immigrants has he let come over our borders?

    The reason there are jobs "Americans won't take" is that the wage for those jobs won't let them keep their house.

"If the code and the comments disagree, then both are probably wrong." -- Norm Schryer