Digital media and the 40-hour work week

Not long ago, Nina Lentini edited one daily newsletter, worked from 9 to 6 at home Monday through Friday, and enjoyed nights, weekends and holidays with her family. Now, she edits not only that publication but also 10 weekly newsletters, which means starting at 7:30 a.m., working weekends and holidays–sometimes until 11 p.m.–and having her daughter help by replying to business-related messages as they drive around in the car.

As Michael Winerip details in his New York Times story, these weekly newsletters are sources of additional ad revenue that cost her employer virtually nothing to produce, since they're published online, Lentini still gets the same salary, and the writers who contribute free stories to them get "paid" only in links to their own Websites.

Lentini accepts these working conditions because she's glad to have a satisfying job with a good salary, considering the current economic and cultural landscape. "Everybody works like this now," Lentini told Winerip. "This is just the new reality." The problem is, he notes, "she remembers the old reality."

Skepticism toward new media is often written off as a generational divide, that people who aren't "digital natives" are just resistant to change or just don't "get it." Maybe, in fact, we do get it… "It" being the fact that the new reality is not an unqualified improvement over the old one.

New media aren't entirely to blame for this state of affairs, of course. Other cultural shifts, including the decline of unions, have contributed. Gradual weakening of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, especially reclassification of low-level supervisors as "exempt" employees without overtime rights, also helped undermine the 40-hour work week that once represented progress.

However, digital devices have enabled the breakdown in boundaries between home and work, created new publishing models that erode the value of content, normalized 24-7 availability of everyone to everyone, and provided a veneer of fun and novelty that masks exploitation–all of which businesses are wont to extract benefit from.

Think about it: Would your life be better if you only worked 40 hours a
week? If your work didn't follow you home, and wherever you go? If you
enjoyed time spent with friends and family without distraction? If you
got extra compensation for extra work, or reclaimed those surplus hours
for moonlighting at another (paid) job?

Disclaimer: This commentary is brought to you by someone who left a job 15 years ago in part because her boss started requiring her to be on-call nights and weekends without extra compensation, a working condition substantially different from what she had agreed to. It was a different time, back then… jobs were more plentiful, labor standards were fairer, and work stayed at the office.


  1. I found this conversation very interesting, and in theory very much embrace the slow media movement. I do want to add one other aspect to the conversation. This blurring of boundaries between work and personal that digital devices have enabled leads to another problem that I’d like to mention…and that is the erosion of the work ethic by a lot of young people. These are the same people that bring their iphones and cell phones to work with them and play on them during the day when they should be doing the work they are getting paid for. They talk with family and friends, send emails, in short, they act like they are at home instead of a paid member of the work force. This is extremely aggravating to us aging baby boomers who do indeed remember giving it a good day’s work and truly earning every penny you are paid. And instead of addressing the problem, management seems to be turning their heads and ignorning it, or giving seminars to the rest of us on how to deal with “difficult” employees!

  2. The same young people who bring digital devices to work also bring them to class, so I know what you’re talking about! Some students can’t focus on writing assignments and stare at blank Word documents, while toggling constantly to e-mail accounts in Web browsers and checking messages on cellphones. It’s not just an erosion of work ethics but of the boundary between “home” and “work” mindsets. If you’re used to conducting the same activities in both places via technology, it’s hard to distinguish between the two modes. I know some people with great work ethics who might spend a lot of “work” time in “home” mode — but also spend a lot of “home” time in “work” mode, so that they’re actually putting in the same effort, just not respecting those boundaries. As a manager, it’s no doubt harder to supervise and evaluate their performance in these conditions, and probably going to get harder!

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