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EA: The Human Story
My significant other works for Electronic Arts, and I'm what you might call a disgruntled spouse.
EA's bright and shiny new corporate trademark is "Challenge Everything." Where this applies is not exactly clear. Churning out one licensed football game after another doesn't sound like challenging much of anything to me; it sounds like a money farm. To any EA executive that happens to read this, I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?
I am retaining some anonymity here because I have no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit. However, I also feel no impetus to shy away from sharing our story, because I know that it is too common to stick out among those of the thousands of engineers, artists, and designers that EA employs.
Our adventures with Electronic Arts began less than a year ago. The small game studio that my partner worked for collapsed as a result of foul play on the part of a big publisher -- another common story. Electronic Arts offered a job, the salary was right and the benefits were good, so my SO took it. I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: "how do you feel about working long hours?" It's just a part of the game industry -- few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what "working long hours" meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.
Within weeks production had accelerated into a 'mild' crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this "pre-crunch" was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don't know how many of the developers bought EA's explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title's shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.
Weeks passed. Again the producers had given a termination date on this crunch that again they failed. Throughout this period the project remained on schedule. The long hours started to take its toll on the team; people grew irritable and some started to get ill. People dropped out in droves for a couple of days at a time, but then the team seemed to reach equilibrium again and they plowed ahead. The managers stopped even talking about a day when the hours would go back to normal.
Now, it seems, is the "real" crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm -- seven days a week -- with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team's existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.
The stress is taking its toll. After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend -- bad things happen to one's physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.
And the kicker: for the honor of this treatment EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! ('comp' time is the equalization of time off for overtime -- any hours spent during a crunch accrue into days off after the product has shipped); c) no additional sick or vacation leave. The time just goes away. Additionally, EA recently announced that, although in the past they have offered essentially a type of comp time in the form of a few weeks off at the end of a project, they no longer wish to do this, and employees shouldn't expect it. Further, since the production of various games is scattered, there was a concern on the part of the employees that developers would leave one crunch only to join another. EA's response was that they would attempt to minimize this, but would make no guarantees. This is unthinkable; they are pushing the team to individual physical health limits, and literally giving them nothing for it. Comp time is a staple in this industry, but EA as a corporation wishes to "minimize" this reprieve. One would think that the proper way to minimize comp time is to avoid crunch, but this brutal crunch has been on for months, and nary a whisper about any compensation leave, nor indeed of any end of this treatment.
This crunch also differs from crunch time in a smaller studio in that it was not an emergency effort to save a project from failure. Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.
No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great. They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title. But that good will has only been met with abuse. Amazingly, Electronic Arts was listed #91 on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2003.
EA's attitude toward this -- which is actually a part of company policy, it now appears -- has been (in an anonymous quotation that I've heard repeated by multiple managers), "If they don't like it, they can work someplace else." Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA's Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one's workforce never enters the equation: if they don't want to sacrifice their lives and their health and their talent so that a multibillion dollar corporation can continue its Godzilla-stomp through the game industry, they can work someplace else.
But can they?
The EA Mambo, paired with other giants such as Vivendi, Sony, and Microsoft, is rapidly either crushing or absorbing the vast majority of the business in game development. A few standalone studios that made their fortunes in previous eras -- Blizzard, Bioware, and Id come to mind -- manage to still survive, but 2004 saw the collapse of dozens of small game studios, no longer able to acquire contracts in the face of rapid and massive consolidation of game publishing companies. This is an epidemic hardly unfamiliar to anyone working in the industry. Though, of course, it is always the option of talent to go outside the industry, perhaps venturing into the booming commercial software development arena. (Read my tired attempt at sarcasm.)
To put some of this in perspective, I myself consider some figures. If EA truly believes that it needs to push its employees this hard -- I actually believe that they don't, and that it is a skewed operations perspective alone that results in the severity of their crunching, coupled with a certain expected amount of the inefficiency involved in running an enterprise as large as theirs -- the solution therefore should be to hire more engineers, or artists, or designers, as the case may be. Never should it be an option to punish one's workforce with ninety hour weeks; in any other industry the company in question would find itself sued out of business so fast its stock wouldn't even have time to tank. In its first weekend, Madden 2005 grossed $65 million. EA's annual revenue is approximately $2.5 billion. This company is not strapped for cash; their labor practices are inexcusable.
The interesting thing about this is an assumption that most of the employees seem to be operating under. Whenever the subject of hours come up, inevitably, it seems, someone mentions 'exemption'. They refer to a California law that supposedly exempts businesses from having to pay overtime to certain 'specialty' employees, including software programmers. This is Senate Bill 88. However, Senate Bill 88 specifically does not apply to the entertainment industry -- television, motion picture, and theater industries are specifically mentioned. Further, even in software, there is a pay minimum on the exemption: those exempt must be paid at least $90,000 annually. I can assure you that the majority of EA employees are in fact not in this pay bracket; ergo, these practices are not only unethical, they are illegal.
I look at our situation and I ask 'us': why do you stay? And the answer is that in all likelihood we won't; and in all likelihood if we had known that this would be the result of working for EA, we would have stayed far away in the first place. But all along the way there were deceptions, there were promises, there were assurances -- there was a big fancy office building with an expensive fish tank -- all of which in the end look like an elaborate scheme to keep a crop of employees on the project just long enough to get it shipped. And then if they need to, they hire in a new batch, fresh and ready to hear more promises that will not be kept; EA's turnover rate in engineering is approximately 50%. This is how EA works. So now we know, now we can move on, right? That seems to be what happens to everyone else. But it's not enough. Because in the end, regardless of what happens with our particular situation, this kind of "business" isn't right, and people need to know about it, which is why I write this today.
If I could get EA CEO Larry Probst on the phone, there are a few things I would ask him. "What's your salary?" would be merely a point of curiosity. The main thing I want to know is, Larry: you do realize what you're doing to your people, right? And you do realize that they ARE people, with physical limits, emotional lives, and families, right? Voices and talents and senses of humor and all that? That when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it's not just them you're hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?
This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.
HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2004-11-12 11:18 (link)
First, I made an agreement w/my SO that I would put in whatever hours I had to during the week so that I would not have to work weekends (this is before they started instituting mandatory 6-7 day work weeks). I got used to sleeping 5 to 6 hours a night so I could put in 14-16 hour days during crunch time.
Second, I stuck it out as long as possible, almost 2 years, and when I was getting really, really burned out, I quit.
Working at EA was a good decision. I got a highly recognizable entry on my resume, and learned some new things there.
Quitting EA was a great decision. I'm so happy not to be working there anymore. I don't regret it in the least. :)
I'm a tech manager now, and I'm still working on games: I love my job, love my boss, treat my team right, we kick ass. There's always a lot to be done, but we don't have to work insane hours, and I would never ask my team to work on the weekend.
EA managers do not understand that developers perform WORSE when they're burnt out. It's my job as a manager to recognize when that's happening and I do give my guys time off when that happens. Together we strategize about how to work smarter, rather than harder.
EA_SPOUSE: You're right, this kind of mismanagement is not a dependable business model, particularly for the industry leader. It'll work for them in the short term, but it's obviously getting worse, and it's not sustainable. Eventually they will have to change. Kudos to you for accelerating that change. I didn't care enough after leaving to look back. After your spouse quits EA, maybe you'll have more perspective on it. Good luck!
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2004-11-17 05:43 (link)
I worked in the games industry for 10 years, and I can tell you that this is common practise in a lot of games companies. I've even worked for companies where the upper crust or project managers (they liked to call themselves producers) took pride in that people worked these insane hours. At one company in Los Angeles that I worked for we were working on a sports game for EA. Towards the end of this project, we the team worked 14 hour days, seven days a week, and if you didn't show up the next day (typically due to being exhausted, they would call to find you and explain to you that its the best for own good to show up). In this company they didn't even pay us our promised bonus (no it was never in writing), blaming it on that the game didn't do well enough in the market space. There's a reason to why games companies prefer to hire really young people without attached girl friends/wifes, I'm sure you can figure it out... Re: HOW TO COPE
2004-11-20 09:44 (link)
Long hours is nothing new. I am a programmer @ well know fps gaming house. We work on average 15 hours a day including weekends. I'm sorry to say it but there is no getting away from this reality - if you wanna work in the gaming industy you have to "suck it down".
Hey think of it like this - get that office with a window & you can gaze down on your red in the parkinglot :-).
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2004-11-30 19:04 (link)
In regard to that EA humane story. She indicates that EA pays well and the benefits are good. First of all, I used to work at EA of over 11+ years, I left to pursue other challenges, but regreted ever leaving. I'd wished I never had left. It was the best job and company I ever worked at. I was there in the beginning when the company was small and watch it grow into one of the biggest entertainment companies that is out there today. I know what benefits EA has to offer and there is not one other company out there that offers what EA offers....
Secondly, she said that the pay and benefits was good, then she mentioned that EA doesn't pay OT, Comp time, and doesn't give people (team) time off. So, which is it? Make up your mind! If your husband is not happy, then tell him to quit! and find a job that is hourly. Then find another job in the same entertainment field that is better.
Thirdly, I was there when EA bought out Maxis. Any kind/type of take over, there will be harsh feelings with the employees involved. Just keep this in mind, if EA didn't buy out Maxis where would Maxis be today?? That would go for any other of the buy outs that EA had purchased through out the years.
Last but not least. You babies have to stop crying and live in the real world. It's a dog eat dog world and we all need to just deal and if you can't deal, then get out of that type of business period.
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2004-12-01 20:37 (link)
"Need to stop crying and live in the real world"? Take some of your own advice, pal. Employers who destroy individuals and families so that their stock can go up a quarter of a point have no place in this world. None whatsoever. And when a company gets as big and monolithic as Electronic Arts has become, it's a BAD THING.
I don't know what part of "happy employees are productive employees" it is that you don't understand. The longer you can keep your team onboard, the more experienced they get. The more experienced, the more focused they are, the better your product. So many studies suggest that EA could be doing -more- with -less-. Who should we believe -- the splendid results from developers who treat workers well (i.e. Bioware) or someone like you?
And with regard to your own last sentence: "I could on and on". Forget something there? Little glitch creep in unnoticed? Funny how reading your writing feels like playing any given EA release.
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2005-03-17 02:40 (link)
Here's the deal. I'll take your position. I served in the military, and I know about long hours. And I'll do better work than you do. I won't complain. I'll push myself as hard as humanly possible until I break, because I'm very aware of my breaking point. Once I've reached that point, I'll move on to another position or company.
I live to take jobs from people like your spouse. I love to show I can perform above the low standards of the common worker. You set the bar, and I clear it.
Please, please keep on whining. It keeps me gainfully employed.
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2005-03-17 04:22 (link)
I know about long hours. And I'll do better work than you do. I won't complain. I'll push myself as hard as humanly possible until I break, because I'm very aware of my breaking point.Shouldn't you have ended you rant with comrade? Your attitude toward this would never work in the long run. If you were truly on active duty in any branch of the service you would know that it doesn't benefit anyone to take someone to their breaking point. Effective leadership prevents that because it promotes unreadiness. What you seem to be describing is a virus. not an effective worker.
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2004-12-02 05:31 (link)
You are such an idiot. "You babies stop crying and live in the real world."
What are you talking about? Who makes the world? We do. We control the vertical. We control the horizontal. EA has made a conscious decision to go down a bad path. I believe in the win-win and I work at companies who endorse that thinking. Now I don't work in the games industry (I just play the games), and after reading this thread figure I probably never will. I work long hours and I work smart. But the conditions outlined here are a joke. Somebody's making a buck on somebody else's back. Time for the programmers to unionize I reckon.
2004-12-02 16:22 (link)
what's more - EA just made it in the Top 25 companies to work for in BC - http://www.bcbusinessmagazine.com/
Go figure... I dated a guy from EA - trying to begin a relationship is hard as well. It seems ingrained in the company culture that having a relationship outside of EA is frowned upon - it takes them away from their work. I'm not the only one - several girls in the office have dated EA guys and have had the same experience. Either they're too exhausted to do anything, or they're working, or on a company 'function'. Now, most women I've spoken to if they're 'approached' by a guy working at EA, they say 'thanks, but no thanks' and walk away. Sad, but true.
I thought I wanted to work there - now, I really have better places to work that appreciate balance. I'm in the process of a career change into online game/testing development, I have no plans to ever apply to EA for a job in that area.
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2005-01-10 12:52 (link)
"if EA didn't buy out Maxis where would Maxis be today?? That would go for any other of the buy outs that EA had purchased through out the years."
perhaps if publishers weren't constantly trying to get AAA titles in 6 months, and then closing said companies down (by default - with no funding) when their ridiculous development schedule and meddling external producers (who have wangled their way to the top from a QA department) finally result in yet another copycat no-sales no-brainer.
Good things take time, regardless of how big your marketing spend (and marketing mouth) is.
Re: The video game industry needs a reality check. I used to work at Atari
2005-01-17 23:33 (link)
I worked as a temporary Quality Assurance tester for Atari for about 4 months, before the entire 60+ person Massachusetts QA staff was eventually eliminated with 2 layoffs in a 1 month period. 1 layoff for the temporary, non-atari employees, who are sacrificing their social lives, dignity, and financial independence due to VERY LOW!! unlivable salaries. The other layoff happened about a month later, that layed off the "Atari" employees.
I can confirm that this "Work Rediculously Long Hours", "Treat the employees like mindless worker bees without lives, families, friends, emotions, etc", mind set is consistent throughout the entire industry.
While our immediate QA managers were pretty nice guys, they still did answer to higher up executives from corporate HQ, (specifically the french CEO who of course hired his inexperienced, unqualified very young son for a nice position) and had to enforce their work requirements accordingly.
That being said, we were absolutely required to work a minimum of 60 hours per week, even if the game we were working on was months away from code release. Once the game I was working on kicked into crunch time, our requirement didn't technically go up, but we were basically encouraged to work to the point of exhaustion.
If we did't work the most we physically could, we were basically given unformal conformation that we would not be "Hired" for future positions and would either be let go, or would remain temp employees without benefits, job security, or respect from the company.
This happens more frequently in the quality assurance department, where employees are treated with no respect, usually no job security, and as temporary solution to solve videogames biggest problem,,,BUGS....The industry needs to take a long hard look in the mirror, and re-evaluate its current labor practices, business models, human resources, and people vs. project management.
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2005-02-13 18:09 (link)
This work practice definitely is illegal. Making employees work overtime hours without pay when they don't qualify for the exemption rule of 90K salaries per year is illegal. It's great that the employees at EA are joining together to file a class action law suit against the company. I'd say sue them for every penny they've got for treating humans like robots or worse yet slaves. It doesn't matter if this practice in the industry is the norm or not, it's still illegal.
I've never worked in the game industry before, although I at one point had aspirations to do so, and now after reading this article am quite discouraged.
I have, however, worked in the automotive industry as a manufacturing engineer on new vehicle launches. There too working long hours are the norm and typically fresh college grads are placed on the job as I was. It was required to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and in addition you were placed at the launch site of the new vehicle which was typically out of state or out of the country (in the case of Canada and Mexico) and away from your family of course.
However, there are some very distinct differences between how the automotive industry managemet handles its employees and the game industry's way which is very sloppy and inefficient in my opinion.
Difference number one is that you get paid for every hour you work. So if you are doing 84 hours a week you get paid for every single hour. I was contract so I got paid straight time for the ot I worked. However the direct hire guys really made out big. They got 1.5 hours for every hour they worked over 8 hours on a weekday. On Saturday's they got paid 1.5 hours for every hour they worked. On Sundays's they got paid double time for every hour they worked.
Difference number two, even if you are working out of state on a launch assignment, the company pays for you to either fly or drive back to visit your family for weekends every 2-3 weeks.
Difference number three, you are paid all expenses for your out of state assignment. Food, gas, lodging, laundry, rental car - you name it, it is paid for. If you were a direct hire (I was a contractor at the time) you also get a per diem for meal allowances. You got about 50 dollars a day whether you used it or not. So that's like an additional 1500 a month right there. Also, the contractors got to stay in some really nice corporate housing fully furnished and fully equipped apartments with washers/dryers, stove, balcony, the whole bit. Sometimes the direct hire guys were put up in 3000K+ month condo's which were just plain awesome.
So the end result is that people wanted to go out on product launches because of all the incentives. Not the other way around as in the game industry where you are exploited.
I've been with the same contracting company in the automotive industry and still am for the past 9 years now and haven't regretted one day of it.
Now that I have family, my company has stop sending me on launches because they realize I am human. I was promoted to a sr. level engineering job where I work only 40 hour weeks now. I love all the extra time I have on my hands now to play with the kids and enjoy my hobbies. I used to be a huge video/computer gaming buff, but now rarely have the time to spend on it with family, job and school responsibilities. I'll break out a game every once in a while and play. My favorite right now is Warcraft III.
Oh yeah and one more thing. I know quite a bit about human psychology and physiology since I studied it in college and have a personal interest in health. Studies have shown that people work most productively when they have frequent breaks. Time-motion studies have proven this as well. It's a fact people work best in spurts. The same thing applies to studying as to work. You'd rather work or study in 30 minute spurts with 5-10 minute breaks in between, than burn yourself out working 12-14 hours straight.
Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2005-03-26 05:05 (link)
Im an architecture student in Louisiana, and i have to say that this blog really hit home for me. We in the school put in similar hours, but dont get paid...in fact, we actually pay to subject ourselves to this hell (what the hell was i thinking?!) What i know though is that our nightmare will eventually end (after 5 years) but yours seems to be perpetual. All i can say is that life is too short to be spending the majority of it making money for some asshole who makes shitty games. Mabey money and a nice car are important, but most people will have to pay the price, both in money and quality of life. What good is an awesome sportscar if you can't drive it in the sun (because you work during the daylight hours)? Ive decided to side with the blog. Making C's in school is far better than wasting the prime years of my life sitting on a hard stool in a room with 30 other people, working like a child in a sweatshop. Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis
2005-03-27 09:40 (link)
I knew some folk in architecture when I was in college, and I have to say I think that system is severely broken, too. They also slept under their desks and never saw the light of day for weeks on end -- the situation was fairly infamous around the university. Obviously all it did was weed out people who had a lot of great potential but no interest in killing themselves; in my observation, the cream of the crop switched majors pretty rapidly, and the ones that were left were not the ones with the greatest talent OR passion.
Time Will Definately Tell
2004-11-10 21:07 (link)
The good thing about this is that EA will never retain any real talent for any significant period of time, and because of this their games will continue to be made by the studios that they buy. Innovation withing your company and your refusal to be bought are the only things that can help sink this behemoth.
Don't get me wrong. The sports games are great, and the people that work on them deserve all the kudos in the world. The problem is that every Tom, Dick, and Harry will keep buying them, and that's what keeps EA in business.
I've worked in that shiny building by the marsh, and been with the company for 3 years now. The problem is complete incompetance on the part of managers and producers, and the overall corporations lack of interest in doing anything about it.
Anyone who spends any significant amount of time with EALA's EPs like Mark Skaggs or Ricky G will notice very quickly that they are not only undeserving of their position, but have no problem letting the burden of game development be carried on the backs of the people below them. Normally this would be ok, but since they fuck around for 75% of the project, the team has to spend 6 months before Christmas making up for their incompetence. The lack of intelligence stems further though. Anyone who spends 30 minutes with Harvard Bonin can attest to this.
Take my advice. Do not go to work here. If you work here, find the quickest way to go somewhere else, and don't be ashamed of letting everyone you know how manipulative and soul-less EA is.
A selfish, market-driven society is eroding our very humanity
Saturday September 18, 2004
It has become almost an article of faith in our society that change is synonymous with progress. The present government has preached this message more than most, while it is a philosophy that most people seem to live by. It is nonsense, of course. Change has never always been good. And recent surveys indicating that we are less happy than we used to be suggest a profound malaise at the heart of western society and modern notions of progress.
The findings are not surprising. The very idea of what it means to be human - and the necessary conditions for human qualities to thrive - are being eroded. The reason we no longer feel as happy as we once did is that the intimacy on which our sense of well-being rests - a product of our closest, most intimate relationships, above all in the family - is in decline. In this context, three trends are profoundly changing the nature of our society. First, the rise of individualism, initially evident in the 1960s, has made self the dominant interest, the universal reference point and one's own needs as the ultimate justification of everything. We live in the age of selfishness.
Second, there has been the relentless spread of the market into every part of society. The marketisation of everything has made society, and each of us, more competitive. The logic of the market has now become universal, the ideology not just of neoliberals, but of us all, the criterion we use not just about our job or when shopping, but about our innermost selves, and our most intimate relationships. The prophets who announced the market revolution saw it in contestation with the state: in fact, it proved far more insidious than that, eroding the very notion of what it means to be human. The credo of self, inextricably entwined with the gospel of the market, has hijacked the fabric of our lives. We live in an ego-market society.
Third, there is the rise of communication technologies, notably mobile phones and the internet, which are contracting our private space, erasing our personal time and accelerating the pace of life. Of course, we remain deeply social animals. We enjoy many more relationships than we used to: cafe culture has become the symbol of our modern conviviality. But quantity does not mean quality. Our relationships may be more cosmopolitan but they are increasingly transient and ephemeral. Our social world has come to mirror and mimic the rhythms and characteristics of the market, contractual in nature. Meanwhile, the family - the site of virtually the only life-long relationships we enjoy - has become an ever-weaker institution: extended families are increasingly marginal, nuclear families are getting smaller and more short-lived, almost half of all marriages end in divorce, and most parents spend less time with their pre-school children.
The central site of intimacy is the family - as expressed in the relationship between partners, and between parents and children. Intimacy is a function of time and permanence. It rests on mutuality and unconditionality. It is rooted in trust. As such, it is the antithesis of the values engendered by the market.
Yet even our most intimate relationships are being corroded by the new dominant values. There is an increasingly powerful tendency to judge love and sex by the criteria of consumer society - in other words, novelty, variety and disposability. Serial monogamy is now our way of life. Sex has been accorded a status, as measured by the incidence of articles in newspapers, not to mention the avalanche of online porn, that elevates it above all other considerations. Unsurprisingly, love - which belongs in the realm of the soul and spirit rather than the body - becomes more elusive.
It is the deterioration in the parent-child relationship, though, that should detain us most. This, after all, is the cradle of all else, where we learn our sense of security, our identity and emotions, our ability to love and care, to speak and listen, to be human.
The parent-child, especially the mother-child, relationship stands in the sharpest contrast of all to the laws of the market. It is utterly unequal, and yet there is no expectation that the sacrifice entails or requires reciprocation. On the contrary, the only way a child can reciprocate is through the love they give, and the sacrifice they make, for their own children.
But this most precious of all human relationships is being amended and undermined. As women have been drawn into the labour market on the same scale as men, they are now subject to growing time-scarcity, with profound consequences for the family, and especially children. The birth rate has fallen to historic new lows. That most fundamental of human functions, reproduction, is beleaguered by the values of the ego-market society. Couples are increasingly reluctant to make the inevitable "sacrifices" - cut in income, loss of time, greater pressure - that parenthood involves.
Parents are now spending less time with their babies and toddlers. The effects are already evident in schools. In a study published by the government's Basic Skills Agency last year, teachers claim that half of all children now start school unable to speak audibly and be understood by others, to respond to simple instructions, recognise their own names or even count to five. In order to attend to our own needs, our children are neglected, our time substituted by paying for that of others, videos and computer games deployed as a means of distraction. And the problem applies across the class spectrum. So-called "money-rich, time-scarce" professionals are one of the most culpable groups. Time is the most important gift a parent can give a child, and time is what we are less and less prepared to forgo.
It is impossible to predict the precise consequences of this, but a growing loss of intimacy and a decline in emotional intelligence, not to mention a cornucopia of behavioural problems, are inevitable. Judging by this week's survey of the growing emotional problems of teenagers, they are already apparent. Such changes, moreover, are permanent and irrecoverable. A generation grows up knowing no different, bequeathing the same emotional assumptions to its offspring.
But it is not only in the context of the changing texture of human relationships that intimacy is in decline. We are also becoming less and less intimate with the human condition itself. The conventional wisdom is that the media has made us a more thoughtful and knowledgeable society. The problem is that what we learn from the media is less and less mediated by personal experience, by settled communities that provide us with the yardstick of reality, based on the accumulated knowledge of people whom we know and trust. Indeed, society has moved in precisely the opposite direction, towards an increasingly adolescent culture which denigrates age and experience. In the growing absence of real-life experience we have become prey to what can only be described as a voyeuristic relationship with the most fundamental experiences.
Death - which most of us now only encounter in any intimate way in our 40s, through the death of a parent - has become something that we overwhelmingly learn about and consume through the media. But as such it is shorn of any pain, any real understanding, wedged between stories about celebrity or the weather, instantly forgotten, the mind detained for little more than a minute, the grief of those bereaved utterly inconceivable, the idea that their lives have been destroyed forever not even imaginable in our gratification-society: pain is for the professionals, not something to detain the ordinary mortal.
The decline of settled community and the rise of the media-society has desensitised us as human beings. We have become less intimate with the most fundamental emotions, without which we cannot understand the meaning of life: there are no peaks without troughs. Life becomes shopping.
So what is to be done, I hear the policy-wonks say. Nothing much, I guess. But the observation is no less important for that. What, after all, could be more important than our humanity? Perhaps if enough people realise what has happened, what is happening, we might claw back a little of ourselves, of what we have lost.
∑ Martin Jacques is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Asia Research Centre.
Michael Jones, an architect at a top-tier firm in New York, juggling multiple projects and running on four hours of sleep is business as usual. Mr. Jones has adjusted, he says, to a rapid pace and the constant pressure that leads his colleagues to "blow up" from time to time.
A design project can drag on for more than a year, often requiring six-day workweeks and painstaking effort. At the moment, he said, he is working on four.
But for Mr. Jones, the stress is worth it, if only because every now and then he can gaze at the Manhattan skyline and spot a product of his labor: the soaring profile of the Chatham apartment building on East 65th Street, one of many structures he has helped design in his 14 years at Robert A. M. Stern Architects.
"If I didn't feel like I was part of something important, I wouldn't be able to do this," he said.
Mr. Jones belongs to a rare breed of worker that psychologists have struggled to understand for decades, not for the sheer amount of stress they grapple with day to day, but for the way they flourish under it. They are a familiar but puzzling force in the workplace, perpetually functioning in overdrive to meet a punishing schedule or a demanding boss.
To colleagues, these men and women may seem simply like workaholics. But psychologists who study them call them resilient, or hardy, and say they share certain backgrounds and qualities that enable them to thrive under enormous pressure.
"People who are high in hardiness enjoy ongoing changes and difficulties," said Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of a forthcoming book, "Resilience at Work." "They find themselves more involved in their work when it gets tougher and more complicated. They tend to think of stress as a normal part of life, rather than as something that's unfair.''
Chronic stress has been linked to an array of illnesses, including heart disease and depression. But people who cope successfully, studies have found, punch in at work with normal levels of stress hormones that climb during the day and drop sharply at night. Their coworkers who complain of being too stressed have consistently higher levels of hormones that rarely dip very far, trapping them in a constant state of anxiety.
At the same time, resilient people seem to avoid stress-related health and psychological problems, even as colleagues are falling to pieces, say researchers who have studied strenuous work environments.
"Some of it is genetic, some of it is how you were raised, and some it is just your personality," Dr. Bruce McEwen, director of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at Rockefeller University, said.
People who thrive under pressure do not necessarily seek out particular professions, researchers say. But whether they are on the trading floor or the campaign trail, they all appear to have had early experiences in difficult environments that taught them how to regulate their stress levels. They can sense when they are reaching their breaking point, and they know when to take a walk or turn off the ringer.
In some cases, these people subject themselves to stresses of their own making, driven by an unconscious urge to conquer pressures that dogged them as children or young adults, said Steven Kuchuck, a psychotherapist in New York who treats many patients who seek out demanding jobs and relationships.
"There's this strong desire to go back to similar sources of stress that they grew up with in an effort to master it," Mr. Kuchuck said. "Some people will say 'No, I don't like a lot of stress,' but they find themselves in one stressful job after another, so there must be something that's pulling them."
Mr. Kuchuck has also seen the opposite: people who crave a frenzied career because they feel their childhoods were not stimulating at all.
But regardless of what propels people to push themselves, what allows them to prosper, psychologists say, is a strong commitment to their career, a feeling of being in control, and a tendency to view stress as a challenge rather than as a burden.
People's attitudes toward their jobs and the degree to which they feel they make a difference by showing up each day have long been considered powerful indicators of how well they will do. Being just another cog in a machine with no say over what happens is almost guaranteed to cause burnout. But even in the most grueling work environment, people can cope if they feel they have some control.
Studies of professional musicians show that people in orchestras are often less satisfied and more stressed than those in small chamber groups because they lack autonomy, according to Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford and the author of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers." Orchestra musicians are at the mercy of their maestro's every whim. For years, they had no power even to take regular bathroom breaks.
"The people who are under someone's thumb, who are low-ranking and don't have any decision-making,'' Dr. McEwen said, "these are the people who always experience more anxiety."
People who exhibit hardiness are reluctant to cede control. They are also less likely to feel victimized by their bosses or by unpredictable life circumstances. When there is a crisis at work, they can tough it out because they accept a harsh workload or the occasional pink slip as an unsavory but inevitable part of life, psychologists say.
"They know there'll be different challenges, some you can't even anticipate, yet they train their minds to say these things are expected," said Dr. Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of "The Power of Resilience."
Anticipating troubled waters can decrease vulnerability to stress-induced diseases. In the early 1980's, Dr. Maddi of U.C. Irvine followed hundreds of employees at Illinois Bell when its parent company, AT&T, was facing federal deregulation. More than 10,000 people eventually lost their jobs.
"There was suicide, depression, anxiety disorders, divorces, heart attacks, strokes - all the things that could be attributed to massive stress," Dr. Maddi said.
But while about two-thirds of the workers in Dr. Maddi's sample unraveled, the other third thrived. They survived the incident with their health intact and hung onto their jobs or moved to another company where they quickly climbed up the ranks.
When the researchers went back and reviewed their first set of interviews, they found that many of the people who made it through unscathed had stressful family backgrounds - constant moving, their parents getting divorced - and were more likely to describe change as inevitable.
"Some of the people who cracked had initially taken a job with Bell rather than I.B.M. because they believed it was safe and didn't want any disruption," Dr. Maddi said.
Stress is unavoidable, so bracing for it every now and then is the best way to cope. But people who are on constant alert may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, psychologists say.
Those who collapse under the pressures of the workplace are prone to envision every worst-case scenario, while resilient people think of how a greater workload, for example, might lead to a promotion. In studies, researchers have found that perhaps the only time pessimists thrive is when they become lawyers.
"If you're drawing up a contract, the ability to see every foreseeable danger is something that goes along with pessimism, but it's also what makes a good lawyer," Dr. Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said. "The problem is, not only are they good at seeing that the roof might collapse on you, they're also good at seeing that their mate might be having an affair, that they're never going to make partner."
But one way to overcome cynicism and exhaustion, said Dr. Andy Morgan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale, is with a sense of personal accomplishment.
An architect who toils six days a week, regularly burning the midnight oil, like Mr. Jones, can be happy if a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline illustrates the value of his efforts.
"When you feel that you're accomplishing something, it's akin to a sense of control," Dr. Morgan said. "When people start feeling that what they're doing is not meaningful, then they take more sick days, begin looking for another job, and complain of health problems."
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