USC Price professor co-authors book with tips for living, working, and parenting in a digital and distanced world.
By Cristy Lytal
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve held Zoom meetings at our kitchen tables and on our living room sofas, featuring frequent cameos by our children, spouses, and pets. We’ve come to rely on virtual backgrounds and mute buttons to delineate our home offices from our home sweet homes. We’ve spent 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in front of our computers, and 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. within arm’s reach of our smart phones.
These competing demands lie at the heart of the new book Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age. The book reflects a decade-long collaboration between authors Christine M. Beckman, who is the Price Family Chair in Social Innovation and Professor of Public Policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy, and Melissa Mazmanian, who is an associate professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine.
With help from doctoral student Ellie Harmon, the authors spent hundreds of hours visiting the homes of nine families with young children in Southern California. Each of these families had at least one parent who was an employee of Silver Lake Hospitality, a hotel management firm.
“It was super valuable to spend the amount of time we spent with each of those families,” said Mazmanian. “Clearly, it’s not unvarnished. I mean, people are still not going show you everything. But you got a pretty close and intimate experience of their lives.”
Through their immersive observations, Beckman and Mazmanian began noticing that all of the working parents were striving to embody the same cultural myths: Ideal Worker, Perfect Parent, and Ultimate Body.
These myths have become amplified in the age of smart phones, social media, and pervasive technologies. The Ideal Worker is always on demand, the Perfect Parent is omnipresent and aware of their children’s every move, and the Ultimate Body is quantified down to the number of calories and minutes of exercise.
As the technology du jour, Zoom has made it even harder to simultaneously serve all three mythical masters.
“It’s different to be checking your email at the times that you want, versus saying we have a Zoom call that starts at 7 p.m.,” said Beckman. “The autonomy and your ability to fit it in where you want disappeared.”
Technologies also obscure the more fundamental myth of the individual. In reality, no one does it on their own (even with the help of an iPhone). In some families, a stay-at-home parent, working parent, or single parent build what the authors call “scaffolding”—taking on all of the “invisible work” of running a household and coordinating paid and unpaid help. In other families, setting up the scaffolding is a joint project of both parents. In almost all cases, the scaffolding rests on the shoulders of not only parents, but also a community of teachers, nannies, maids, grandparents, relatives, neighbors, and friends.
And at the outset of the pandemic, this scaffolding came crashing down.
“One of the biggest themes of the book is understanding what allows families to engage in their lives and appear to enact these myths, and it’s through these different structures of pretty intensive help,” said Mazmanian. “And that is what was really laid bare, especially at the beginning of COVID, when people lost the structures of support immediately. And so the language to talk about the structures of scaffolding, and the language to talk about the different forms of invisible work, hopefully, are even more resonant and more needed today.”
The authors not only provide the language to define the problem, but also offer practical solutions. They suggest that parents re-examine whether the myths are serving them, have conversations with each other that acknowledge invisible work, and give themselves permission to enjoy down time for relaxing and sleeping. Workplaces can adopt and support policies that promote work-life balance and wellness, ranging from parental leave, to flexible schedules, to systems that automatically deliver after-hours emails at the beginning of the next workday. Lastly, leaders and politicians can promote family friendly policies, such as aligning the workday and the school day, enacting universal public preschool, and removing the overtime exemption for salaried workers.
The pandemic calls for even more humane and flexible policies to support families, retain working parents, and minimize long-term damage to both individual careers and the overall economy.
“We’re so focused on productivity at work, and we just have to revisit that,” said Beckman. “So we’ve held it together for six months. People are having virtual school in the fall, and organizations have to recognize that those working parents are not going to be as productive. And we need to prioritize what’s important, and it’s not like we have to be all operating at 150 percent. There’s a lot more slack in the system than we sometimes think there is. And if organizations understand that better, it is going to be really important to help people survive this time, or we’re going to be pushing people out of the workforce.”
The Price Family Chair in Social Innovation and Professor of Public Policy