Silicon Valley has changed life, but at what cost to its workers?
We recently moved to the Bay Area and rented a house in a place where we could sneak a peek at life in Silicon Valley.
My fascination with the computing industry was whet by visits to the campuses of various companies. These sprawling, beautiful campuses, with free-flowing food and drink, are modeled on paradise. The gods and demigods that prowl them simply radiate “I matter.” Also adding to my awe were the names so casually strewn about in the neighborhood — inventors of browsers, search engines, social networks, health software, mobile apps, internet and mobile technologies. The names of people who have profoundly changed life on this planet and have their finger on the fast-forward button of human society’s capabilities. The Silicon Valley czars have affected (even enriched) the lives of a staggering number of humans in Planck time (the shortest period of time conceivable), when compared with the timescale of human evolution.
To go about the business of affecting lives, the soldiers of innovation employed by these companies are organized into platoons, battalions, brigades. These armies prepare with countless keystrokes and then charge silently on to the virtual battlefield. Swarms of sentinels who possess the skill of making a machine do their bidding, and the managers who support these skilled beings, are rewarded with their weight in gold every day. The Silicon Valley dons the sheen of “green” and peacocks the aura of “making impact,” a term easily bandied about here.
I had taken a long swig of this Kool-Aid as an outsider looking in until, having two young kids, I began to see a different side of the valley.
The children of the czars and their soldiers, I found, are raised by nannies, au pairs, after-school-care workers, much-after-after-school-care aides, and in play dates, classes and camps. In short, by everyone other than parents.
Each parent works out a complex matrix of plans and arrangements to keep the child tended during their impossibly long hours toiling on the digital plain.
Children of a screen-devouring age are kept away from screens by nannies who ferry them to after-school classes. Most children get home after 6 p.m., see their siblings and parents for an hour before they go to bed, and return to the daily grind the next morning. Their childhood has no empty spaces, no afternoons of ad hoc play with siblings and neighbors, no reading library books obsessively over an entire day, no one to gossip with about what the mean kid in class did that day.
For some, two incomes are required to pay the Bay Area’s steep mortgages. For others, both parents work to be a part of the action. Given the punishing standards of productivity in the valley, these aspirations can only be achieved with uncompromising hours, often extending into nights and weekends.
“In the Bay Area, every job is 24/7,” says a weary executive in a tech giant, who also is a mother of four.
While people here accept their role as a weekend parent, the constant internal struggle between work and family creates a perceptible strain. Perhaps more frustrating is finding that one’s priorities have bipolar disorder. Sometimes the chase seems worth it. Other times, the pictures of a happy toddler playing in the sandbox sent by the nanny make one feel deprived of the primal human joy of parenting. The valley can feel lush and green, or wan and sallow.
Does productivity need to come at such a cost? Can we move toward sustainable productivity in technology work? Work-life balance is espoused as a cause, but progress toward it registers as but a blip. What is needed is a rewriting of the productivity-fulfillment equation.
Maybe this means companies give employees an option to go on a more reasonably paced “parent track.” Or offer the option of working fewer hours some days of the week. Something should change though, so the children of the valley spend quality time with their parents, and not view life as a tight matrix of impersonal schedules. For life is not the matrix but what happens in the interstitial spaces.