According to a recent study, Americans with college degrees and beyond—the ones most likely to start a new job and immediately be handed a laptop—spend 10 percent more time working now than they did in 1980. Those extra hours have been deeply felt: “Screen time” has become a thoroughly modern boogeyman, and to escape it, people are often advised to avoid bringing their phones to the dinner table, to stop scrolling through social media before bed, and to stay away from their email app before they’ve taken their morning shower.
But those habits won’t fix Americans’ relationship with work when their entire job comes home with them every night. More than the smartphone, laptops ended “work hours” as a concept. An office used to be a thing you went to for a certain number of hours a day; now, work is an entire plane of existence. When people fret about work invading all hours of life, what they’re really worried about isn’t the email that lets you know something needs to be done, but the expectation that they’ll start a task immediately, or continue working after they commute home. Things that might have been handled at 9 a.m. the next morning have suddenly become 9 p.m. problems.
For young people who have never experienced professional life any other way, being constantly available and ready to put in another hour or to solve another problem is often seen as a reputational requirement, which shoves personal interests, hobbies, and goals to the periphery of people’s life and burns them out. It makes it hard to focus on cooking dinner or getting a good night’s sleep. People take their laptop on their vacations, just in case. At many companies, laptop culture creates the expectation that a real sick day is only available to the seriously hobbled; otherwise, you and your head cold better be working from home.
Laptops, of course, aren’t all bad. They remove a barrier for those who want to write, create art, make music, or develop a new skill. Laptops can be portals of procrastination, leading to hours of Bojack Horseman or YouTube makeup tutorials. Because they’re still pretty unwieldy, they don’t lend themselves to the same kind of mindless check-ins that can make smartphones so stressful. I’ve never seen anyone nearly get hit by a car because they couldn’t look up from a computer.
Even at work, laptops do deliver some of the perks with which they were sold. For people who would rather freelance than go into an employer’s office, they really do provide the flexibility that gave people so much optimism more than a decade ago. For jobs that have always required long hours, they might mean fewer nights chained to an office desk. You can wait at home for the plumber on a Tuesday without sacrificing a day of vacation time. In real emergencies, they can be invaluable.
But laptops’ biggest sin might be granting employers the convenience to treat any little hiccup like an emergency, no matter how inconsequential. Their employees don’t have much of a choice but to pull out their computers and get to work.