Life Plan

Only The Rich Can Turn Their Phones Off: The Harsh Lesson of Patrick Pichette

Google CFO Patrick Pichette’s retirement note made many cheer, with its stirring declaration to focus on personal happiness after years of toil. Most of us will never be able to afford to do the same.

03.12.15 9:15 AM ET

All of the people who created the always-on culture are abandoning it.

The latest, on Tuesday night, was Google CFO Patrick Pichette, who wrote a stunner of an exit note to the world. And it was not a note to Google, whom he says he loved and which left him feeling fulfilled and, for the most part, whole. It was, in fact, to the world.

He lays out a beautiful image: At the very tip-top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, he turns to his wife, and she looks back, 25 years into the marriage, and asks, “Why don’t we keep going?” And by keep going, she means not up the mountain, and not with this marriage despite the iPhone going off all the time, but out to the Serengeti and the corners and the middle of Africa and beyond. It is a gorgeous image, and then he tempers it:

But I have emails, he says.

And then, on crowd-pleasing terms, he quits his job forever.

Pichette’s leaving his job as a CFO to see the world now, and good on him. He’s leaving his cellphone decidedly somewhere else.

But he is, in fact, leaving behind an American working culture that he helped create—one that is on the clock as long as it’s near a cellphone (or, always)—and he’s not alone.

Katharine Zaleski, who’s the president of her company PowerToFly, recently came to the same realization: She had enabled (and maybe even created) an impossible work environment to anyone with a soul. While on maternity leave, she realized how unfair she had been to working mothers in her own workplaces.

The truth is, escape of the kind Pichette has alighted upon is now an option available only to an increasingly rare few. Like when you’re a CFO at Google, or the president of your own company.

Not all thrive in the chaos of an on-call culture. Many, or most, simply work harder and more than ever for just enough to catch up to the rising cost of basic goods, or the astronomical cost of home ownership, or the inflated cost of a college education.

Many, or most, cannot afford vacations like Pichette’s to assuage and suspend the rigors of nonstop work.

Many, or most, toil.

The worst part? The problem is not the embarrassing internal imbroglio we think it is or make it out to be—that when we consider our time on this Earth, we weigh the value of our own importance to the world as a worker against how that might be better spent with our family.

That is an emotional rationalization to make it appear as if most of us have that choice.

The problem is that we are too tired and poor to consider that at all. And, when we do, we often simply do not have the means to change it.

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The false choice that we can turn our work off when we leave the office is part of an American dream that long ago ate itself. Productivity has risen 64.9 percent in the United States from 1979 to 2013. Wages grew just 6 percent in the same time period. Average college tuition soared from just under $11,000 in 1973 to a little over $30,000 in 2014.

To continue collecting a paycheck above minimum wage in a meek economy, workers have handed over their off-hours as a vow of fidelity to their jobs above all. They have dissolved their lives to appear more dedicated.

And for what? For the ability to one day be lucky enough to make leaving it the choice they have always pretended that it is.

Zaleski says, “Mothers could have a third option that would allow them to either remain in the workforce or be a part of it even from areas with few job options. All the tools exist for remote work—Slack, Jira, Skype, Trello, Google Docs.”

But, of course, we don’t use those tools to allow ourselves more free time. We use those tools to be available for work during every waking hour.

Americans work more than any other Western nation, and they work more weekend and overtime hours than anybody else by a longshot. It is not simply part of our identity. It is the necessity of being alive as an American in 2015. It is our whole identity by default.

Western workers are starting to figure this out. In August of last year, David Graeber wrote a story for the London alt-weekly Strike! called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” This might not sound like a big deal, but every time a new wave of readers finds this piece, something unbelievable happens: Average people get very, very attached to it.

Within two weeks of its publication, he says, it was translated into 20 different languages. A few months later, on January 2, when most people were taking the Tube back to work, signs showed up in the London subway with full sentences from the article. One example: “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

Then, last month, a Youtube video of him simply talking about his article on the Russo-British TV station RT went viral. The video was unlisted. He doesn’t know how it happened.

The crux of it?

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour workweek. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.

“In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

“We need to change our definition of work,” says Graeber, from London. When The Daily Beast calls him, he is responding from a phone in a bathtub, so he has certainly figured something out.

“Historically, in the 19th century is when we started to hear that real value came from work—and that our value is in the stuff that we make. In the 20th century, it shifted. Now, value comes from brilliant entrepreneurs: They make the whole system and you're just a bunch of stupid machines,” says Graeber.

And that, Graeber says, is where a problem comes in: If a workforce is told that its value isn't in the actual creation of a tangible thing, then it will have to find some worth in another way.

“So then the value becomes doing the work itself, not the thing you’ve created. If you don’t work really hard—if you don’t have the hours to show for it—you’re a bad person,” he says. “Once you say that work is good and it doesn’t matter whether it produces something or not, it creates this bizarre idea where it can be even more moral if it produces nothing.”

That’s how, he says, we get a culture obsessed with its phones, determined to never miss that incorporeal something—when the something, as Patrick Pichette found out, is not necessarily ever achievable at work.

Pichette had to climb the mountain—both to the bleeding edge of progress (Google), and the literal one (Kilimanjaro)—to find that out. The rest of us, feeling the phantom vibrations of an empty connected life, are finding it out slowly, our introspection quieted by the lonely hum of our now technologically enslaved selves.