A recent trip to the West Coast reminded me of cultural differences within the country. The all-encompassing nature of some private sector information firms there is quite distinct from that of older east coast companies. On-site free eating areas, dry cleaners, game rooms, rest areas — encourage employees to send more time at work. They do. Transportation to and from city centers in company buses and vans assure that worked can continue a focus on work during their transportation.
Further, the service industries that have arisen permit employees to minimize their time in interaction with others. A popular ongoing service is home delivery of gasoline for automobiles that fill tanks at night so that time spent on that activity is eliminated from one’s life. On the street, a first – a robotic coffee kiosk with diverse offerings of size, type of coffee, and drink type. No human needed. Food delivery is ubiquitous. Never having to leave work or one’s house is completely possible.
Such a life maximizes focus on one’s work, a wonderful freedom if one’s work is deeply satisfying.
Upon reflection, such hours are not unlike many of those spent by many professionals. Even without employers’ support of all one’s life’s needs in a self-sufficient cocoon, many professionals seem consumed by their devotion to work. The ubiquitous mobile phone permits ongoing work each weekend, indeed, all hours of the night every night.
These are comments about those in the higher percentiles of income and wealth. But similar comments could be offered about those in the lower percentiles. Lives spent juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet produce a similar all-encompassing focus. In these there may be less drive to succeed in a career and more commitment to maximize income to pay the bills.
I’ve written earlier about the loss of confidence in institutions and evidence of decline in civic participation. Details of the structure of modern work lives and the lack of community integration seems complementary. Many of today’s populace seem to have no time to contribute to their community, to support civic institutions, or to integrate into the life of their neighborhoods.
Of course, universities are not at all immune to these phenomena. Faculty devote total energy to research and teaching, and whenever possible, to their professional associations. The institutions are enveloping of the full person’s energy. Email and texts with students and colleagues eat up hours of each day. Keeping up with one’s field fills every free moment.
One fear of this phenomenon is that these all-enveloping professions and their associated institutions become detached from the societies in which they are embedded. As a possible result, attitudes toward both tech firms and universities seem to be more negative over the past few years. Questions arise about whether they are serving their own interests alone or serving the larger society.
At this moment in time, universities whose mission include direct service to the outside world become important in this context. Demonstrating that those whose energies are devoted to expanding knowledge are also actively trying to serve others may now be more important than ever. While universities and the faculty that build them must indeed devote total energy to their research and teaching, organizing their teaching and research about how to build a better world has never been more important.