Thursday, January 21, 2010
When I think back on my high school experience, I remember an 8am-3pm school day, a cross country/track workout from 3p-5p, a snack until 6pm, and an hour of reading or problem sets. After that, my time was my own to experiment with early microprocessor circuits, tinker with building a hovercraft (powered by a used vacuum cleaner motor) or do personal writing (I entered dozens of essay contents as a teen). Weekends were filled with bike riding up and down the coast of California, SCUBA/snorkeling in local marine preserves, or helping around the house. Summers were filled with outdoor pursuits and low key internships.
My daughter is 16 and is experiencing the typical modern public high school schedule - classes from 7:30 or 8:30am to 2:30pm, a bit of after school community service or exercise, and then 8-9 hours of homework per night, typically ending at midnight or 1am. I've talked to other parents and found this schedule to be typical. Homework might include hundreds of pages of reading, the creation of a complex research paper, and the self teaching of advanced genetics. Given that this level of intensity is the norm, colleges consider a high grade point average in honors/AP classes plus near perfect SATs to be just a starting point.
I was not a Pulitzer prize winner, first violin for the local symphony or the lead in a Hollywood film as a teen, yet this is the kind of achievement that appears on today's college applications. Harvard admits 4% of its applicants.
In my 20's the work day began at 9am, ended at 5pm, and did not span into weekends. There was no email. Fax was an emerging technology. Overnight shipping did not exist. Modems were 110 baud.
Today's work day (not just for me but for many) is 24x7x365 with 50% more filling each day than was previously possible because hundreds of email saturate mobile devices with a constant stream of new work.
My Martin Luther King Day ("a national holiday") had 3 meetings, 500+ email, 2 conference calls and 5 projects. People used the day to catch up and now that the office is wherever your laptop and cellular are, it was a full workday for many.
Does this acceleration of stress bother me? Over the years of medical training and leading large complex organizations I've learned to adapt to just about anything. For every issue there is a process to resolve it.
Is it sustainable for society? I don't think so.
Just as humans were not content to run a 4 minute mile or ascend Everest with supplemental oxygen, we seem to be demanding more of ourselves and our families than is rational or healthy. We're becoming a nation of multi-taskers with ADHD, doing more, in shorter time, but not necessarily living happier, more satisfying lives.
Can we sit and enjoy a meal without thinking about work or checking email? Can we go to a movie or concert for an evening without needing to stay connected? Can we turn off our social networks for a week without suffering withdrawal?
The level of stress I see around me is leading humanity to increase consumption of pharmaceuticals (have a problem - take a pill), eat poorly, and reduce the baseline of human kindness (driven in Boston lately?).
My grandfather did not attend college. My father completed more education by 21 than my grandfather did in his lifetime. I completed more education by 21 than my father will in his lifetime. My daughter will complete more education by 21 than I will in my lifetime. Where does it stop?
At some point, we have to wake up, turn off our Blackberries, set limits on tolerable stress in our lives and regain our civility.
Can we reduce the size of our homes, the number of cars in our garages, and our lifestyle burn rates to enable us to work less and improve the quality of life?
I'm not worried about me - I've developed the discipline to leave my stress outside the home. I do worry about my daughter, her future children, and the generations to come.
Just as a parachuter accelerates at 32 feet/second/second until reaching terminal velocity, there is a point in our existence as humans that stress acceleration will take us to terminal velocity in the quality of our lives.
It is my hope that high schools/colleges, employers, and policymakers think about the terminal velocity we're approaching and open the parachute against stress acceleration before it's too late.
Posted by John Halamka at 3:00 AM