No, you can't have it all

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in CNN on 20 October 2015

Technology has always been about choice: Fire allowed us to choose to live in colder climates. Electric lighting offered us the choice to read at night. Drugs give us the freedom to choose stressful, self-destructive lifestyles.

And digital technology gives us the ability to do more than one thing at the same time – or at least it feels that way.

In Anne-Marie Slaughter’s provocatively commonsensical new book, “Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family,” she’s not concerned with the digital at all, but the problem she’s pointing to is a form of its multitasking ethos writ large: the way women and men, but women in particular, must prioritize (that is, juggle) career and family.

In stark opposition to the can-do feminism embraced by some of today’s C-suite female superstars, Slaughter makes the simple but undeniably realistic case for lowering our expectations. The idea of parents perfectly balancing family duties so they can prioritize their careers equally just doesn’t work in practice, says Slaughter. “The problem is that ‘fifty-fifty’ is just too pat. Life rarely works out that way. And it’s much harder to be honest about what it really takes.”

As a result, we must abandon the notion that anyone – man or woman – can fully dedicate themselves to both family and career at the same time. “We often cannot control the fate of our career and family; insisting that we can obscures the deeper structures and forces that shape our lives and deflects attention from the larger changes that must be made.”

Sadly, perhaps, one parent will end up doing more parenting and miss out on career opportunities, while the other will miss out on some family joys, but end up higher on the corporate ladder. This is more the problem of competitive corporate culture than it is the failure of individuals to find balance or to work hard enough.

But our technologies, and the culture they spawn, would beg to differ. They want us to believe we can do it all. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg became something of a pop business hero for advocating that women “lean in” and do whatever it takes to strive for leadership roles in the workplace – even if it means hiring people to nanny, tutor, and coach one’s kids. Outsource, borrow, push, and strive. It’s a pedal-to-the-metal approach to life and work that really only makes sense if you’re thinking of your family like a startup you can “flip” once you’ve finished building it by any means necessary.

The inclination for multitasking engendered by our digital platforms and their advocates has created the false impression that we can actually do everything we want, all at once. We think we can answer email as well while driving a car as we can at our desks, send sensible tweets while watching a concert, or do homework well while conversing on Snapchat.

Yet every study so far has shown us to be less effective when attempting to multitask. Even when our subjective impression is of having accomplished more in less time, in reality we get less done, we do it with less accuracy and depth, and we remember less about it later. Doing more at once robs all our activities of the attention they deserve – and the experience we deserve.

Slaughter daringly suggests we stop compensating for the unreasonable and dehumanizing demands of corporate culture by running our home lives as if they were the offshore manufacturing arms of a conglomerate. And that we stop blaming ourselves for not being able to measure up to these false ideals.

As she says: “When law firms and corporations hemorrhage talented women who reject lockstep career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over the quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women.”