III. As I write this piece at home in my Manhattan loft, I'm also elsewhere—leaning across the desk to help my 10-year-old daughter with her online math assignment, shouting at my 9-year-old son to turn down the volume on his Guitar Hero videogame and texting my wife as she shuttles between meetings. I am eager for her to get home, so we can plan our business-travel schedules and the kids' after-school activities for the spring. Then it will be my turn to go out for a meeting with a co-worker.
Here but also there, living in a blended world of work and leisure, home and office, I'm one of a new breed of American professional in Obamaland: the Elsewhere Class. This group of white-collar workers is fundamentally different from the midcentury image of the "company man" or "the man in the gray flannel suit," that executive of yesteryear who worked much closer to the production of physical goods, even if he didn't actually get his hands dirty himself. He drank and smoked more, although he also puffed less marijuana and popped fewer antidepressants than today's anxious adults. And, most important, he labored fewer hours, leaving his work behind at the office.
Today's professional, by contrast, is constantly dogged by a feeling that he or she should be "elsewhere"—back at the office, at a party full of potential clients, home with the kids or at a social function with the spouse. Always on the go, we feel like we are in the right place at the right time only when in transit, moving from point A to B. Constant motion is a balm to an anxious culture where we are haunted by the feeling that we are frauds, expendable in the workplace because so much of our service work is intangible. While there have always been white-collar workers who provided services—the lawyers, bankers and the Mad Men of advertising—never have so many professionals worked in such abstract industries so far removed from fulfilling basic physical needs. Think management consultants, investment analysts and publicity agents. What's more, the ubiquity of information in today's "knowledge economy" makes each occupation's claim to unique expertise flimsier and flimsier. We all should worry—rightly—that Google, open source and Web 2.0 will make us as obsolete as professional travel agents.
We owe the peculiar texture of life in Elsewhere, U.S.A., to a series of slow shifts since the "peachy keen" 1950s that have affected our wallets, families and personal relationships, leaving us lost and alienated in a new land for which we have no guidebook.
The first of these changes is income inequality. On the rise since the 1960s and now at its highest level in nearly a century, it has been largely miscast as a growing gap between rich and poor, when in fact the fundamental shift has been between the rich—and the richer. The difference between the earnings of middle-class families and those on the bottom rung has remained flat, while disparities have grown on the top end of society's ladder—with the distance from the middle to the top expanding 72 percent since 1967. Today, the family at the 95th percentile brings in almost four times the median (or typical) family income of $50,233.
No wonder professionals today feel like they are falling behind even when they are doing well in absolute terms: no matter where you are in the top half of the income ladder, it appears that those just ahead of you are pulling away. (And they are.) As a result, for the first time in labor history, higher earners work more hours than low-income employees. That's right. The more we earn, the more we work. After all, if your billable rate is higher, it costs more to take time off. While 45 years ago a presidential commission worried about how Americans would create meaningful lives with so much leisure time, today we work more hours than any other industrialized nation. We work seven hours more a week than the Germans, for example. This is a reversal of the halcyon days of the 1950s and '60s when we worked less than even the French. (Today we outwork them by six weeks a year!)
The second of these changes is the rise of women in the workplace. As they've moved from the kitchen to the conference room, domestic chores have had to be outsourced—at a financial cost that keeps us working when combined with other, ever-growing consumerist needs. The number of mothers who worked outside the home rose from less than one in five in the 1950s to one in three in 1975. Today two thirds of mothers with children under the age of 18 work. Partly as a result, kids spend double the time in programmed activities after school than they did 20 years ago. So the next Elsewhere generation learns, in turn, how to manage stressful schedules, deadlines and meetings just like their parents. Home-cooked dinners too are increasingly a thing of the past (although that's good news for the food-preparation and -service sectors, the fastest-growing low-wage jobs). Dads have picked up some of the slack—taking on more household and parenting responsibilities than any previous generation of fathers even as they log more work hours; but still, the home is far from gender-equal, and the bulk of the duties falls upon women.
This vicious cycle is completed by the technological changes that we see all around us. There wasn't much that William H. Whyte's Organization Man of the 1950s could do once he got home, but today's professional couples can work any time and any place—even on a so-called vacation. That's thanks to the fact that much of our economy is weightless and thus can be handled in the palms of our hands on laptops, iPhones and BlackBerrys.
The result is nothing less than the loss of barriers that insulate us from modern capitalism. Today, not only is home more like the office—since 1980 the number of Americans whose principal place of work is home has doubled—the office is more like home. Take Google, which is to the Elsewhere Class of today what General Motors was to the man in the gray flannel suit. The Internet firm offers its workers laundry service, massages, volleyball courts, entertainment, free food and beverages and gyms for burning off all those gratis cookies. Sounds great, but the somewhat insidious goal is to make the office more attractive than home, where your hardworking spouse is probably too tired to give you a massage and you have to pay for the takeout. And it works: Google's coders work practically nonstop.
As a result of these fundamental changes in how we live, Americans in the middle and upper classes were experiencing intense anxiety and alienation even before the financial crisis. Although not everyone is part of this Elsewhere Society, we can all recognize it around us and are subject to its gravitational pull at various points in time. It's not even that our activities have necessarily changed, but their meaning has. Once, playing ball with our kids on a Saturday afternoon was unremarkable. And driving an old car and living a simple life was a default option. Now each of these has become a self-conscious lifestyle choice to go against an invisible societal flow. Perhaps the recession will slow down these currents, but somehow I imagine our dogged pursuit by our anxieties will only speed up in bad times as well as good.