The following is a tale of two workers. One we will call Hugh, as in Hewlett-Packard. The other we will name Rock, as in Xerox. Hugh and Rock have been the stars of 30-second vignettes at the cutting edge, as they say in Adspeak, of the conflict between work and family.
Hugh, when we first meet him, is in the shower. But is he humming his favorite tune? No, Hugh is thinking about business. Suddenly he turns off the water, wraps a towel around his toned torso, puts on his glasses, strides to the phone without even a side glance at the gorgeous woman curled up on his sofa, and dials a colleague: "Y'know that electronic mail project for the bank? Well, I have an idea."
The not-so-subliminal message of this ad is that Hugh and his Hewlett-Packard are not the clock-watching 9-to-5 types. As the voice-over says: "An idea can happen anytime. And when you work for Hewlett-Packard, you don't just sell business computing systems, you solve problems. So when you have an idea, you do something about it." Hugh is working all the time.
What about Rock? Actually, the real star of last year's hit commercial was Rock's daughter Sarah. Sarah had her face up against the window, hoping that daddy would get there in time for the birthday party. Rock had been working later and later.
As the happy ending of this ad implied, Xerox came to the rescue! The new office efficiency had "one very important side benefit. The birthday party his daughter never forgot." Rock is not working all the time.
There are differences between Hugh and Rock that go beyond the hours they keep. Hugh lives in an upscale urban apartment. Rock lives in a house with curtains. The only woman in Hugh's life is an elegant lady who glances up adoringly as he breezes past her to the phone: Isn' he cute when he's working? The woman in Rock's life, however, is Little Sarah: Isn't she cute when he isn't working?
But the biggest gap between these two models and role models is in the sales pitch. Hugh is being sold as the person you want to hire. Rock is the person you want to be, or at least marry. Hugh is the person you would want for your company. Rock is the person you would want for your family.
In real life, these two personalities may not stay as neatly segregated as they do in the 30-second adworld. In real life, Total Worker Hugh may marry the woman on his sofa, start a family and become a Mixed Loyalty Rock. He may even ask for paternity leave.
In real life, Rock may instinctively search for a Hugh to get the office in shape so that he can make it to the birthday party. He may even demand that Hugh work overtime until the job is done.
In this same real life, most of us have personalities that are splitting all over the place. We want one thing from our employers and quite another from our employees.
A woman who has felt the demands of job and children for the past decade now manages a small business. Two of her own workers have been pregnant in the past year. Today, she confesses to me ruefully, her empathy is wearing thin. A friend was recently asked to speak at a weekend conference on balancing work and family. When this man, a father with two small children, said that he doesn't work weekends, the conference manager was wholly surprised and not pleased.
Stories like these are endemic. We want reasonable work hours for ourselves and the telephone number for plumbers who work nights. We want to be able to see our own kids' school plays and able to call our doctors out of their kids' plays. We want to get home early and to have the supermarket manager stay late.
We are all a part of the conflict between work and family, between the successful worker and the successful parent. We are its victims and its producers. To the papa Rocks go the happy children; the unencumbered Hughs get the glitzy apartments; and to the rest of us goes the schizophrenia.
What happens when we try to live by this split-screen message? We get stuck between a Rock, a Hugh and a very hard place.