Mad About Information

No e-mail, no mobiles, no texts

No e-mail, no mobiles, no texts, no overload

One of the many pleasures of watching the television series Mad Men, a drama set on Madison Avenue in the 1950s and, more recently, in the 1960s, is the opportunity to see how work – and the work-life balance – have both changed in the ensuing years.

In the world of Mad Men of 1965, the creation of FedEx was still eight years away, computers were behind glass walls, carefully watched over by scientists in white lab coats, telephones had cords (and multi-line phones had thick cords), and the letter “e” would not be affixed to the word “mail” for some time.

In the offices of Sterling Cooper, the mythical ad agency where most of the key characters work, there are no computers.  IBM Selectric typewriters grace the desks of secretaries (dedicated word processing machines were first invented around 1965, the year the series takes place in 2010, when I am writing this).

A photocopier, namely the Xerox 914, was the highest form of technology that I have seen deployed at Sterling Cooper.  Copies of memos were distributed and most of the knowledge workers, excuse me, copy writers, used a combination of paper and pen (or pencil) or typewriter.

Work-life balance
Mad Men demonstrates, with a reasonable degree of accuracy (the show’s producers are sticklers for this), that it was possible to both go to work, put in a day at the office, and enjoy oneself at the same time in the 1950s and 1960s.

Indeed, based on 2010 conventions, the ad men at Sterling Cooper enjoy life a bit too much.  They puffed away at cigarettes while at their desks.  They drank (sometimes starting before breakfast).  They flirted and also had the occasional workplace romance.  Some of the younger staff amused themselves by drawing lewd cartoons of female workers or making racial or anti-gay jokes.

But they seemingly enjoyed far more of a work-life balance than their counterparts today.

One thing that is missing from the picture is e-mail.  Also in the not-yet-invented category are mobile phones, social networks, instant messaging, Twitter, FourSquare, and FedEx (for when something absolutely, positively has to be there overnight).

The characters in Mad Men don’t follow the romantic notion expressed in 1950s sitcoms of always arriving magically and shortly after 5 p.m. to a wife who has slippers, a pipe, and a cocktail waiting.  In fact, the ad men seem to go out for drinks together, with clients or just with each other, quite a bit.

And they do not at all seem to be under the type of pressure that the typical knowledge worker of today enjoys.

Except for the occasional phone call or surprise drop-in visit, workers were never on call or tethered to the office 24/7.  There is no question that people 30 and 40 years ago were better able to spend time with their families and friends.

Starting in the 1960s, more women began to join the workforce and both husbands and wives worked longer and longer hours (this resulted in so-called DINS marriages, “double income, no sex”).   Indeed, researchers estimate that people today sleep between one and two fewer hours per day than their parents did a generation ago (on the plus side, the market for sleep aids, in part propelled by the real companies of Madison Avenue, is now a multi-billion dollar market).

The knowledge worker of the 1950s and 1960s had most of the information he needed at his fingertips and rarely was a victim of Information Overload.  The lack of widely-deployed computers and overnight deliveries kept the movement and creation of information to a reasonably comfortable level and the invention of tools that would feed the need for instant gratification were still decades away.

Little did anyone know what was yet to come.

A FedEx television commercial from the 1990s summed it up nicely:

“In this fast moving, high pressure, get it done world, aren’t you glad there’s one company that can keep up with it all?   Federal Express. When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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