The road to elsewhere: Work, family and technology

Elizabeth Hill, The University of Sydney

Dalton Conley Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety, New York, Pantheon Books, 2009 (221 pp). ISBN 9-78037542-290-4 (hard cover) RRP $38.95.

Elsewhere U.S.A. is a racy account of the social and economic changes that have produced a class of people who live their lives buffeted by the many streams of information coming to them via their BlackBerries and laptops. Old boundaries of ‘public’ and ‘private’ are shattered for the ‘Elsewhere Class’ who work, play, love and socialise with one eye always focused somewhere else. This, Dalton Conley argues, is the lifestyle of white collar professionals employed in the knowledge and information economy at the beginning of the 21st century. Wondering just how life became so fragmented and frantic, he says ‘Changes in three areas of our lives—the economy, the family and technology—have combined to alter the social world and give birth to this new type of American professional’ (p. 7).

Conley is University Professor and Dean for the Social Sciences at New York University. A self-professed member of the Elsewhere Class he is caught in a world in which he, his wife (also an academic at NYU) and two kids live according to the logic of the BlackBerry and the laptop. Conley sets out to explore how the world of his grandparents in which work was separated from home, people pursued leisure away from the workplace, and an active retirement was the reward for years of hard work has morphed into the madness of a work-centred lifestyle in which paid labour seems to invade every private space and moment. This is not the first time Conley has used his personal life experience as the springboard to broader social criticism. Honkey (2000) is Conley’s memoir of a childhood spent in a mostly black and Hispanic community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In Elsewhere U.S.A. Conley’s adult life experience as a knowledge economy worker in Manhattan provides the original field data to what he intends to be a kind of ‘first edition guidebook to this new world we have created’ (p. 18).


Conley’s detailed observation of the social and economic dynamics that shape the lifestyles of knowledge economy professionals comes with a new vocabulary designed to capture the most important ways in which life has been reconfigured. As a typical member of the Elsewhere Class, Conley argues that he, and those like him, have swapped an ethic of individualism for one of intravidualism: ‘This new breed … has multiple selves competing for attention within his/her own mind, just as externally, she or he is bombarded by multiple stimuli simultaneously’ (p. 7). Whereas individuals are driven to find their authentic self and let that guide their choices in life, an intravidual must learn to manage ‘the myriad data streams, impulses, desires and even consciousnesses that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple worlds’ (p. 7). Put like that, the 21st century professional sounds like something out of a sci-fi film! But what Conley is describing is a common, everyday experience for members of the Elsewhere Class. Social roles are no longer fixed. Instead we move continuously between multiple roles of worker, parent, lover, artist, gardener etcetera. Each of these roles has specific responsibilities attached. The problem is that the worlds these roles belong to often clash and cause all kinds of logistical, psychological and emotional tension. This is most acutely experienced by workers with children—Conley’s uber-affected members of the Elsewhere Class.

A new economic anxiety is especially prevalent amongst those who earn high wages.

Women’s increasing participation in paid labour is one of the main economic and social trends Conley argues has shifted our worlds and, as it turns out, our heads. Add recent technological developments such as the BlackBerry and the laptop into the mix—the second major change Conley identifies—and the old double-brick wall between work and home becomes as porous and unstable as a sand castle. The result can be mind-bending argues Conley as ‘Many Americans—particularly those with children to take care of—have morphed into hyperactive people constantly shuttling between where we think we have to be (home? work? the party full of potential clients?) and where we think we should be (the country for a weekend with the kids? with this husband or a new one?)’ (p. 8). Constant toggling between multiple roles and responsibilities means professionals in the Elsewhere Society ‘are only convinced they are in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time, when they are on their way to the next destination … Constant motion is a balm to a culture in which the very notion of authenticity has been shattered into a thousand emails’ (p. 8).

The root cause of so much activity Conley argues is a new economic anxiety that is especially prevalent amongst those who earn high wages. Conley cites growing income inequality between the richest third of professionals in the USA (that is inequality between the rich and the super-rich) as one of the main drivers of the work, work, work culture prevalent amongst knowledge economy workers. Rising inequality among these professionals who earn very high wages is causing a panic, producing what Conley calls the ‘economic red shift’. The problem here is that those earning very high wages can always see others out ahead of them who earn even more. From where they stand, they feel poor. This is not a new idea. Alain de Botton talks of the same phenomenon in Status Anxiety (2005) as does Clive Hamilton in Affluenza (2005).

The remedy for this economic anxiety argues Conley is to work more and work harder. And we can. BlackBerries and laptops are the furniture of the new ‘portable office’ where work is always possible. But in the all pervasive ‘price culture’ of the new economy value has become elusive. Conley says workers fret about what value they bring to their jobs that a customer can’t get for themselves in an information rich environment. This anxiety leads to new and intense forms of alienation: ‘The intangibility of the new economy means that we never have a sense of having produced a single actual thing. The ‘satisfaction’ of having earned 15 percent return for one’s client or written the language for the contract for the leveraged buyout or talked the patient through their neuroses simply cannot substitute for the leather shoe or wooden chair that we once fashioned with our own hands’ (p. 27). And even when we are involved in producing physical products, knowledge workers are still left to wonder about the link between their labour and the good produced. The de-linking of work from a particular place and time is a specific feature of work for the Elsewhere Class that only adds to a sense of alienation.

The obsession with work has also spilled into leisure time to produce what Conley labels instrumental leisure or weisure, that is work and leisure combined. Since information is the primary form of capital in the knowledge economy, socialising becomes a potential arena for information transfer. A party isn’t just for fun, but may reap a new client or contact beneficial to our jobs. Likewise in our hyper-marketised economy where everything has a price, consumption and investment have become so closely aligned that convestment is the new name of the game. Paying for our children’s education is a consumption activity. But it is rationalised as money well spent because it is also perceived to be an investment in the child’s human capital that will pay dividends in the future. In the same way we might buy a summer house, not just because we love to surf, but because we think it may be a good financial investment.

If home can become work, then work must also become like home.

Importantly, Conley’s account of the socio-economic and cultural trends that have brought us to Elsewhere, does not hark back to a golden era of breadwinner husbands and breadmaker wives—the television series Mad Men successfully dispels that myth. Instead Conley observes the influx of women into the paid labour market, the growing economic role women play, and the way technology is often used to manage interaction between work and family roles, in a pragmatic and mostly non-judgmental manner. He does, however, express some anxiety about technology and how it interacts with family life. While documenting the emergence of the portable office and its possibilities, he argues that telecommuting can cut both ways: ‘it allows many professionals with children to work from home. But it allows many professionals with children to work from home all the time’ (p. 13). Expressing some concern about the impact of ‘elsewhere’ parents on domestic and social life, Conley ultimately concludes that success in the Elsewhere Society will depend on the ability of companies and people to ‘blend and bend rather than build walls between the domains of life’ (p. 183). If you can’t beat them, join them!

Intraviduals, who convest and engage in weisure are doing a lot of bending and blending. But what about workplaces? Conley takes a trip to Google headquarters in California—the Googleplex. Google showcases the type of bending and blending in the workplace that spells success in the new economy: open-ended, unscripted ‘un-conferences’, pinball machines, in-house kitchens stocking free food, an in-house laundry service, massage services and a free bus service back home. If home can become work, then work must also become like home. This is not new. Workplaces with in-house kitchens, gymnasiums and an assortment of personal services became standard fare in the corporate world of the 1980s. But Google pushes all the old boundaries and melds work into home and home into work in ways that Conley says epitomises the Elsewhere Ethic of the knowledge economy.

Conley’s account of the Elsewhere Society is developed specifically with reference to the American experience of social and economic change. But the trends he describes are not isolated to America and American knowledge economy professionals. The Elsewhere Society is a global reality that transcends national boarders—not just a New York subculture. Whether knowledge economy professional live and work in New York, Sydney, London, New Delhi or Beijing, the lifestyle of this elite looks pretty much the same—a whirlpool of constantly intersecting activities in which workers multi-task their way through every minute of the day, feeling ever pressed for time and on the move. It is the global relevance of the American experience that makes the book of interest to Australian knowledge economy workers and social scientists interested in the changing nature of work and the impact on family and community life.


Conley’s combination of personal anecdote, canny observation and regular reference to the ideas of some of the big thinkers in sociology and economics makes Elsewhere U.S.A. a highly readable and entertaining account of the lifestyles of knowledge economy professionals. And it is hard not to be captivated by a book that so compellingly describes much of your own life and that of colleagues and friends. But unfortunately, few of the issues Conley deals with are particularly new, and the analysis is a little too thin.

Public action by the state is not part of Conley’s framework of analysis.

The sources of Conley’s consternation are deeply familiar and have been well documented by a number of Australian researchers and social commentators. Barbara Pocock’s books The Work Life Collision (2003) and The Labour Market Ate My Babies (2006), for example, provide detailed analysis of many of the issues raised by Conley. Both books are concerned with exploring how work is changing, the social and economic impact of women’s rising labour market participation, the types of pressures families experience as they struggle to manage their care, social and community responsibilities alongside paid work, and children’s experiences of working parents. Pocock doesn’t deal with the role of technology and its impact on family life as directly as Conley, but her analysis of women’s increased engagement in the labour market is considerably more robust and nuanced than his.

Perhaps most significant is the difference between Conley and Pocock’s analysis of the role of the state and business. Conley’s account of socio-economic change is drawn predominantly from the supply side, focusing mostly on the lifestyle of workers. But employers and contemporary capitalist dynamics also play a critical role in driving the process of socio-economic change and the development of the Elsewhere Society. Nevertheless Conley pays little attention to the way in which the global market place, global competition and state policies impact on work design and the work pressures experienced by knowledge economy professionals.

This limits Conley’s account of the Elsewhere Society and his conclusions about the way ahead. Australian research tends to pay much more attention to the role of the state in establishing the work/care regime within which workers operate and looks to improved economic and social policy settings to reconcile the growing tension workers experience between work and care responsibilities. Public action by the state is not part of Conley’s framework of analysis. Instead, he remains centred on the capacity of the intravidual to manage their own work life, concluding that ‘successful professional parents will the ones who manage to blend their child rearing duties with their professional ones, making their children comfortable in high pressure, high status work environments where big vocabulary words fly back and forth and the kids get used to the “family business” so to speak’ (p. 183). I think he is conceding too much.


Conley, D. 2000, Honkey, University of California Press, Berkeley.

de Botton, A. 2005, Status Anxiety, Penguin Books, Toronto.

Hamilton, C. 2005 Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Pocock, B. 2003, The Work/Life Collision: What Work Is Doing to Australians and What To Do About It, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Pocock, B. 2006, The Labour Market Ate My Babies: Work, Children and a Sustainable Future, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Elizabeth Hill is a lecturer in Political Economy at The University of Sydney and co-convenor of the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable.