Technology and the Future of the Overstressed Society

Have you noticed how “stressed” everyone is today? Professionals, white collar workers, tech workers, sales workers, even high school and college students all complain about being stressed or overstressed. Many older Americans dismiss such complaints as the whining of a younger generation, a group that just can’t take it… but are these complaints mere whining… or do they have a basis in fact?

One fact is fairly clear. Americans today, on average, have a better life than did Americans seventy-five or a hundred years ago. Very, very few in the work force today had to live through the Great Depression. Nor do they have to worry about children dying of polio and whooping cough. The statistics show that most people are living longer and doing so in better health. There is a greater range of choice in occupations, and more Americans are able to get [and do obtain] higher education. The size of the average house is larger, and most houses have conveniences hardly imaginable a century ago. Although the average American work week is now longer than that of all other industrialized western nations, it’s far less physically arduous than the work of a century ago.

So why the complaints about stress?

Technology — that’s why. It’s everywhere, and it’s stressing us out in more ways than one. Those scanners in supermarkets and every other store? They not only ring up the sales and feed into inventory calculations, but they also rate the checkers on how fast and efficiently they handle customers. I knew this in the back of my head, so to speak, but it was brought home to me when a single mother who was a checker at a local store told me she’d been demoted to the bakery because she didn’t meet speed standards.

Computers, especially those with color graphics and associated high speed printers are another source of stress. Why? Because they successfully invite revision after revision by overcareful supervisors and clients. Do it over… and over… and over.

Then, there are instant messaging, emails, and texting. IMs and texting, especially among the young, lead to carelessness in spelling and grammar, and that feeds back into the need for those endless document revisions, because, believe it or not, those grammar and spell-checkers just don’t catch everything. Then… emails… which encourage everyone to get in on everything, until at times, it seems as though everyone is watching and looking for ways to make completing anything difficult. On top of that, add bosses who feel slighted if one doesn’t answer emails quickly, and all that answering and justifying and explaining doesn’t get the projects done. It just takes up time that can’t be used to do real work, a problem that some supervisors just don’t get.

As for students, keeping in touch through the technology of cell-phones, emails, and texting seems to occupy their every waking, walking, and driving moment. Add to that the allure of the wonders of hundreds of cable or satellite channels, and the need to earn money for an ever-more expensive education — or vehicle payments — and they’re stressed out.

The impact of technology pervades everything. Computerized legal databases and software make litigation ever more complex — not to mention expensive and stressful.

Healthcare has even more problems. We have more than 47 million Americans without health insurance, and the number is growing faster than the population. Why? Because expenses are growing, thanks to a proliferation of medical technology and drugs that raises costs. When my grandfather was a doctor, diagnostic technology was essentially limited to a few blood tests, a stethoscope, and an X-ray machine. Today, the average doctor’s office is filled with equipment, and that equipment creates an expectation of perfect medicine. That expectation, combined with the opportunism of the technologized legal system, leads to far more litigation. That leads to higher malpractice insurance, and more stress on doctors and more and expensive tests and procedures to make sure that nothing gets missed — or to cover the doctor from legal challenges. It’s not uncommon for some medical specialties to have annual malpractice premiums in excess of $200,000 a year. Assume that a doctor actually sees patients 5 hours a day in the office some 50 weeks a year, the other time being spent in things like hospital rounds, reviewing charts, etc. Under those conditions, an annual malpractice premium requires a charge of more than an $80 an hour. If the doctor has a million dollars in medical and office equipment and that’s not unusual either, the amortization will be excess of $100 per patient hour seen. Needless to say this creates stress and pressure, and for all the complaints about the medical profession, doctors have one of the lower life expectancies of professionals.

In higher education, computerization has led to ubiquitous on-line evaluations and anonymous ratings of professors, and the subsequent inevitable grade inflation, because tenure often depends on pleasing the students. It’s also led to a proliferation of policies and procedures, so easily printed on those handy-dandy computerized systems. In my wife’s university, the policies and procedures for rank advancement and tenure have been rewritten and changed once or twice every year over the past decade, with scores of drafts being circulated electronically before each revision was finalized.

In effect, the expectations of technology have created more stress for modern society than the wind, rain, and inconsistent weather ever did for our agricultural forebears — largely because technology also makes people more and more accountable, even when they can’t do anything about it. The way technology is used today also creates what my father called “being eaten to death by army ants.” No one wants to kill you, but everyone wants a little something — reply to these emails, revise that set of documents, change that phrase to please the attorneys, change this one for the boss’s supervisor — and when it’s all said and done, who has time to do actual new work?

Yet, if you ignore the army ants, everyone thinks you’re difficult and uncooperative, and you lose your job. Is it any wonder that American professionals are working longer and longer hours?

But… ah, the blessings of technology.