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Will the next great depression hit U.S. office workers?

February 11, 2000

Will the next great depression hit U.S. office workers?

There was a time when many employers worried that personal computers, rather than boosting productivity, actually might cause a significant drop in productivity. The source of these worries was the increasing number of reports of people spending long hours during the workday playing PC card games like Solitaire.

Later on, with the advent of the Internet, employers became increasingly concerned about employees surfing the web in search of the hottest sex site. Not only would accessing graphically intensive sex sites slow down other people’s use of the web for legitimate business, employees would certainly be completely distracted from their work.

Since then, with conventional wisdom changing along the way, we’re now starting to see more of the value of material things. Customized software lets the millions and millions of U.S. stockowners track their portfolios online. Sitting in their offices or cubicles, these folks go online en masse to check “how they’re doing” — as many times as they wish throughout the day.

It is astonishing to witness this new rite of market-dependent self-validation. I know of one highly educated investor — with an MBA in finance, no less — who eyes his portfolio with the frequency of a day-trader, even as he pays rhetorical tribute to the concept of investing for the long term. I know of other self-righteous individuals who, rejecting the notion that they are given to such gross displays of materialism, still check their stocks several times a day.

It’s as if the United States, having successfully defeated the nervous habit of “going out for a smoke,” has fallen prey to yet another, possibly even more addictive disease. Instead of lighting up a Marlboro, folks nowadays log onto MSN’s Money Central, or CBS Marketwatch to gratify their nervous habits.

For all the public chest-thumping over defeating the tobacco industry scourge, the online brokerage industry could potentially pose an ever greater threat. Just remember, the number of Americans who own shares or mutual funds is 48 million and growing — almost twice the shrinking number of smokers.

Perhaps even more dangerous, just imagine what will happen if the market turns south. Whenever that happens, millions and millions of Americans will suffer terrible depression. In all likelihood, Alan Greenspan will have to explain to the world why U.S. productivity — which has increased so dramatically recently — suddenly declined so sharply.

And what about employers’ reactions? Even if they are no more successful at blocking access to financial sites than they have been at blocking games and sex sites, at least they can start to understand their employees’ heretofore unaccountable mood swings.

After all, employees moods should rise and fall with their satisfaction with their jobs — not with how the market is doing at any given moment. When employees are down, it should be a signal to their employers that they need to talk to their employees about what’s really wrong. In the stimulus-response game that shapes a smartly managed workplace, the “how am I doing” mindset of checking one’s stocks blurs the true sense of what’s really going on.