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Here's a New Idea for Back to the Office: Go Back to the 1990s

From its earliest media coverage, Generation X has been painted as a cohort defined by its nostalgia; the novel that labeled the cohort of adults born from 1960-1978, Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, includes the memorable phrase "legislated nostalgia," which the author defined as "to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess."

I thought of both Gen X's nostalgia habit and the cognitive disconnect of not actually sharing the memories of a generational moment when I read the Slate piece "Young People Have No Idea What We Used to Do After Work. Let Me Regale You." The article is an aggregation of Gen Xers' recollection of what it was like to be a working person in your 20s unencumbered by things like "children" or "24/7 reachability thanks to the one-two punch of near-ubiquitous and hyperconnected computers and a slow-motion reckoning with when and how work is done."

The opening premise is alluring--"The very idea that, once work hours were over, no one could get hold of you—via email, text, Slack, whatever—is completely alien to contemporary young people, who never let their cellphones leave their hands" -- even if it was never one hundred percent true. For one thing: there were telephones and beepers, and there have always been both bosses and underlings who were happy to call someone outside of office hours if necessary. For another, there were also plenty of jobs where being reachable on call was built into the job description.

However, when reading the article, it becomes clear what people really liked was the phenomenon of leaving work at work. Ubiquitous computing as we experience it now -- mobile, cloud-based, always-connected -- simply wasn't possible. Just as being on call was built into only some jobs, so too was the expectation of bringing work home. It was something that some professions did, but the idea was that bringing work home was wildly outside the norm.

We've seen how the lines between work and home have become more like squiggly suggestions since 2020 -- several studies have shown people spending more time working once they work remotely -- and it makes me wonder if maybe the secret weapon for bringing more folks back to the office might be simple nostalgia for a time when it wasn't so easy to work wherever and whenever.

Imagine the sales pitches: "On in-office days, you'll only have to answer email between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m." and "Slack stays here, you go home."

Nostalgia is a powerful sales tool. Make the office culture like it was during the 1990s and maybe that will be what compels a workforce highly incentivized by work-life balance to see the office as part of that balance instead of a threat to it.