When the Unbalanced Life Is Worth Living

There's been an unexpected fallout from the New York Times' recent critique of Amazon's corporate culture: the ACLU followed up the story with a $30,000 full page ad in the Seattle Times soliciting potential clients among Amazon employees who believe they were unlawfully penalized because of their decision to have children, or because they were caring for a sick relative or recovering from an illness of their own.

While the ACLU said the responsibility of raising children or caring for a sick relative disproportionately falls on women in the United States and asked workers to contact the group at GenderEqualityAmazon@aclu.org., Amazon appears to be on relatively solid ground. After all, as many Seattleites attest, nobody's forcing employees to work at a job that demands total commitment all of the time, even if some of that time falls outside of normal working hours. It's not the only game in this or any high tech town, especially for women whose skills were good enough to get them hired at Amazon in the first place. How high in the leadership ranks they'll get, though, will be determined less by their commitment to the company than the covert and overt bias against women that exists most obviously in the high tech sector.

Many years ago, similar charges of making unreasonable demands on its employees were levied against Microsoft, the company Amazon's president Jeff Bezos called a "country club" that's grown soft and complacent , presumably by coddling its employees with fringes like free food , foosball and generous benefit packages. Some Microsofties happily worked all night, every night, as the Seattle Times reported back then -others avoided taking vacations or even holidays off, not because they were discouraged by the company from doing so but because they didn't want to miss out on the excitement of being part of the Next Big Thing. And if there was a slightly disapproving tone to the article, it was exemplary of the place and the time - in Seattle, it simply wasn't cool to get too excited about your career, it was just what you did to live in this pleasant, moderate, corner of the country, where the 60's never really died.

The most enthusiastic of the employees profiled then were 20-somethings, for whom the unbalanced life was more than worth living - it offered them the adrenaline rush of constant challenge coupled with the sense of being involved with something bigger than themselves. It's easier to give your all to an enterprise when there are no other claims on your attention, and young adulthood is that time. Some of the Amazonians who are keeping the lights burning in the brand new buildings in South Lake Union all night will burn out, others be culled out, but if the subsequent lives of the Microsofties who were part of the first great tech revolution is any example, most of them will look up one day and ask themselves, Is that all there is?, and set out to create a life worth balancing with work.