The Guardian went to Brighton seafront in August to see if smartphones are allowing work to intrude on people’s leisure
It has been a middling season in the south coast resort where greens and grandees, bikers and Bentleys, the cool and the crumpled, like to hang out. The weather has often been poor and the Olympics have proved a distraction. But Brighton bravely battles on, as plucky in adversity as Blackpool or Bridlington.
Julia Butcher and her partner Christopher Sparrow are from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and have popped down to Brighton for the day, marking their arrival with a coffee – and hammering away at their mobile phones.
“He uses his phone much more than I do,” says Butcher, who is only using hers to tell friends they have arrived safely. Sparrow, who is in the retail business, has the smartphone, but Butcher, a nanny, is the one who drives: “So I can concentrate on the driving while he can be working on the routes.”
Do their phones upset the work-life balance? Sparrow says he tries not to deal with office business on holiday and mainly uses his smartphone email to keep work at bay. He says it’s more a blessing than a curse: “When you need the phone it’s there, it’s handy. Years ago you needed a phone box.”
According to a recent Ofcom report, more than a quarter of adults and almost half the UK’s teenagers own a smartphone – iPhones, Androids and BlackBerrys – with numbers rising rapidly. About 81% of smartphone owners use them many times every day, compared with 53% of owners of earlier mobile models.
More and more people with smartphones admit making personal use of their devices during work, but many more (70%), the survey found, take work calls during their leisure time.
On Brighton’s pebbly beach, Anne, her friend Alison, and Alison’s daughter, Kristen, down from Enfield, north London, for the day with the kids, all have smartphones. They say they use them a lot and are busy sending photos to friends. Would they answer if the office rang? “No, not on holiday.” Not if it was the boss? No. “When you’re away you don’t want to hear from anyone,” says Anne.
A nine-year-old in the group boasts an iPod which she handles more deftly than mum. “What’s a tape recorder?” one of the children asked the other day. The mums laugh at the generation gap.
Four grey-haired tourists boast only one “antiquated” mobile between them, for emergencies only. What if the office rang? “I don’t get calls from the office, I’m not that important,” explains one man. “Not at our age,” adds a woman.
All the same, far more people on the beach seem to be tapping away than doing other beach activities. In the 20 years since mobiles ceased to weigh 8 lbs – and look like a brick ‚Ä” they have become ubiquitous, even on the beach. Brighton’s seaThe Guardian finds only one group proud not to have a mobile to hand (“They talk mostly nonsense anyway,” says the matron in charge).An Indian couple on holiday (she’s doing her master’s degree in Britain) are Skypeing the family at home from the beach because it’s their first wedding anniversary. Two sisters, in Brighton because mum (90) has been admitted to Sussex county hospital, admit to having “one idiot phone” between them, again with nothing more ambitious than to keep in touch. “It’s OK for businesspeople to take business calls; I wouldn’t,” says one.
A care home manager taking the sea air with his family says he keeps his phone switched on because he has a responsible job and has to stay in touch. No, his 12-year-old son doesn’t have an iPhone – “I don’t want one, I have a Xbox.”
Some analysts predict a trend towards privately owned smartphones, customised for personal needs, but also used for work. That makes some worry about contaminating company IT systems – either via technical glitches or “inappropriate” activity. The answer, they say, lies not in returning to the old days of having two phones, but allowing two separate operating systems: one for work, one for leisure, which can co-exist securely within one smartphone.
Pacing up and down in a blue shirt on Brighton’s sole surviving pier while talking about “salvage”, James Ross is clearly doing business despite the presence of his young family. A self-employed insurance broker from Hinckley, Leicestershire, he’s been at Butlins in Bognor for a fortnight but reckons a few “firefighting” business calls are unavoidable. “I do not answer emails. I work for myself and try to avoid as much as I can.” This particular call about a crashed car is personal: the car was his wife’s.
Around Brighton’s other famous landmark, at the Prince Regent’s Pavilion, a young couple say “no way” to any suggestion that they blur their personal life with work calls. “When I am with Lucy I tend not to get personal calls,” says Lucy’s boyfriend. So why was Lucy just on her phone? “I am looking for a job.”
In the UK in 2012 the line between personal life and work life is diverging for many people, not integrating. As for Brighton’s lighter than usual tourist traffic, some in the holiday trade blame smartphones – or rather the customised weather forecasts. “If their phone says it might rain in Brighton, they stay away,” says a veteran of the pier. “Then it doesn’t rain.”