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Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?

Linked by Paul Ciano on January 31, 2019

Erin Griffith, The New York Times:

Never once at the start of my workweek — not in my morning coffee shop line; not in my crowded subway commute; not as I begin my bottomless inbox slog — have I paused, looked to the heavens and whispered: #ThankGodIt’sMonday.

Apparently, that makes me a traitor to my generation. I learned this during a series of recent visits to WeWork locations in New York, where the throw pillows implore busy tenants to “Do what you love.” Neon signs demand they “Hustle harder,” and murals spread the gospel of T.G.I.M. Even the cucumbers in WeWork’s water coolers have an agenda. “Don’t stop when you’re tired,” someone recently carved into the floating vegetables’ flesh. “Stop when you are done.” Kool-Aid drinking metaphors are rarely this literal.

New media upstarts like the Hustle, which produces a popular business newsletter and conference series, and One37pm, a content company created by the patron saint of hustling, Gary Vaynerchuk, glorify ambition not as a means to an end, but as a lifestyle.

“The current state of entrepreneurship is bigger than career,” reads the One37pm “About Us” page. “It’s ambition, grit and hustle. It’s a live performance that lights up your creativity … a sweat session that sends your endorphins coursing … a visionary who expands your way of thinking.” From this point of view, not only does one never stop hustling — one never exits a kind of work rapture, in which the chief purpose of exercising or attending a concert is to get inspiration that leads back to the desk.

Ryan Harwood, the chief executive of One37pm’s parent company, told me that the site’s content is aimed at a younger generation of people who are seeking permission to follow their dreams. “They want to know how to own their moment, at any given moment,” he said.

“Owning one’s moment” is a clever way to rebrand “surviving the rat race.” In the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do, and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers.

It’s not difficult to view hustle culture as a swindle. After all, convincing a generation of workers to beaver away is convenient for those at the top.

“The vast majority of people beating the drums of hustle-mania are not the people doing the actual work. They’re the managers, financiers and owners,” said David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder of Basecamp, a software company.

Mr. Heinemeier Hansson said that despite data showing long hours improve neither productivity nor creativity, myths about overwork persist because they justify the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite techies. “It’s grim and exploitative,” he said.

Arguably, the technology industry started this culture of work zeal sometime around the turn of the millennium, when the likes of Google started to feed, massage and even play doctor to its employees. The perks were meant to help companies attract the best talent — and keep employees at their desks longer. It seemed enviable enough: Who wouldn’t want an employer that literally took care of your dirty laundry?

But today, as tech culture infiltrates every corner of the business world, its hymns to the virtues of relentless work remind me of nothing so much as Soviet-era propaganda, which promoted impossible-seeming feats of worker productivity to motivate the labor force. One obvious difference, of course, is that those Stakhanovite posters had an anticapitalist bent, criticizing the fat cats profiting from free enterprise. Today’s messages glorify personal profit, even if bosses and investors — not workers — are the ones capturing most of the gains. Wage growth has been essentially stagnant for years.

Perhaps we’ve all gotten a little hungry for meaning. Participation in organized religion is falling, especially among American millennials. In San Francisco, where I live, I’ve noticed that the concept of productivity has taken on an almost spiritual dimension. Techies here have internalized the idea — rooted in the Protestant work ethic — that work is not something you do to get what you want; the work itself is all. Therefore any life hack or company perk that optimizes their day, allowing them to fit in even more work, is not just desirable but inherently good.

Aidan Harper, who created a European workweek-shrinkage campaign called 4 Day Week, argues that this is dehumanizing and toxic. “It creates the assumption that the only value we have as human beings is our productivity capability — our ability to work, rather than our humanity,” he told me.

It’s cultist, Mr. Harper added, to convince workers to buy into their own exploitation with a change-the-world message.

For congregants of the Cathedral of Perpetual Hustle, spending time on anything that’s nonwork related has become a reason to feel guilty. Jonathan Crawford, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, told me that he sacrificed his relationships and gained more than 40 pounds while working on Storenvy, his e-commerce start-up. If he socialized, it was at a networking event. If he read, it was a business book. He rarely did anything that didn’t have a “direct R.O.I.,” or return on investment, for his company.

Mr. Crawford changed his lifestyle after he realized it made him miserable. Now, as an entrepreneur-in-residence at 500 Start-ups, an investment firm, he tells fellow founders to seek out nonwork-related activities like reading fiction, watching movies or playing games. Somehow this comes off as radical advice. “It’s oddly eye-opening to them because they didn’t realize they saw themselves as a resource to be expended,” Mr. Crawford said.

The logical endpoint of excessively avid work, of course, is burnout. That is the subject of a recent viral essay by the BuzzFeed cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen, which thoughtfully addresses one of the incongruities of hustle-mania in the young. Namely: If Millennials are supposedly lazy and entitled, how can they also be obsessed with killing it at their jobs?

Millennials, Ms. Petersen argues, are just desperately striving to meet their own high expectations. An entire generation was raised to expect that good grades and extracurricular overachievement would reward them with fulfilling jobs that feed their passions. Instead, they wound up with precarious, meaningless work and a mountain of student loan debt. And so posing as a rise-and-grinder, lusty for Monday mornings, starts to make sense as a defense mechanism.

Most jobs — even most good jobs! — are full of pointless drudgery. Most corporations let us down in some way. And yet years after the HBO satire “Silicon Valley” made the vacuous mission statement “making the world a better place” a recurring punch line, many companies still cheerlead the virtues of work with high-minded messaging.

David Spencer, a professor of economics at Leeds University Business School, says that such posturing by companies, economists and politicians dates at least to the rise of mercantilism in 16th-century Europe. “There has been an ongoing struggle by employers to venerate work in ways that distract from its unappealing features,” he said. But such propaganda can backfire. In 17th-century England, work was lauded as a cure for vice, Mr. Spencer said, but the unrewarding truth just drove workers to drink more.

Internet companies may have miscalculated in encouraging employees to equate their work with their intrinsic value as human beings. After a long era of basking in positive esteem, the tech industry is experiencing a backlash both broad and fierce, on subjects from monopolistic behavior to spreading disinformation and inciting racial violence. And workers are discovering how much power they wield.

Mr. Heinemeier Hansson cited the employee protests as evidence that millennial workers would eventually revolt against the culture of overwork. “People aren’t going to stand for this,” he said, using an expletive, “or buy the propaganda that eternal bliss lies at monitoring your own bathroom breaks.”

Paul Ciano

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