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An Economy Of Suffering
Non-essential and naked work, toxic power and anti-ambition
I recently came across this NY Times article called the Age of Anti-Ambition by Noreen Malone that tries to make sense of what’s happening with all of us at work right now, particularly with regards to what many call the Great Resignation, i.e. unprecedented numbers of people quitting their jobs. While the NY Times piece focuses a lot on the U.S. (25 million left their jobs in the second half of 2021), Ishaan Tharoor, in his Washington Post piece The ‘Great Resignation’ goes global, points out the global magnitude of this phenomenon:
In the 38 member countries of the OECD, about 20 million fewer people are in work than before the coronavirus struck. Of these, 14 million have exited the labor market and are classified as ‘not working’ and ‘not looking for work.’ Compared to 2019, 3 million more young people are not in employment, education or training.
A survey published in August found that a third of all German companies were reporting a death in skilled workers.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, 26 million people lost their jobs last year amid pandemic-era shutdowns. The vast majority of jobs that have returned are in the informal sector, an outcome that often means even lower pay and greater precarity. According to one study earlier in 2021, 1 in 6 people aged between 18 and 29 in Latin America and the Caribbean had left work since the pandemic began.
China is seeing its version of the “Great Resignation,” with the younger generation turned off by the relatively low wages in the manufacturing centers that powered China’s economic rise, and a rapidly growing freelance and flexible work movement: Back in 2016, there were about 30 million freelancers in China, in 2021, the government figures indicate that nearly a quarter of China’s workforce – more than 200 million workers – have flexible employment.
In Vietnam and other countries in South and Southeast Asia, many migrant workers left for their rural homes when jobs in big cities dried up amid lockdowns. And they aren’t really coming back. “In their villages, many of Asia’s working poor can at least count on roofs over their head and food to eat. It’s another form of resignation.”
So, yes. The Great Resignation is a Global Resignation. Something strange is happening around the world in the labor market with massive implications on the future of work.
Let’s get back to Noreen Malone’s article, The Age of Anti-Ambition, to get some answers. Because, while I don’t agree with all of the points made in the article, Noreen touches on some super interesting topics that link well to what I explored in the first deep dive issue of Creative Destruction and that help us understand the phenomenon of the Great Resignation.
So here we go:
The pandemic rebranded all of our jobs by reducing them into two categories: essential and nonessential. Noreen writes that…
“‘nonessential’ is a word that invites creeping nihilism. This thing we filled at least eight to 10 hours of the day with, five days a week, for years and decades, missed family dinners for ... was it just busy [nonessential] work?”
She’s touching upon a feeling here that many of us, who work in white-collar, business jobs, have experienced many times: This feeling of doing something that is actually not that needed or necessary. Something that doesn’t really need to exist.
‘If nobody would do this job, if this company wouldn’t exist, would it make such a big difference? Would society miss this?’
‘Is my job (as discussed in the first deep dive issue) a bullshit job?’
Moreover, Noreen’s point also connects to this nature of complexity that many, again “white-collar” jobs (hey there marketing professionals 😅), have. You often do work you don’t necessarily know the impact of due to the complexity of the system: i.e. many different stakeholders, processes, departments, and hierarchical levels involved….
‘If it’s difficult to explain what my job is, am I doing something that is needed and meaningful?’
So this branding of nonessential, or the repeated focus and attention that is given to essential work, really hit people and made them question the meaning of their job and the system behind it, even more.
As for those branded essential, the branding and increased attention, however, didn’t really help... Here, this categorization only exacerbated this “burden of being needed”. How does it make you feel when, on the one hand, the pressure that society cannot function without you is being radically increased, and on the other, you’re barely making ends meet with what you get by being essential? What a pressure to reward ratio… As Noreen points out:
“The word “burnout,” promiscuously applied these days, was in fact coined to diagnose exhaustion in medical workers. Furthermore, and meanwhile, a vast majority of people deemed essential have jobs like Amazon warehouse worker or cashier. To be told that society can’t function without you, and that you must risk your health to come in, while other people push around marketing reports from home — often for much more money — it becomes difficult not to wonder if “essential” is cynical, a polite way of classing humans as “expendable” or “nonexpendable.””
“The act of working has been stripped bare.”
Ever brushed teeth or taken a shower after your first morning meeting? Work has become “naked”, as Noreen adequately puts it: “stripped bare” of all of the fancy outfits, lunches with colleagues, coffee breaks, and watercooler conversations. My colleagues are small avatars on a 2D screen, and if I have enough of them, I can just close my Slack.
“All that’s left now is the job itself, naked and alone. And a lot of people don’t like what they see.”
So you aren’t only branded nonessential and are struggling to explain your job in a simple way, makes sense, and describes its (and your) value to society. Now, your job is also just that: work. Going to the office and spending time there used to be an experience with uncertain outcomes, surprises, and coincidental happenings. All of that is mostly gone due to remote work!
In such a situation, for those that have an asshole boss, whose passions and interests aren’t aligned with their job, who feel mistreated (e.g. discriminated against, underpaid, or just unheard), and who feel lost in complexity and overload, their white-collar job has suddenly become a factory job. A job they do, without thinking too much about it, without being too much involved.
Not Worth It
“For decades, job productivity has been increasing while real wages haven’t.”
What has been coined “The Great Decoupling” is showcasing in numbers and graphs what many have been feeling for a long time, even before COVID: Work, for many, is simply not worth it anymore.
Ishaan Tharoor, in his Washington Post piece, writes that:
“In the U.S., the “Great Resignation” was preceded by a far greater — decades-long, arguably — stagnation in worker wages and benefits. In lower-end jobs, earnings have not matched the pace of inflation, while work grew more informal and precarious.”
And Heather Long points out that switching jobs, for many nowadays, just makes sense, financially:
And get this:
“The truth is people in the 1960s and ’70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the past 20 years, and the economy was better off for it,”
“Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one. But Americans seem to be done with sticking it out. And they’re being rewarded for their lack of patience: Wages for low-income workers are rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession.”
But this isn’t all about wages and benefits… There is another reason here why certain jobs are just “not worth it” anymore: Burnout!
In her article, Noleen refers to the example of Amazon as explored by Brad Stone in his piece on “Burnt out Amazon employees” in Bloomberg:
“At Amazon, in its managerial ranks, employee departures have reached what is being seen as a “crisis” level. […] (A source told [Brad Stone] that the turnover rate was as high as 50 percent in some groups, although Amazon disputes this.)
One woman, leaving her job, [said:] ‘While it has been an incredibly rewarding place to work, the pressure often feels relentless and at times, unnecessary.’ […]”
I think especially these last words that the woman from Amazon has chosen, really exemplify what many “white-collar” workers or business professionals are feeling: Relentless pressure; at times, unnecessary….
According to one study, burnout tops the list of reasons for quitting a job during the Great Resignation, while reasons two and three are the quest for more flexibility and for more caring cultures - two topics that, in my opinion, are highly correlated with burnout in the first place.
Anne Helen Peterson who wrote the book “Can't Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” has explored this topic quite extensively:
“The overarching thing is precarity. Precarity has been connected to burnout historically — we just haven’t called it that. We haven’t paid much attention to it because it was always a smaller percentage of the population that had to grapple with it. People in poverty have been dealing with burnout forever.
The burnout experienced by millennials is textured by how we interact with digital technologies, and some of our ideas about work and the fetishization of overwork. There’s a feeling of instability that’s the baseline economic condition for many, many millennials, and it’s enhanced by these other components of our lives that make it harder to turn away from.”
I definitely agree with this assessment but would actually expand the demographic. It’s not just millennials who deal with this, it’s everyone and not just that: I would argue that our entire economic system, our society, even our planet is (actually quite literally) burned out.
Lastly, Noreen points out another interesting topic that is often ignored. In my first deep dive issue, I mentioned that young generations aren’t anymore that much into this whole working up the career ladder status thing. While this is definitely about redefined aspirations and status symbols, it is also about power. Noreen writes:
“And furthermore, sometime around the rise of #MeToo (and after Donald Trump’s election), ambition began to seem like a mug’s game. The enormous personal costs of getting to the top became clear, and the potential warping effects of being in charge also did. It wasn’t just the bad sexually harassing bosses who were fired but the toxic ones, too, and soon enough we began to question the whole way power in the office worked.”
In today’s economic system, what does it really take to become a boss? What kind of actions and values does this system cherish? One thing is for sure, the more zoom-layoff videos, #metoo and other leadership scandals we’ll see, the more unattractive and also pressure-intensive the power game becomes.
The topics that Noreen’s Age of Anti-Ambition article highlighted really gave me some new ideas and perspectives and helped me connect lots of different thoughts and theories I had for a while in my head.
However, the funny thing is that I refuse to accept her final conclusion which is that this Great Resignation might lead to all of us concluding that:
“Work is mainly, really, about making money to live. And then trying to make some more. A boring, ancient story. The future of work might be more like its past than anyone admits.”
As someone who is very purpose-driven and always seeks to do work that’s meaningful and aligned with my passions and interests (and tries to help others do the same), I couldn’t stomach that last conclusion.
But then TikTok’s algorithm surprised me with a clip by one of my favorite creators (@americanbaron) which ultimately disarranged 🤯 all of the clear connections and patterns I made earlier and eventually led to the title of this issue: An Economy of Suffering.
Are we really just trading suffering? And if so, what if we built a new system that traded passion, love, care, and play? What could such a system look like?
That’s it for this week!
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