The Workplace Awakening Has Arrived



he inherent paradox of Millennialism is that, even in the face of two once-in-a-generation economic meltdowns, we’re pestered to optimize to a system that isn’t optimized to benefit us. We adapted to the cruel, dissociated horror of the post-recession epoch by posing as doll-eyed rise-and-grinders, lusty for Monday mornings with a desperate giddiness to it. The girl boss stood as an aspirational archetype for a generation that tried to game a rigged system. We cast away our anxieties and Type-A defects and unapologetically devoted ourselves to white-collar vocations, in hopes our career narrative arcs would bend toward a set of canonical initials — SVP, CEO — before the bleary delusion of toil glamor bottomed out. America has responded to this rampaging pandemic with reflexive cruelty and wild avarice; as it so stridently reminds us, life-hacking a crisis is a uniquely millennial graft. Even the more privileged evangelists can’t quite bootstrap their way out of this present hysteria.

her viral BuzzFeed essay and newly released book, Anne Helen Peterson described millennials as the “Burnout Generation,” an almost-willfully exploited cohort that’s been proselytized into a cult of performative workaholics. “I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few,” she wrote. “I just believed I could continue to optimize myself.” You could say careerism is a prison sentence of pathological productivity, a spiritual dimension where our identities slowly fuse with our employers. Forbes’ “30 under 30” lists tantalize with conspicuous metrics of success, the ineffable glow of success that prompts people to comment, I want your life. LinkedIn and Instagram have mutated into a tedious and ubiquitous competition to project the enviable mix of work hard and play hardIt’s all a vacuous, cushy hell of morning coffees, bottomless inbox slogs, Lean In, networking, coding boot camps, and crowded subway commutes leering at ads telling us “Sleep Deprivation Is Your Drug of Choice.”

The Great Recession was an assault on America’s economy; Covid-19 is a referendum on the American Dream.

Under the immense pressure of a sprawling and metastatic pandemic, various glaring contractions, and increasingly undeniable institutional collapse, America’s always-be-hustling culture first spiderwebbed then exploded into little phantasmic shards. All the old rules and truisms of the traditional 9-to-5 arrangement seem to be whim-tossed out the window. A generational shift in workplace expectations — work-life balance, a deeper purpose, flexibility, a positive culture, and opportunities for growth — is finally budging a corporate culture that’s as sclerotic as it is stodgy.

For the past several months, WeWork has been advising industry-leading companies worldwide to adapt their workplaces to accommodate rotating teams or expanding to multiple offices in the same building. Businesses like Education Week, Spoken Layer, and Medical Teams International have embraced family-centric schedules that adapt to an individual’s specific needs as they navigate parenthood. With a rapid shift to mandatory remote working, businesses have a unique opportunity to implement significant organizational change and embrace the kind of flexibility that caters to the coveted work-life balance. Google announced in July that its roughly 200,000 employees will continue to work from home until at least next summer. Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects half of Facebook’s workforce to be remote within the decade. Twitter recently granted its employees permanent work-from-home. Not only will this newfound flexibility help workers wrest back some power from management — at least in terms of where and when they work — but also in a year when millennials comprise half of the American labor force, our generational values are starting to shape and shift a renewed corporate paradigm.

The Great Recession was an assault on America’s economy; Covid-19 is a referendum on the American Dream. It is no surprise, then, that many millennials identify as democratic socialists and are flocking to politicians and movements promising a world where dignity is not determined by work while embracing unionization, universal basic income, parental leave, pay transparency, subsidized child care, and Medicare-for-All. It’s much broader than political allegiances — this is about maintaining a certain quality of life.

The mismatch between expectations of fulfilling, life-affirming careers, and a spectacularly harrowing reality produced a generation mired by stasis, boredom, and pointless drudgery. For a while, it was easier to burrow ahead — head down, eyes forward — than it was to turn away from the howling maw of hustlemania and contemplate the alternative. But after two decades of relentless grinding political failure and steepening precarity, and months into scattershot pandemic mismanagement, Millennials are finally asking who the system should be optimized for.

you live in America in the 21st century, you’ll notice when people speak of “wealth producers,” it is automatically assumed one is referring to capitalists, not workers. As the professional class and corporate bureaucracy came to dominate American life, careerism evolved into a pseudo-theology that promised transcendence, fulfillment, purpose, and identity. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was a key progenitor of this framework, asserting in The Gospel of Wealth, that his fortune was bestowed upon him by steely resolve and divine intervention, and that it was the responsibility of rich people to not give money that has a “pauperizing tendency upon its recipients,” but to institutions or ideas that encourage the plebs to cultivate “better” habits.

The ones who deliriously beat the drums of hustlemania aren’t interacting with a disease that rampages through low-income communities like an invisible, toxic plague.

The public relations boom reified Carnegie’s sour and clammy perspective, deploying press releases and op-eds consistently sanctifying the value corporations deliver to society: the services they provide, the lives they enrich, the glorious number of jobs they create, their moral and ethical righteousness, their appropriate perch at our social and cultural apogee. And the highest-educated, highest-earning white men — the demographic that so happens to dominate the C-suite — became the secular equivalent of preachers, valorizing toil glamor as a sacred duty. They’ve reduced their leisure time more than any other group over the last three decades, transforming their office desks into the altars where they worship their jobs, perhaps for the same reasons Christians attend Sunday mass: to self-actualize.

One strange feature of this pandemic is it has brought greater explicitness, if not exactly clarity, to the conduct of our deranged public life and chasmic disparities. The ones who deliriously beat the drums of hustlemania aren’t interacting with a disease that rampages through low-income communities like an invisible, toxic plague. Cataclysmic job bleeding has disproportionately affected women, who also shoulder the extra burdens of child care and domestic work. By mid-April, 41% of Black businesses had permanently shuttered compared to 17% of white-owned businesses. And of the 3.1 million Americans still unable to afford health insurance in states where Medicaid has not been expanded, more than half are people of color, and 30% are African American.

Those on the front-lines of supermarkets, hospitals, warehouses, and other essential employees were drafted into this haphazard conflict to Keep the Economy Going, trapped in a macabre dash to see if their lungs will degenerate before their employers slash their salaries. The remaining “inessential employees” were asked to choose between their personal safety and their jobs after their line of work was effectively deemed meaningless to the broader functioning of American society. Workers were saluted with pandering commercials touting their heroic valor. Meanwhile, the $2.3-trillion CARES Act operated as a frank and unapologetic Tammany Hall-style graft that directed whopping no-strings-attached funds to the nation’s most powerful interests; while retaining the cruelties of the free market for newly minted un-employees who were punted off their health insurance, living on the brink of a potential eviction crisis, and struggling to afford groceries.

Meanwhile overseas, the Danish government responded to the pandemic by offering to pay workers 90% of their salaries to stay home; the German government made it easier to claim unemployment benefits and for parents to receive childcare funds. In France, workers have “the right of withdrawal,” the right to walk off their job if they feel their health and safety is at risk — without sacrificing pay or facing punishment. Yet in the U.S., The cure can’t be worse than the disease is brandished as agitprop fodder in presidential press conferences and aped by Republican politicians and Fox “News” hosts blithely demanding human sacrifices for the sake of reviving the bottom lines and stock prices of various flailing markets. “It is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter,” Indiana Rep. Trey Hollingsworth said in April. “It is policymakers’ decision to put on our big-boy and big-girl pants and say, ‘This is the lesser of these two evils.’” Urging workers to consider a kamikaze response to an unforgiving pandemic doesn’t seem as tactical as it does instinctual.

This pandemic may not have authored capitalism’s most grisly impulses, but it is a brute articulation of them.

These gripping but opaque overwork fables survived for as long as they did because they rationalized our prodromal burnout symptoms and justified the extreme wealth created for a small group of tech and finance executives. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” writes Timothy Kreider. “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” This moment is ghoulish but slow-burning, revealing a profound nihilism and ulcerating futility behind years of good grades, glossy internships, top-notch degrees, and mechanical bustle just to maintain a rotten normal of untenable, ongoing trauma.

Crises have a tendency of shaking up the status quoAmericans have had months of restless quarantining to contemplate the day-to-day rhythms and tendencies that cascade toward inertia. A Darwinian health care system functionally gate kept by gainful full-time employment. A federal government hollowed-out from decades of right-wing ideological assault, one that struggles to protect women’s reproductive rights and fails to guarantee vacation or sick leave or paternity leave. America deludes itself with hoary myths of meritocracy during an unrelenting output of racialized police violence and unresolved racial disparities. Almost the entire West Coast is literally on fire. Opiates and carcinogens remain wildly lucrative revenue streams. CEOs cash out to the tune of a few hundred million while nearly half of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense. Our employment stands at the whim of speculative bubbles and a stormy market. Every day of Donald Trump’s malicious dunce reign is a new fragment of an endless blundering present — the toxic mundanity of the new “normal” brings about a slew of bleak burlesque that seems to interrupt itself before the first quintuple-byline cataclysm would even reach its climax.

When people are frantic, distracted, and exhausted, they don’t tend to consider all the wasted hours on commutes, their iPhone Panticopicon scenarios, or pointlessly stringent work schedules — they don’t even have time to consider ostensibly important things like time, family, relationships, and personal well-being. At this nation’s typical glacial pace, there is some cultural reconsideration of the myriad ways the economy could address human needs instead of humans bootlicking the vinegary whims and furies of America’s business tyrants. Our nation has been warped by a single-minded dedication to our own narrow interests, but in this historic, panicky clusterfuck, we are now confronted with the interconnectedness of our lives and the importance of a shared purpose. This pandemic may not have authored capitalism’s most grisly impulses, but it is a brute articulation of them. Penning America’s next chapter lies in how we rewrite the social contract between workers, businesses, and our government.

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