Cathedral of the Perpetual Hustle

Over the weekend a conversation with friends veered toward work-life balance and the ever-hungry email […]

CJ Green / 1.29.19

Over the weekend a conversation with friends veered toward work-life balance and the ever-hungry email monster. We wondered whether it was normal to check our emails after work. Almost all of us confessed that we do. We discussed whether our employers should be contacting us after hours (a teacher was expected to answer texts from parents). We discussed, too, whether or not it was possible for us to resist checking our emails in the first place. We admitted it’s nice to feel needed.

In the era of bleisure — business + leisure — this is how it goes. You might leave the office early but check your phone over dinner; it’s not too strange to take a conference call on vacation. And while there appears to be a superficial leisure in the bleisure, the unpleasant corollary is that a staggering number of Americans nevertheless work more than forty hours a week — despite, and often because of, major technological advances designed to make life easier. As many of us know, online work is never done. (Ha.) There is always another click to get, another message to send.

On top of this, recent reports show that sick days are going the way of the DVD player, which is to say, the past, since you can get free Wi-Fi from the doctor’s office. Not to mention that what often passes for leisure is actually a way to keep workers working, as Alison Moodie once noted: corporations “splash out on lavish amenities for their employees…a shiny ploy to ensure employees remain at work.”

This week, in the latest in a series of widely circulating articles on workaholism, Erin Griffith posed the following question in The New York Times: “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” Griffith takes aim at the expansive WeWork franchise, the shared workspace “where company becomes community” and whose mission is “to create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.” At WeWork, the commandments “Hustle harder” and “Do what you love” light up the walls, and the water coolers contain artfully carved cucumbers beseeching you, “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done.” Really!

Griffith cites one particular organization, One37pm, whose “About” page says, “We believe in the importance of seizing every moment.” To many a modern ear, that may sound agreeable, even positive. Griffith is having none of it:

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. Why else would LinkedIn build its own version of Snapchat Stories?

This is toil glamour, and it is going mainstream. Most visibly, WeWork — which investors recently valued at $47 billion — is on its way to becoming the Starbucks of office culture. It has exported its brand of performative workaholism to 27 countries, with 400,000 tenants, including workers from 30 percent of the Global Fortune 500.

In January, WeWork’s founder, Adam Neumann, announced that his start-up was rebranding itself as the We Company, to reflect an expansion into residential real estate and education. Describing the shift, Fast Company wrote: “Rather than just renting desks, the company aims to encompass all aspects of people’s lives, in both physical and digital worlds.” The ideal client, one imagines, is someone so enamored of the WeWork office aesthetic — whip-cracking cucumbers and all — that she sleeps in a WeLive apartment, works out at a Rise by We gym, and sends her children to a WeGrow school.

WeWork reflects the subtle, often attractive ways work invites itself into our personal lives day-to-day. Countless glamorous directives have become attached to what was once a transactional obligation — work should be transformative, impassioned, ethically righteous; in the language of the Christian, one’s work ought to “advance the Kingdom on Earth.” A lofty goal to be sure, but one which essentially renders nonexistent the lines between the religious and secular. Notably, Griffith says precisely that:

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…

For congregants of the Cathedral of Perpetual Hustle, spending time on anything that’s nonwork related has become a reason to feel guilty.

It’s no coincidence all of this comes at a time when machines can do more than we ever imagined. In the shadow of the Protestant work ethic, our means of income remain central to our sense of identity and human value. Productivity, innovation, creativity — we thought these things made us special. Now there’s a quiet, ever-present insecurity which recognizes that robots can do all of the above. With numbers, machines are often better, faster; even in “the arts” AI demonstrates some level of proficiency, in fiction writing and music.

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.

[…] “There has been an ongoing struggle by employers to venerate work in ways that distract from its unappealing features,” [David Spencer, Leeds economics professor] 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.

So let’s return to Griffith’s titular question: Why do we pretend to love work? I think, first, we are pretending to love ourselves. We don’t trust that our selves, apart from our work, are worth very much at all. There remains a deeply-entrenched distrust that humans — you, me — could ever be inherently valuable. As a test, can you sit and do nothing? I mean, and not even meditate? Very hard to do, speaking personally. I think this is because I believe my worth is in what I can accomplish; I get antsy doing nothing. I might even call the experience agonizing. So when it comes to sharing about how busy we are, the motivation may lie in our own insecurity. We are trying to establish self-worth: “Internet companies may have miscalculated in encouraging employees to equate their work with their intrinsic value as human beings.”

I am reminded of a story I heard first when I was a kid. It’s about a man and a woman who disobeyed God and were banished from their idyllic garden into real life in the real world where they were cursed to till the land and their descendants had to hold down jobs until the day they died. Luckily that wasn’t the only story. There was another, this of Jesus who came to save the dead-tired sinners and the slackers in the vineyard; who issued the message of God’s love to the ends of the Earth, because every person was a child of God and made in the image of God and was, as such, inherently valuable.

Whether you are religious or not, the preceding story is not very easy to believe. Easier than believing this message which seems too good to be true is pretending to love work so as to appear indispensable. It’s nice to feel needed. It’s nice to have an employer who says, “What would I do without you?” It’s nice to feel a little bit powerful in the workplace and, in turn, to make the corporations for which we are striving seem somehow needy of us.

The Bible also tells of a woman named Martha who likewise needed to be needed. Martha was busy busy busy. She probably said things like #ThankGodItsMonday. One day Jesus saw her striving and said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” In John 11, he says it to her straight: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies.” What Jesus is essentially saying here is, get a life Martha. And you probably won’t find one at the office or by refreshing your Gmail app at 10pm. Life is found in him; he gives us that worth for which we are always striving. All that we need is found in this living source of grace and mercy abundant.

But for anyone particularly compelled by WeWork’s tagline — “where company becomes community!” — you might try working at a church. For better and worse, your company will indeed become your community. If that’s too gauche, maybe look into the Better Oblivion Community Center. I hear they’re pretty nice: