Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.
These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.
These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.
Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.
Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.
And don’t tell me that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour solves the problem. No one can doubt the moral significance of the movement. But at this rate of pay, you pass the official poverty line only after working 29 hours a week. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Working a 40-hour week, you would have to make $10 an hour to reach the official poverty line. What, exactly, is the point of earning a paycheck that isn’t a living wage, except to prove that you have a work ethic?
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But, wait, isn’t our present dilemma just a passing phase of the business cycle? What about the job market of the future? Haven’t the doomsayers, those damn Malthusians, always been proved wrong by rising productivity, new fields of enterprise, new economic opportunities? Well, yeah – until now, these times. The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum. They look like the data on climate change – you can deny them if you like, but you’ll sound like a moron when you do.
For example, the Oxford economists who study employment trends tell us that almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerisation within 20 years. They’re elaborating on conclusions reached by two MIT economists in the book Race Against the Machine (2011). Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley types who give TED talks have started speaking of ‘surplus humans’ as a result of the same process – cybernated production. Rise of the Robots, a new book that cites these very sources, is social science, not science fiction.
So this Great Recession of ours – don’t kid yourself, it ain’t over – is a moral crisis as well as an economic catastrophe. You might even say it’s a spiritual impasse, because it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives.
What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?
In short, it lets us say: enough already. Fuck work.
Certainly this crisis makes us ask: what comes after work? What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life – as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?
And what would society and civilisation be like if we didn’t have to ‘earn’ a living – if leisure was not our choice but our lot? Would we hang out at the local Starbucks, laptops open? Or volunteer to teach children in less-developed places, such as Mississippi? Or smoke weed and watch reality TV all day?
I’m not proposing a fancy thought experiment here. By now these are practical questions because there aren’t enough jobs. So it’s time we asked even more practical questions. How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?
We already have some provisional answers because we’re all on the dole, more or less. The fastest growing component of household income since 1959 has been ‘transfer payments’ from government. By the turn of the 21st century, 20 per cent of all household income came from this source – from what is otherwise known as welfare or ‘entitlements’. Without this income supplement, half of the adults with full-time jobs would live below the poverty line, and most working Americans would be eligible for food stamps.
But are these transfer payments and ‘entitlements’ affordable, in either economic or moral terms? By continuing and enlarging them, do we subsidise sloth, or do we enrich a debate on the rudiments of the good life?
Transfer payments or ‘entitlements’, not to mention Wall Street bonuses (talk about getting something for nothing) have taught us how to detach the receipt of income from the production of goods, but now, in plain view of the end of work, the lesson needs rethinking. No matter how you calculate the federal budget, we can afford to be our brother’s keeper. The real question is not whether but how we choose to be.
I know what you’re thinking – we can’t afford this! But yeah, we can, very easily. We raise the arbitrary lid on the Social Security contribution, which now stands at $127,200, and we raise taxes on corporate income, reversing the Reagan Revolution. These two steps solve a fake fiscal problem and create an economic surplus where we now can measure a moral deficit.
Of course, you will say – along with every economist from Dean Baker to Greg Mankiw, Left to Right – that raising taxes on corporate income is a disincentive to investment and thus job creation. Or that it will drive corporations overseas, where taxes are lower.
But in fact raising taxes on corporate income can’t have these effects.
Let’s work backward. Corporations have been ‘multinational’ for quite some time. In the 1970s and ’80s, before Ronald Reagan’s signature tax cuts took effect, approximately 60 per cent of manufactured imported goods were produced offshore, overseas, by US companies. That percentage has risen since then, but not by much.
Chinese workers aren’t the problem – the homeless, aimless idiocy of corporate accounting is. That is why the Citizens United decision of 2010 applying freedom of speech regulations to campaign spending is hilarious. Money isn’t speech, any more than noise is. The Supreme Court has conjured a living being, a new person, from the remains of the common law, creating a real world more frightening than its cinematic equivalent: say, Frankenstein, Blade Runner or, more recently, Transformers.
But the bottom line is this. Most jobs aren’t created by private, corporate investment, so raising taxes on corporate income won’t affect employment. You heard me right. Since the 1920s, economic growth has happened even though net private investment has atrophied. What does that mean? It means that profits are pointless except as a way of announcing to your stockholders (and hostile takeover specialists) that your company is a going concern, a thriving business. You don’t need profits to ‘reinvest’, to finance the expansion of your company’s workforce or output, as the recent history of Apple and most other corporations has amply demonstrated.
I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster
So investment decisions by CEOs have only a marginal effect on employment. Taxing the profits of corporations to finance a welfare state that permits us to love our neighbours and to be our brothers’ keeper is not an economic problem. It’s something else – it’s an intellectual issue, a moral conundrum.
When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labour market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. And there’s the rub, they do go together. Character can be created on the job only when we can see that there’s an intelligible, justifiable relation between past effort, learned skills and present reward. When I see that your income is completely out of proportion to your production of real value, of durable goods the rest of us can use and appreciate (and by ‘durable’ I don’t mean just material things), I begin to doubt that character is a consequence of hard work.
When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug-cartel money (HSBC), or pushing bad paper on mutual fund managers (AIG, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Citibank), or preying on low-income borrowers (Bank of America), or buying votes in Congress (all of the above) – just business as usual on Wall Street – while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realise that my participation in the labour market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.
That’s why an economic crisis such as the Great Recession is also a moral problem, a spiritual impasse – and an intellectual opportunity. We’ve placed so many bets on the social, cultural and ethical import of work that when the labour market fails, as it so spectacularly has, we’re at a loss to explain what happened, or to orient ourselves to a different set of meanings for work and for markets.
And by ‘we’ I mean pretty much all of us, Left to Right, because everybody wants to put Americans back to work, one way or another – ‘full employment’ is the goal of Right-wing politicians no less than Left-wing economists. The differences between them are over means, not ends, and those ends include intangibles such as the acquisition of character.
Which is to say that everybody has doubled down on the benefits of work just as it reaches a vanishing point. Securing ‘full employment’ has become a bipartisan goal at the very moment it has become both impossible and unnecessary. Sort of like securing slavery in the 1850s or segregation in the 1950s.
Because work means everything to us inhabitants of modern market societies – regardless of whether it still produces solid character and allocates incomes rationally, and quite apart from the need to make a living. It’s been the medium of most of our thinking about the good life since Plato correlated craftsmanship and the possibility of ideas as such. It’s been our way of defying death, by making and repairing the durable things, the significant things we know will last beyond our allotted time on earth because they teach us, as we make or repair them, that the world beyond us – the world before and after us – has its own reality principles.
Think about the scope of this idea. Work has been a way of demonstrating differences between males and females, for example by merging the meanings of fatherhood and ‘breadwinner’, and then, more recently, prying them apart. Since the 17th century, masculinity and femininity have been defined – not necessarily achieved – by their places in a moral economy, as working men who got paid wages for their production of value on the job, or as working women who got paid nothing for their production and maintenance of families. Of course, these definitions are now changing, as the meaning of ‘family’ changes, along with profound and parallel changes in the labour market – the entry of women is just one of those – and in attitudes toward sexuality.
When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. When socially necessary labour declines, what we once called women’s work – education, healthcare, service – becomes our basic industry, not a ‘tertiary’ dimension of the measurable economy. The labour of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper – socially beneficial labour – becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary, and not just within families, where affection is routinely available. No, I mean out there, in the wide, wide world.
Work has also been the American way of producing ‘racial capitalism’, as the historians now call it, by means of slave labour, convict labour, sharecropping, then segregated labour markets – in other words, a ‘free enterprise system’ built on the ruins of black bodies, an economic edifice animated, saturated and determined by racism. There never was a free market in labour in these united states. Like every other market, it was always hedged by lawful, systematic discrimination against black folk. You might even say that this hedged market produced the still-deployed stereotypes of African-American laziness, by excluding black workers from remunerative employment, confining them to the ghettos of the eight-hour day.
And yet, and yet. Though work has often entailed subjugation, obedience and hierarchy (see above), it’s also where many of us, probably most of us, have consistently expressed our deepest human desire, to be free of externally imposed authority or obligation, to be self-sufficient. We have defined ourselves for centuries by what we do, by what we produce.
But by now we must know that this definition of ourselves entails the principle of productivity – from each according to his abilities, to each according to his creation of real value through work – and commits us to the inane idea that we’re worth only as much as the labour market can register, as a price. By now we must also know that this principle plots a certain course to endless growth and its faithful attendant, environmental degradation.
How would human nature change as the aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of all?
Until now, the principle of productivity has functioned as the reality principle that made the American Dream seem plausible. ‘Work hard, play by the rules, get ahead’, or, ‘You get what you pay for, you make your own way, you rightly receive what you’ve honestly earned’ – such homilies and exhortations used to make sense of the world. At any rate they didn’t sound delusional. By now they do.
Adherence to the principle of productivity therefore threatens public health as well as the planet (actually, these are the same thing). By committing us to what is impossible, it makes for madness. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton said something like this when he explained anomalous mortality rates among white people in the Bible Belt by claiming that they’ve ‘lost the narrative of their lives’ – by suggesting that they’ve lost faith in the American Dream. For them, the work ethic is a death sentence because they can’t live by it.
So the impending end of work raises the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. To begin with, what purposes could we choose if the job – economic necessity – didn’t consume most of our waking hours and creative energies? What evident yet unknown possibilities would then appear? How would human nature itself change as the ancient, aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of human beings as such?
Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the essential ingredients of healthy human being. Of course he was right. But can love survive the end of work as the willing partner of the good life? Can we let people get something for nothing and still treat them as our brothers and sisters – as members of a beloved community? Can you imagine the moment when you’ve just met an attractive stranger at a party, or you’re online looking for someone, anyone, but you don’t ask: ‘So, what do you do?’
We won’t have any answers until we acknowledge that work now means everything to us – and that hereafter it can’t.
hen I was young, there was nothing so bad as being asked to work. Now I find it hard to conjure up that feeling, but I see it in my five-year-old daughter. “Can I please have some water, daddy?”
“You can get it yourself, you’re a big girl.”
“WHY DOES EVERYONE ALWAYS TREAT ME LIKE A MAID?”
That was me when I was young, rolling on the ground in agony on being asked to clean my room. As a child, I wonderingly observed the hours my father worked. The stoical way he went off to the job, chin held high, seemed a beautiful, heroic embrace of personal suffering. The poor man! How few hours he left himself to rest on the couch, read or watch American football.
My father had his own accounting firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. His speciality was helping people manage their tax and financial affairs as they started, expanded, or in some cases shut down their businesses. He has taken his time retiring, and I now realise how much he liked his work. I can remember the glowing terms in which his clients would tell me about the help he’d given them, as if he’d performed life-saving surgery on them. I also remember the way his voice changed when he received a call from a client when at home. Suddenly he spoke with a command and facility that I never heard at any other time, like a captive penguin released into open water, swimming in his element with natural ease.
At 37, I see my father’s routine with different eyes. I live in a terraced house in Wandsworth, a moderately smart and wildly expensive part of south-west London, and a short train ride from the headquarters of The Economist, where I write about economics. I get up at 5.30am and spend an hour or two at my desk at home. Once the children are up I join them for breakfast, then go to work as they head off to school. I can usually leave the office in time to join the family for dinner and put the children to bed. Then I can get a bit more done at home: writing, if there is a deadline looming, or reading, which is also part of the job. I work hard, doggedly, almost relentlessly. The joke, which I only now get, is that work is fun.
Not all work, of course. When my father was a boy on the family farm, the tasks he and his father did in the fields – the jobs many people still do – were gruelling and thankless. I once visited the textile mill where my grandmother worked for a time. The noise of the place was so overpowering that it was impossible to think. But my work – the work we lucky few well-paid professionals do every day, as we co-operate with talented people while solving complex, interesting problems – is fun. And I find that I can devote surprising quantities of time to it.
What is less clear to me, and to so many of my peers, is whether we should do so much of it. One of the facts of modern life is that a relatively small class of people works very long hours and earns good money for its efforts. Nearly a third of college-educated American men, for example, work more than 50 hours a week. Some professionals do twice that amount, and elite lawyers can easily work 70 hours a week almost every week of the year.
Work, in this context, means active, billable labour. But in reality, it rarely stops. It follows us home on our smartphones, tugging at us during an evening out or in the middle of our children’s bedtime routines. It makes permanent use of valuable cognitive space, and chooses odd hours to pace through our thoughts, shoving aside whatever might have been there before. It colonises our personal relationships and uses them for its own ends. It becomes our lives if we are not careful. It becomes us.
When John Maynard Keynes mused in 1930 that, a century hence, society might be so rich that the hours worked by each person could be cut to ten or 15 a week, he was not hallucinating, just extrapolating. The working week was shrinking fast. Average hours worked dropped from 60 at the turn of the century to 40 by the 1950s. The combination of extra time and money gave rise to an age of mass leisure, to family holidays and meals together in front of the television. There was a vision of the good life in this era. It was one in which work was largely a means to an end – the working class had become a leisured class. Households saved money to buy a house and a car, to take holidays, to finance a retirement at ease. This was the era of the three-Martini lunch: a leisurely, expense-padded midday bout of hard drinking. This was when bankers lived by the 3-6-3 rule: borrow at 3%, lend at 6%, and head off to the golf course by 3pm.
The vision of a leisure-filled future occurred against the backdrop of the competition against communism, but it is a capitalist dream: one in which the productive application of technology rises steadily, until material needs can be met with just a few hours of work. It is a story of the triumph of innovation and markets, and one in which the details of a post-work world are left somewhat hazy. Keynes, in his essay on the future, reckoned that when the end of work arrived:
For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
Karl Marx had a different view: that being occupied by good work was living well. Engagement in productive, purposeful work was the means by which people could realise their full potential. He’s not credited with having got much right about the modern world, but maybe he wasn’t so wrong about our relationship with work.
MARX IS NOT CREDITED WITH HAVING GOT MUCH RIGHT ABOUT THE MODERN WORLD, BUT MAYBE HE WASN’T SO WRONG ABOUT OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH WORK
In those decades after the second world war, Keynes seemed to have the better of the argument. As productivity rose across the rich world, hourly wages for typical workers kept rising and hours worked per week kept falling – to the mid-30s, by the 1970s. But then something went wrong. Less-skilled workers found themselves forced to accept ever-smaller pay rises to stay in work. The bargaining power of the typical blue-collar worker eroded as technology and globalisation handed bosses a whole toolkit of ways to squeeze labour costs. At the same time, the welfare state ceased its expansion and began to retreat, swept back by governments keen to boost growth by cutting taxes and removing labour-market restrictions. The income gains that might have gone to workers, that might have kept living standards rising even as hours fell, that might have kept society on the road to the Keynesian dream, flowed instead to those at the top of the income ladder. Willingly or unwillingly, those lower down the ladder worked fewer and fewer hours. Those at the top, meanwhile, worked longer and longer.
It was not obvious that things would turn out this way. You might have thought that whereas, before, a male professional worked 50 hours a week while his wife stayed at home with the children, a couple of married professionals might instead each opt to work 35 hours a week, sharing more of the housework, and ending up with both more money and more leisure. That didn’t happen. Rather, both are now more likely to work 60 hours a week and pay several people to care for the house and children.
Why? One possibility is that we have all got stuck on a treadmill. Technology and globalisation mean that an increasing number of good jobs are winner-take-most competitions. Banks and law firms amass extraordinary financial returns, directors and partners within those firms make colossal salaries, and the route to those coveted positions lies through years of round-the-clock work. The number of firms with global reach, and of tech start-ups that dominate a market niche, is limited. Securing a place near the top of the income spectrum in such a firm, and remaining in it, is a matter of constant struggle and competition. Meanwhile the technological forces that enable a few elite firms to become dominant also allow work, in the form of those constantly pinging emails, to follow us everywhere.
This relentless competition increases the need to earn high salaries, for as well-paid people cluster together they bid up the price of the resources for which they compete. In the brainpower-heavy cities where most of them live, getting on the property ladder requires the sort of sum that can be built up only through long hours in an important job. Then there is conspicuous consumption: the need to have a great-looking car and a home out of Interiors magazine, the competition to place children in good (that is, private) schools, the need to maintain a coterie of domestic workers – you mean you don’t have a personal shopper? And so on, and on.
The dollars and hours pile up as we aim for a good life that always stays just out of reach. In moments of exhaustion we imagine simpler lives in smaller towns with more hours free for family and hobbies and ourselves. Perhaps we just live in a nightmarish arms race: if we were all to disarm, collectively, then we could all live a calmer, happier, more equal life.
But that is not quite how it is. The problem is not that overworked professionals are all miserable. The problem is that they are not.
Drinking coffee one morning with a friend from my home town, we discuss our fathers’ working habits. Both are just past retirement age. Both worked in an era in which a good job was not all-consuming. When my father began his professional career, the post-war concept of the good life was still going strong. He was a dedicated, even passionate worker. Yet he never supposed that work should be the centre of his life.
Work was a means to an end; it was something you did to earn the money to pay for the important things in life. This was the advice I was given as a university student, struggling to figure out what career to pursue in order to have the best chance at an important, meaningful job. I think my parents were rather baffled by my determination to find satisfaction in my professional life. Life was what happened outside work. Life, in our house, was a week’s holiday at the beach or Pop standing on the sidelines at our baseball games. It was my parents at church, in the pew or volunteering in some way or another. It was having kids who gave you grandkids. Work merely provided more people to whom to show pictures of the grandkids.
This generation of workers, on the early side of the baby boom, is marching off to retirement now. There are things to do in those sunset years. But the hours will surely stretch out and become hard to fill. As I sit with my friend it dawns on us that retirement sounds awful. Why would we stop working?
Here is the alternative to the treadmill thesis. As professional life has evolved over the past generation, it has become much more pleasant. Software and information technology have eliminated much of the drudgery of the workplace. The duller sorts of labour have gone, performed by people in offshore service-centres or by machines. Offices in the rich world’s capitals are packed not with drones filing paperwork or adding up numbers but with clever people working collaboratively.
The pleasure lies partly in flow, in the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend. The sense of purposeful immersion and exertion is the more appealing given the hands-on nature of the work: top professionals are the master craftsmen of the age, shaping high-quality, bespoke products from beginning to end. We design, fashion, smooth and improve, filing the rough edges and polishing the words, the numbers, the code or whatever is our chosen material. At the end of the day we can sit back and admire our work – the completed article, the sealed deal, the functioning app – in the way that artisans once did, and those earning a middling wage in the sprawling service-sector no longer do.
The fact that our jobs now follow us around is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Workers in cognitively demanding fields, thinking their way through tricky challenges, have always done so at odd hours. Academics in the midst of important research, or admen cooking up a new creative campaign, have always turned over the big questions in their heads while showering in the morning or gardening on a weekend afternoon. If more people find their brains constantly and profitably engaged, so much the better.
Smartphones do not just enable work to follow us around; they also make life easier. Tasks that might otherwise require you to stay late in the office can be taken home. Parents can enjoy dinner and bedtime with the children before turning back to the job at hand. Technology is also lowering the cost of the support staff that make long hours possible. No need to employ a full-time personal assistant to run the errands these days: there are apps to take care of the shopping, the laundry and the dinner, walk the dog, fix the car and mend the hole in the roof. All of these allow us to focus ever more of our time and energy on doing what our jobs require of us.
There are downsides to this life. It does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill; or to develop hobbies, side-interests or the pleasures of particular, leisurely rituals – or anything, indeed, that is not intimately connected with professional success. But the inadmissible truth is that the eclipsing of life’s other complications is part of the reward.
It is a cognitive and emotional relief to immerse oneself in something all-consuming while other difficulties float by. The complexities of intellectual puzzles are nothing to those of emotional ones. Work is a wonderful refuge.
This life is a package deal. Cities are expensive. Less prestigious work that demands less commitment from those who do it pays less – often much less. For those without independent wealth, dialling back professional ambition and effort means moving away, to smaller and cheaper places.
But stepping off the treadmill does not just mean accepting a different vision of one’s prospects with a different salary trajectory. It means upending one’s life entirely: changing locations, tumbling out of the community, losing one’s identity. That is a difficult thing to survive. One must have an extremely strong, secure sense of self to negotiate it.
I’ve watched people try. In 2009 good friends of ours packed their things and moved away from Washington, DC, where we lived at the time, to the small college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was an idyllic little place, nestled in the Appalachian foothills, surrounded by horse farms and vineyards, with cheap, charming homes. He persuaded his employer to let him telework; she left her high-pressure job as vice-president at a big web firm near Washington to take a position at a local company.
My wife and I were intrigued by the thought of doing the same. She could teach there, we reckoned, and I could write. It was a reasonable train ride from Washington, if I needed to meet editors. We would be able to enjoy the fresh air, and the peace and quiet. Perhaps at some point we would open our own shop on the main street or try our hand at winemaking, if we could save a little money.
IT WASN’T THE STRESS OF BEING ON THE FAST TRACK THAT CAUSED MY CHEST TO TIGHTEN AND MY HEART RATE TO RISE, BUT THE THOUGHT OF BEING LEFT BEHIND BY THOSE STILL ON IT
Yet the more seriously we thought about it, the less I liked the idea. I want hours of quiet to write in, not days and weeks. I would miss, desperately, being in an office and arguing about ideas. More than that, I could anticipate with perfect clarity how the rhythm of life would slow as we left the city, how the external pressure to keep moving would diminish. I didn’t want more time to myself; I wanted to feel pushed to be better and achieve more. It wasn’t the stress of being on the fast track that caused my chest to tighten and my heart rate to rise, but the thought of being left behind by those still on it.
Less than a year after moving away, our friends moved back. They had found themselves bored and lonely. We were glad, and relieved as well: their return justified our decision to stay in the city. One reason the treadmill is so hard to walk away from is that life off it is not what it once was. When I was a child, our neighbourhood was rich with social interaction. My father played on the church softball team until his back got too bad. My mother helped with charity food-and-toy drives. They both taught classes and chaperoned youth choir trips. They socialised with neighbours who did these things too.
Those elements of life persist, of course, but they are somewhat diminished, as Robert Putnam, a social scientist, observed in 1995 in “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”. He described the shrivelling of civic institutions, which he blamed on many of the forces that coincided with, and contributed to, our changing relationship to work: the entry of women into the workforce; the rise of professional ghettoes; longer working hours.
One of the civic groups that Putnam cites as an important contributor to social capital in ages past was the labour union. In the post-war era, unions thrived because of healthy demand for blue-collar workers who shared a strong sense of class identity. That allowed the unions’ members to capture an outsize share of the gains from economic growth, while also providing workers and their families with a strong sense of community – indeed, of solidarity.
The labour movement has unravelled in recent decades, and with it the network that supported its members; but these days a similar virtuous circle supports the professional classes instead. Our social networks are made up not just of neighbours and friends, but also of clients and colleagues. This interlaced world of work and social life enriches us, exposing us to people who do fascinating things, keeping us informed of professional gossip and providing those who have good ideas with the connections to help turn them into reality. It also traps us. The suspicion that one might be missing out on a useful opportunity or idea helps prod us off the sofa when an evening with “True Detective” beckons seductively.
This mixing of the social and professional is not new. It is not unlike Hollywood, where friends have always become collaborators, actors marry directors, and an evening out on the town has always been a public act that shapes the brand value of the star. Or like Washington, DC, in which public officials, journalists and policy experts swap jobs every few years and go to the same parties at night: befriending and sleeping with each other, exchanging ideas, living a life in which all behaviour is professional to some extent. But as hours have lengthened and work has become more engaging, this social pattern has swallowed other worlds.
There is a psychic value to the intertwining of life and work as well as an economic one. The society of people like us reinforces our belief in what we do.
Working effectively at a good job builds up our identity and esteem in the eyes of others. We cheer each other on, we share in (and quietly regret) the successes of our friends, we lose touch with people beyond our network. Spending our leisure time with other professional strivers buttresses the notion that hard work is part of the good life and that the sacrifices it entails are those that a decent person makes. This is what a class with a strong sense of identity does: it effortlessly recasts the group’s distinguishing vices as virtues.
Life within this professional community has its impositions. It makes failure or error a more difficult, humiliating experience. Social life ceases to be a refuge from the indignities of work. The sincerity of relationships becomes questionable when people are friends of convenience. A friend – a real one – muses to me that those who become immersed in lives like this suffer from Stockholm Syndrome: they befriend their clients because they spend too much time with them to know there are other, better options available. The fact that I find it hard to pass judgment on this statement suggests that I, too, may be a victim.
My parents have not quite managed to retire, but they are getting there. Even with one foot in and one foot out of retirement, their post-career itinerary is becoming clear. They mean to see parts of the world they couldn’t when they were young and had no money, or when they were older and had no time. Their travels occasionally bring them to London to see me and my family. On a recent visit the talk shifted, as it often does, to when I might be planning to return to the east coast of America, much closer to the Carolinas, which is where they and most of the rest of my extended family still live. As my father walks around the house, my three-year-old son trotting adoringly behind him, they ask whether I couldn’t do my job as easily closer to home.
I get hung up on as easily. The writing I could do as easily, just about. Building my career, away from our London headquarters, would not be so easy. As I explain this, a circularity threatens to overtake my point: to build my career is to make myself indispensable, demonstrating indispensability means burying myself in the work, and the upshot of successfully demonstrating my indispensability is the need to continue working tirelessly. Not only can I not do all that elsewhere; outside London, the obvious brilliance of a commitment to this course of action is underappreciated. It looks pointless – daft, even.
And I begin to understand the nature of the trouble I’m having communicating to my parents precisely why what I’m doing appeals to me. They are asking about a job. I am thinking about identity, community, purpose – the things that provide meaning and motivation. I am talking about my life.
Hackerspace & lieu de vie à Lanzarote.
Couchsurfing for Hackers, by Hackers
Behind this dynamic is a monoculture of money optimizing for more money. An investment mentality that hollows out our culture. Real estate is just one example. It’s happening across many segments of our society. And in each case, the existing community pays the price for the investor’s upside.
There are different forms of this dynamic.
A New York Times investigation found that just 158 families have provided nearly half the funding for presidential campaigns. What better investment than your own politician?
In music, 80% of the concert industry is owned by Ticketmaster. A diverse universe of record labels is steadily consolidating down. A shocking percentage of Top 40 hits are written by four Scandinavian men.
In Hollywood, it’s sequels, prequels, and risk-averse exploitations of existing IP — now in IMAX and 3D!
In tech, many investors’ first question for entrepreneurs is “what’s your exit strategy?” Big rounds, big burn rates, and big valuations push startups in the same direction. Maximize growth so you can eventually maximize money for yourself and somebody else.
When everyone is optimizing for money, the effects on society are horrific. It produces graphs that are up and to the right for all the wrong reasons.
We can’t assume that this will work itself out. As money maximization continues, all of us — and the poor and disempowered especially — face a bleak future. This model is only interested in supporting those that can afford to buy in.
It feels like we’ve been auto-subscribed to a newsletter that’s sending increasingly depressing emails. How do we get off this ride?
Do we stay opted in? Or do we opt out?
If you stay opted in and play the game, the ultimate best case is you’re one of the few that gets rich. Later you can give some money away to charity. But other than your bank account, little has changed. The existing structure is reinforced.
Do we opt out? Imagining opting out is emotionally satisfying.
“I might delete Facebook today.”
“I’ll go back to my Razr phone.”
“Maybe I’ll try homesteading.”
But to do any of these means becoming a ghost to your community. It’s impractical. Very few of us ever follow through.
Is there a third option? I think so. I don’t have a fully-fledged plan, but I have some thoughts on where we can start.
Number 1: Don’t sell out.
At some point in the past ten years, selling out lost its stigma. I come from the Kurt Cobain/“corporate rock still sucks” school where selling out was the worst thing you could ever do. We should return to that.
Don’t sell out your values, don’t sell out your community, don’t sell out the long term for the short term. Do something because you believe it’s wonderful and beneficial, not to get rich.
And — very important — if you plan to do something on an ongoing basis, ensure its sustainability. This means your work must support your operations and you don’t try to grow beyond that without careful planning. If you do those things you can easily maintain your independence.
Number 2: Be idealistic.
Always act with integrity. Really be clear about the things that drive you. Remember the lessons your parents and grandparents taught you about how to treat people and make sure your business lives up to that.
Don’t sink into the morass of “industry standards.” Don’t succumb to the inertia of the status quo. Don’t stop exploring new ideas. A small number of people can change how society works. It’s happened before and it will happen again.
There are some great examples to look to for inspiration.
Patagonia is a Benefit Corporation that will share proprietary information with competitors if it will help the environment.
REI is a co-op that announced they’re closed on Black Friday and they’re encouraging their employees to “opt-outside” instead.
Basecamp and the Hype Machine are independent software companies that put their products and life experience ahead of creating massive growth curves. Ten years in and they’re independent and going strong.
Another inspiration is Fugazi and their label, Dischord Records. From playing all-ages $5 shows to running an independent label for 30 years, we can recontextualize them as entrepreneurial heroes. Look at that photo — that could be a founding tech team. There’s even an office dog!
What these businesses have in common is that they are clear on their purpose and they follow a strict code in its pursuit. They don’t want to be everything to everybody. They just want to be themselves.
This thinking is very contrary to the current business zeitgeist, which is all about aggression and being big and fast. Everyone wants to be Napoleon. And we all know how that turned out.
Look at the language on that cover: “be paranoid,” “go to war.” Its violence suggests that being ruthless is the only way to survive. We all hear this tone all around us.
When I became the CEO of Kickstarter two years ago, this tone created a crisis for me. I had never approached my work as something to be done aggressively, but with the weight of the new job and those external voices on my shoulders, I suddenly had doubts. Is that who I needed to be as CEO? Everywhere I looked I saw messages of anxiety and fear. I questioned my instincts and who I was as a person.
Then I read Not For Bread Alone. Konosuke Matsushita ran a company in Japan for many years with a clear ethos. His philosophy was to always act creatively and with integrity, to pursue a positive impact on society, and to encourage collaboration among his team. It’s an ethos that’s as right today as it was then. It confirmed that I didn’t have to play the fear game.
Approaching your work with thoughtfulness at the core is challenging. You’re going against the grain. Your tools of measurement are very different from your peers. It’s easy to doubt yourself — I still do it all the time.
But in more important ways, it’s so much easier. You’re free to act with conviction. You can say and do what you believe is right. Your principles will still be tested, but you can respond in ways that will make you, your community, and your family proud.
It’s not about conquering the world, it’s about doing the right thing. When done correctly, this creates the ultimate product-market fit.
Community supported agriculture is a great example of this. A farm produces its crop for a community of people who receive the bounty every week. The value created and shared is balanced.
We want Kickstarter to be similarly in sync with society. Earlier this year we became a Public Benefit Corporation. This means we are legally obligated to consider the impact of our decisions on society, not just our shareholders. It’s very different from the expectation that for profit companies maximize shareholder value above all. It acknowledges and embraces that you are a part of a larger community.
We don’t expect everyone doing a Kickstarter project to become a Public Benefit Corporation, or to even care. We want artists and creators to be able to create and build for their own reasons — not just for money. No single mentality is forced on anyone. It’s a polyculture of aspirations and motivations — just as it should be.
Walking around NYC and seeing a bank on every corner is depressing, but the monoculture’s reign is impermanent. As more of us challenge the status quo, change will spark and spread. The hollowness and corruption of the pursuit of profit above all is obvious to even those who practice it. A new approach founded on a diversity of thought and experience can and will thrive.
I don’t know what the exact right steps are to change all of this. This is just me thinking out loud about something that doesn’t get talked about enough. My hope in sharing it is that someone here can build on these ideas, and make them even better. Ultimately this is going to have to be a group effort.
But we want to be very clear on where we at Kickstarter stand on this. Internally we have a Mission & Philosophy handbook that was written by our founder, Perry Chen. Its final page says it all:
Thanks for your time, and thanks for listening.
Comment trouver la travail qui nous intéresse ? Un bon heuristique c'est de voir ce qui n'a pas l'air d'un travail pour nous (ou qui est un loisir), alors que pour les autres, c'est un travail (un minimum pénible).
Site pour faire de freelance en sécurité informatique !
Société qui fait de la veille : ils font des trucs super intéressants et bien fichus.
Et en plus, on dirait qu'ils recrutent…
Tout le reste du site est super intéressant :)
C'est un radioamateur qui a construit une centrale hydroélectrique, habite en pleine nature, fait du parapente…
Article très intéressant, sur le développement et les problèmes rencontrés (par exemple, les développeurs ne sont pas des ouvriers, mais des créatifs…).