The plague, death, the supply chain, long lines at the post office, the collapse of many aspects of civil society could all play a part in this statistic. But in his classic 1951 study of the clerical middle class, sociologist C. Wright Mills observed that “while the modern white collar worker does not have an articulated work philosophy, his feelings about it and his experiences with it affect his satisfactions and frustrations, the whole tone of his life.” I remember a friend once saying that even though her husband wasn’t depressed, he hated his job and it was basically like living with a depressed person.
After the latest jobs report, economist and Times columnist Paul Krugman estimated that people’s confidence in the economy was about 12 points lower than it should have been, given that wages have risen. As the pandemic drags on, the numbers either can’t quantify how bad things have gotten or People seem to have convinced themselves things are worse than they actually are.
It’s not in only the data where the words “job satisfaction” seem to have become a paradox. It’s also present in the cultural mood about work. Not long ago, a young editor I follow on Instagram posted an answer to a question someone asked her: What’s your dream job? Her response, a scathing internet screwball comeback, was that she didn’t “dream about work.” I suspect that she is ambitious. I know that she has an excellent understanding of the zeitgeist.
It’s in the air, this anti-ambition. These days, it’s easy to go viral by appealing to a commonly perceived lethargy, especially if you can invent the sort of languid, tongue-in-cheek aphorisms that have become this generation’s response to the computer-destroying scene in Office Space. (The film was released in 1999, in the middle of another hot job market, when unemployment was at its lowest level in 30 years.) “Sex is great, but have you ever quit a job that ruined your sanity? ?” went a tweet that has more than 300,000 likes. Or, “I hope this email doesn’t reach you. I hope you escaped that you were free.” (168,000 likes.) While the tight labor market gives low-wage workers a taste of upward mobility, many office workers (or “office” these days) seem to think about our jobs more in the way many work . Class people have forever. Than just a job, one paycheck to do the bills! Not the sum of us, no identity.
Even elite lawyers seem to be losing their taste for workplace shooting. Last year, Reuters reported an unusual wave of turnover at large firms in New York City – noting that many of the attorneys had decided to take a pay cut to work fewer hours or move to a cheaper area or work in tech. It’s happening in finance, too: At Citi, according to New York Magazine, an analyst typed “I hate this job, I hate this bank, I want to jump out the window” in a chat, prompting HR to review his psych and health . “It’s a consensus view,” he told Human Resources. “That’s how everyone feels.”
It gets weird when employers try to address this dissatisfaction. Amazon warehouse workers were asked last year to participate in a wellness program aimed at reducing work-related injuries. The company recently came under fire for reporting that some of its drivers are being pushed so hard they’ve taken to urinating on bottles, and warehouse workers, whose every move is tracked, live in fear, in part because of theirs Work slow to get fired. But now Amazon has launched a program for these warehouse workers called AmaZen: “Employees can visit AmaZen stations and watch short videos of easy-to-follow wellness activities, including guided meditations [and] positive affirmations.” It’s self-care with a dystopian slant, where the solution to blue-collar job burnout is… screen time.
The cultural sentiment toward the office even shows up on the television shows knowledge workers have been obsessed with. Consider Mad Men, a show set in the late 1960s at the height of the economy. It was a show that found work romantic. I don’t mean the office stuff. I mean that the characters were in love with their work (or sometimes mad with love, but that’s a passion in its own right). Beyond that, their careers and the little dramas of their day-to-day work — the client presentations, office politics — gave their lives meaning. (At the end of the show, Don Draper went to a resort that looks a lot like Esalen to explore the meaning of life and meditated his way into a transformative…Coke ad campaign.)