Work Culture as a Foundation for Exhaustion Culture

Bet that person in the eye is tired too!

There’s an interesting paradox that I’ve written about before: The poor are working less than the rich.

This has been written about elsewhere and explained in three theories:

1. The availability of attractive work for poor men (especially black men) is falling, as the availability of cheap entertainment is rising.

2. Social forces cultivate a conspicuous industriousness (even workaholism) among affluent college graduates.

3. Leisure is getting “leaky.”

These are all plausible theories, but the second one is particularly relevant. In the US the culture here has a long history of glorifying work for the sake of work. This is done regardless of the consequences it has for the individual or whether they actually want to do the work. The sake of the individual is subjugated to the ideal of uplifting society through their work, which ultimately makes the individual a cog for the society to use as it sees fit.

But these social forces don’t just affect affluent graduates, it seems to be affecting many affluent people. Part of the reason for this is because the refrain of saying you’re busy has become popular. It’s not just a sign of affluence but more generally of having status in society to say that you’re a very busy person.

You see this in movies when someone is trying to get an appointment with some executive and their receptionist might say something like, “That’ll be difficult because Mr. Moneybags is a very busy man.” Here, “busy” is used as an implied synonym for being important and we’ve seen that norm carry on into the 21st century.

From celebrities to CEOs there’s lots of people who are not only aware that they’re burning the midnight oil at all possible hours, but proud of that fact. And that’s the kicker behind the current work culture in America: Many of us who aren’t rich are not only aware that we’re miserable and working too much but trying to signal that as strongly as possible. And we’re doing that to show employers, “Hey, I matter! I’m unique! Look at me, value me, hire me, please!”

There’s a general push from individuals to respond to the forces of state-capitalism by subverting their own values and replacing them with the society around theirs. They might do this because they genuinely believe in those values but it’s also very much possible that they need to out of a desperate practicality.

This desperate practicality is more likely to describe someone who is middle class and believes that they can become rich if they work a little harder. According to much of the data I’ve heard about by reading articles on the subject, it seems like many of the poor (or at least poor men) would rather be unemployed and play video games:

Three quarters of their additional leisure time is spent with video games, Hurst’s research has shown. And these young men are happy—or, at least, they self-report higher satisfaction than this age group used to, even when its employment rate was 10 percentage points higher.

It is a relief to know that one can be poor, young, and unemployed, and yet fairly content with life; indeed, one of the hallmarks of a decent society is that it can make even poverty bearable.

I would contest though that it seems presumptuous to think that people are living in poverty just because they aren’t working. There are ways to game the system with regards to the benefits it provides, having familial or friendship based assistance, working in ways that are under the table and thus much harder to track, etc.

Regardless, it seems like this research points us to the obvious: Employment isn’t the only possible good

It’s also not the only way we can reach happiness in our lives.

This is pretty obvious to many of the readers of this site, I’d presume but to many in mainstream America, the suggestion we can fulfill just as many (if not more) of our needs from sources other than work is a terrifying idea.

Here’s the terror it inspires:

But the long-term prospects of these men may be even bleaker than their present. As Hurst and others have emphasized, these young men have disconnected from both the labor market and the dating pool. They are on track to grow up without spouses, families, or a work history. They may grow up to be rudderless middle-aged men, hovering around the poverty line, trapped in the narcotic undertow of cheap entertainment while the labor market fails to present them with adequate working opportunities.

This is a lot of speculation and presuming what is important to people based on what the authors think are important. Contrary to popular belief, dating isn’t the be-all end-all of life and neither is work. Plenty of people can and do find meaning from their own projects and ideas without having someone they can tell, “I love you”.

I’m not saying that dating, families, work, etc. can’t ever be important or should necessarily be discarded just because we can find happiness elsewhere. But I want to make it clear that people are overstating the case here, that society isn’t likely to fall apart because college graduates are spending their time playing video games. Especially when the alternative can be working for a company they hate and under a boss they don’t respect.

In which case, the idea that some of these structures may fall apart or have less involvement than they did in previous generations, may not be a terrible loss for the culture. For instance, the institution of the family is in need of radical change on many level: from how we treat children and how women overwork and are heavily underappreciated for it.

Family, much like work, isn’t an inherently good thing. It’s a societal structure that, like work, can (and often is) abusive in a lot of the ways it plays out in society. And the real problem here seems to be with the labor market not adequately meeting individuals needs, not that people are or are not dating or working.

Getting to the core of that problem will likely mean confronting issues of status signaling:

The gleam of being both well-off and time-poor, the authors write, is “driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market.”

In a curious reversal, the aspirational objects here are not some luxury goods—a nice watch or car, which are now mass-produced and more widely available than they used to be—but workers themselves, who by bragging about how busy they are can signal just how much the labor market values them and their skills.

This cultural perception of busyness leads to all of the expected issues: Less time for other people, less time for taking care of yourself, less time for taking it easy and so on. The end result is more stress, more health issues, more problems with your family, with your friends, with your loved ones and even with yourself.

If it seems like anything is more likely to destroy dating and the family, work is. But instead of seeing that, people are more likely to blame those who decide to defer from that lifestyle. The people who would rather play video games and make time their own. Which isn’t to say that playing video games is some sort of revolutionary act that will save the world (how I wish that were true…) but just that in a culture of exhaustion like the US, it’s not a bad thing.

Instead of having a culture where people actively brag about how busy they are, it would be seen as more of a nuisance. We would look with more suspicion when people say they’re “busy, busy” and have no time for themselves but claim they’re happy. Maybe they are happy, but there are many ways to be happy and is being constantly busy the best way to do it? Perhaps it’s better to balance out our impulses to stay busy with that “forbidden” desire to be lazy as well?

The fact that the desire to be leisurely is now seen as a negative trait (“they must not have a job!” “they must not be very productive!”) spells trouble for any society that wants its creativity to grow. Leisure is a time where we can all rest our brains and think about what we want to do with our days and even our lives. Having your brain on the go constantly isn’t a good way to stay focused or conserve your mental resources for when you might really need them.

It may be true that many of the most “successful” people in society are workaholics but what does success mean to ourselves? Does it mean being rich or does it mean having rich and meaningful lives? These are two different things that require different sorts of effort and actions to accomplish and conflating them is a common problem in US society.

If you’re curious more about people signaling their importance through busyness, you can check out this study which I read a good portion of.

Here’s the abstract:

While research on conspicuous consumption has typically analyzed how people spend money on products that signal status, this article investigates conspicuous consumption in relation to time. The authors argue that a busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol. A series of studies shows that the positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure time are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (e.g., competence and ambition) and is scarce and in demand in the job market.
This research uncovers an alternative kind of conspicuous consumption that operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals. Furthermore, the authors examine cultural values (perceived social mobility) and differences among cultures (North America vs. Europe) to demonstrate moderators and boundary conditions of the positive associations derived from signals of busyness.

If there’s one thing I would like to see American culture get busy with, it’s ending work.

Work culture is not only a culture that supports us being perpetually exhausted but perpetually prideful of that exhaustion. The signaling of the rich towards their busyness comes not only from familial tradition but economic tradition that’s been building up within the US through the media and advertisements about what the good constitutes.

Cutting against the perpetual exhaustion itself is great but it’s the pride in it that really worries me.

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