Can't Even

May 26, 2021

If you want the TL;DR of why everything is awful: GIF of Ronald Reagan pointing at you and laughing.

These days, the vast majority of employers require applicants to shoulder the burden of their training. We pay for undergraduate degrees, certificates, and graduate degrees, but we also foot the bill for internships and externships, in which a person “self-finance[s] their own training in the workplace,” either in the form of paying for college credits (to provide free labor in an internship that doubles as a “class”) or just providing uncompensated labor.

Ehrenreich calls that new mindset “the Yuppie Strategy.” Like the hipsters of the late 2000s, yuppies (or young urban professionals) were a social category to which few willingly admitted membership, mercilessly satirized in texts like The Yuppie Handbook. But their popularity — as the subject of media trend stories, as a cultural punching bag—suggested a new societal direction, at once disconcerting and aspirational.

The first step of the yuppie strategy, according to Ehrenreich, was a sort of “premature pragmatism”: choosing a major based on which one that would land them in a position to make a lot of money very quickly. Between the early 1970s and early 1980s, the number of English majors declined by nearly 50 percent, as did those majoring in social sciences. During the same period, business majors doubled.

“One common refrain I’ve heard from Gifted and Talented kids is how none of us really learned how to think,” he said. “we could just retain information so much easier, and most importantly, we had great reading comprehension, which is 90 percent of school assignments. Once I got to college, I realized how little I really know about studying and effectively learning and thinking rather than just reading and knowing.”

First, there are still many high-paying jobs that don’t require a traditional four-year degree: HVAC installers, pipe fitters, electricians, and other construction trades, especially union ones, offer relatively stable middle-class standards of living. But many millennials have internalized the idea that any job hat does not require college is somehow inferior—and ended up overeducated, paying off loans for credentials they didn’t necessarily need. I’ve heard this argument countered with the idea that there’s no such thing as “overeducation”: Everyone should be able to go to college. Take away the crippling student debt, and I’d agree. Of course a plumber should have the opportunity to get an English degree. But we should also be honest that if you want to be a licensed plumber, you don’t need to have an English degree, or a four-year degree in any form.

Some historians trace the American cult of overwork to the hiring practices of post—World War II defense industries in the Santa Clara Valley of California. During the 1950s, these companies began recruiting scientists who were, as Sara Martin puts it in her 2012 history of overwork, “single-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached, and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest.”

The fetishization of lovable work means that plain old jobs—non-ninja, non-Jedi jobs that might not be “cool” but that nonetheless offer magical powers like “stability” and “benefits”—come to feel undesirable. Within this logic, mailmen and electrician seem like our grandparents’ and parents’ jobs, the sorts of jobs with a definable start and ending, the sort of jobs that don’t subsume the worker’s identity. Maybe you don’t love it, or feel passion for installing air conditioning, but you don’t hate it. The hours are fair, the pay is decent, the training is feasible. And yet, these jobs are often coded, at least amongst the educated middle-class, as undesirable.

Before the 1970s, a public company’s stock market alue was often steady, rooted in long-term projections of growth and stability. But then something peculiar happened: As companies shed employee benefits like pensions, more and more Americans began investing in mutual funds, via the 401ks that had been offered up to replace the pension. In 1980, mutual funds were considered a “backwater” investment—they held a relatively paltry $134 billion in assets. By 2011, that number had exploded to $11.6 trillion. And here’s where it gets interesting: Every day, mutual funds like Vanguard and Fidelity are investing for millions of people’s retirements. But they care little about the long-term security of a company they’re investing in, instead focusing on short-term profits that can show up in 401k statement as gains. The money going through these accounts is, in the economist David Weil’s words, “impatient, and moves frequently in search of better returns.” In 2011, for example, the average turnover in mutual fund portfolios was 52 percent. These mutual funds, like the few large pension funds that remain, helped reify the market’s mindset about layoffs, outsourcing, and massive CEO compensation: They’re all great, so long as they continue to inspire the sort of profits these funds crave.

Outsourcing to contractors is also a handy way to get rid of unions, which are generally viewed, through the consultant mindset, as impediments to profit. (If workers in general are impediments to profit, then workers with power definitely are.) The solution to the union problem is simple: lay off everyone employed by the company and, in time, through a subcontractor, hire back people to do the very same jobs, without benefits. If the company had fired everyone and then just directly hired back all new, non-union members, they would be breaking the law. But the company didn’t kill the union, per se—they just got rid of all the unionized employees. Labor law has not been updated to protect the new, highly fissured workplace in which there’s no recourse for the “sloughed” unionized employee.

In an office job, you’re still getting paid for those five minutes it takes to make a cup of tea; when you’re freelancing, every minute you’re not working, you’re losing money.

But social media wasn’t always this way. Think back on your first memories of Facebook: pre-Newsfeed, pre-Like button. You’d go to the website (on your computer!) and then maybe a day would go by, and you’d check it again. But the addition of the Like button—and changing the “alerts” from blue to red, so that people couldn’t ignore them—incentivized repeated, obsessive returns to the site. For years, if you wanted to read more on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, you’d have to refresh the site; in 2010, Loren Brichter introduced the “pull to refresh” function on the Tweetie app, which has now become the stand on social media apps and beyond.

In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would work only fifteen hours a week.

If someone loves to bake and starts bringing her creations to parties, the only way we know how to really compliment them is to suggest, You could do this for money!

Meredith, a self-described “overeducated white lady,” articulates her burnout in terms of rage, “usually over the relentlessness of the job intersecting with the relentlessness of the household,” plus the “obnoxious” task of maintaining appearances in her neighborhood. “We have to keep the house well maintained to appease the HOA,” she explained, “and if the kids’ friends are engaged in X activity, my husband feels guilty if our kids don’t join them, so I go along with it so that my husband stops asking about X activity, but then I find myself the only one responsible for where X activity gear is stored and making sure it’s clean.” And then, she says, “I feel bad about myself for feeling burnout over #richwhiteladyproblems because they are so trivial compared to other people’s problems.”

You can’t fix it with “self-care,” a concept originated by Audre Lorde to describe how to give oneself space to recover form the exhausting battle of fighting systemic oppression, then co-opted by privileged white women to grant permission to escape many of the standards and schedules they’ve (wittingly or not) helped perpetuate. You can make yourself (temporarily) feel better, but the world will still feel broken.

But I don’t have a specific list of action items for you. I’m trying, as best as I can, to show, not tell. Every book I read about the economy, or our unwitting addiction to our phones, or the exhaustion of parenting—they all concluded with solutions. Some included handy checklists and little boxes of “everyday tips” that could change your day-to-day life; some had extensive, detailed policy solutions. All of those ideas were compelling, and interesting, and deeply unhelpful. Just another way, in the end, for me to fail myself and the world.

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