Work, Human Value, and Burnout
Introduction, and Part 01
"I share with dreamers, utopians, and teenagers and unreasonable intuition of magnificent potential, that life and the world can be more than we have made them." -Charles Eisenstein
I want to share some thoughts from a recent webinar I gave on the future of work. When discussing the future of work I think it’s incredibly important to contextualize the discussion in our present, and in the past – how did work become the ‘work’ we know today? How did we get here? So I’d like to cover some of the big beats of this history over the last 80 years.
I should also note that when I say ‘work,’ I’m talking about what we typically think of as office-based “knowledge work.” Though I think some of the principles I will cover apply to all humans who have entered into a contractual relationship with a company to exchange labor for wages. I’ll also note that this is not a comprehensive history of work over the last 80 years. There have been numerous social, technological, cultural, and corporate evolutions that have shaped what we know as work today; what I am including here is a highly abbreviated history highlighting the major evolutions that help us to contextualize our current state. Further reading resources will be linked at the end of this series.
Let’s get started.
In March 2020, we all went home. And something peculiar and unprecedented happened – as a society we were all forced to collectively participate in an involuntary scramble to make life work. There was a universal-figuring-it-out. How to keep up with our kids education, how to shop for groceries and cook dinner, and how to work through it all. Emails. Meetings. Productivity. Our preexisting pattern of life had been broken and it was up to us to create a new one. Through this process we began to recognize what had not been working – the duct tape of life that had been holding it all together all of the sudden became obviously insufficient. I’ve referred to this experience as the great angst. Anne Hellen Peterson called this experience “the great clarifier.” Many of us began to see with lucid clarity what was important to us, and what wasn’t. Those aspects of life that didn’t make the cut were ultimately left behind to wither away, and with that loss came grief (I believe some well intentioned folks like Adam Grant have mistakenly interpreted this as “languishing”). This collective grief has been peculiar and unprecedented. And for those in touch with it has come a heightened sensitivity to not only what wasn’t working for us individually, but what wasn’t working for us collectively – the weight of political polarization, climate catastrophe, racial injustice, and economic uncertainty has become unbearable. In the container that is our life, this weight has been stirred into our daily stress to remain productive and amplified our sense of loss – of control, of peace, of cohesion.
In my own experience, the experience of others who I’ve discussed this with, and from what I have observed in the world around me, this grief is the predominant characteristic of burnout. In May 2019 the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” According to the American Psychological Association, work is the second greatest source of stress for Americans, second only to money. The Mayo Clinic has reported that your manager has more impact on your health than your family doctor. After a meta analysis of thousands of studies, the Stanford business professor and theorist Jeffery Pfeffer has concluded that work is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. There is something profoundly wrong with work, and burnout seems to be the most chronic symptom.
Anne Hellen Peterson says this about the phenomenon of burnout:
"Burnout isn't just a temporary affliction. It's our contemporary condition. It doesn't have to be this way. [...] Maybe all we need to act on that feeling that this moment is an irrefutable pivot point: an opportunity not just for reflection, but to build a different design, a different way of life, from the rubble and clarity brought forth by this pandemic. I’m not talking about utopia per se. Im talking about a different way of thinking about work, and personal value, and profit incentives – and the radical idea that each of us matter, and are actually essential and worth of care and protection. Not because of our capacity to work, but simply because we are. If you think that’s too radical of an idea, I don't know how to make you care for other people." [emphasis mine]
We matter “simply because we are.” While to those who read this newsletter, this isn’t groundbreaking, to broader society this is a radical idea. What's emerging here is a critical question – what is the worth of a human life? Not just economically, but existentially. This question of value and it’s relationship to work is absolutely critical because we live in work centered society. As Karl Marx, Andre Gorz, and even modern scholars like David Frayne have all pointed out, we live in a work centered society. Our sociality, status, rights, and belonging are situated within the identity we find in our work. As David Frayne says, “work has become predominant and conventional means by which we become part of the pattern of others lives.” Even our educational system is on it. The animating force of our childhood is employability, characterized by the haunting question “what do you want to be when you grow up? We are conditioned from a young age to believe that our value as a human will be found in our vocation, and the majority of our childhood experience orbit this central tenant. What we quickly learn is that for the ambitious, activities and relationships that cannot be defended in economic terms are neglected. To be valuable in American culture is to be able to work. We are literally "human capital."
It would make sense then that the unrelenting pursuit of personhood and social affirmation in an economic system in which people are ‘spent’ like any other resource would lead to a burnout pandemic. How did we get here? There is a three-part story that help explain this.
PART ONE – 1930s to the 1960s; Corporations as Social Institutions & The “Organizational Man”
In the midst of the great depression, Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Unions could champion fair working conditions, and employers were required by law to participate in collective bargaining. This was followed by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which required employers to pay overtime past 44 hours a week. This established the policy foundation for the economic conditions that would give rise to what colloquially we know as the "family wage." Additionally, the world wars centralized and consolidated industrial management. The scientific management of F.W. Taylor, codified by Henry Ford and the military industrial complex catalyzed by WWII cemented productivity and optimization into our collective socio-cultural psyche. The labor historian Andrea Komlosy summarized this phenomenon in her book 'Work: the Last 1000 Years' when she wrote:
"Post second world war reconstruction bolstered desires to build a modern, coherent industrial society practically everywhere [...]. Traditional economies, self sufficiency and familial security systems were regarded as residual, to be replaced as quickly as possible with regular gainful employment and social services for the broadest majority of the population. [...] Private insurance and private pensions became the norm. The household transformed into a retreat into the private sphere, a space requiring ever less physically strenuous domestic work due to the rise of technical appliances."
The great depression had traumatized our systems, requiring massive overhauls that saw the genesis of new institutions and policies. The labor laws of the 30s and 40s, along with the GI bill that was in place from 1944 to 1956 essentially made corporations social institutions. As WWII ended and troops came home to robust unions and a federal government invested in growing the middle class, they experienced what some economists have called "the great compression." It was during this time that the greatest generation achieved the closest to an equitable distribution of wealth that our country has ever seen. (In 1950, CEOs made about 20 times more than the regular employee. As of 2013 they make more than 204 times the regular employee.) It was during these post-war years that, as the Cornell professor and economics historian Louis Hyman wrote "capitalism worked for nearly everyone."
It is critical to note at this point that while this was a critical turning point for white men, black men and women were still governed by strict Jim Crow laws and deep pockets of poverty existed, as they do today, around the country.
By the late 1950s, the "American Dream" had become cemented into our socio cultural psyche. Yet the american dream came with a hidden cost that would have a profound impact on our society – a debt that millenials and GenZ have begun to refuse to pay – the cost of our identity apart from our work. (We’ll get into this in part three of this story.)
In the preface to William Whyte’s seminal 1956 book “The Organization Man,” Joseph Nocera summarizes Whyte’s thesis: “The American organization – and especially the large corporation – was systematically stamping out individuality, […] this loss of individuality would eventually be ruinous to both the individual, and the corporation.” In place of individuals with personhood and agency came “the organization man.” Whyte defines them as follows:
“They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions. Only a few are top managers or ever will be. In a system that makes such hazy terminology as “junior executive” psychologically necessary, they are the staff as much as the line, and most are destined to live poised in a middle area that still awaits a satisfactory euphemism. But they are the dominant members of our society nonetheless. They have not joined together into a recognizable elite–our country does not stand still long enough for that–but it is from their ranks that are coming most of the first and second echelons of our leadership, and it is their values which will set the American temper.” [emphasis mine]
The unanticipated consequences of corporations as social institutions was the unprecedented scale of bureaucratic systems that, for the sake of optimization and efficiency (galvanized by war time industrialism), could not tolerate divergence from the homogenous norm. As corporations stifled individual personhood, the heartbeat of corporations as human communities slowed, and eventually stopped altogether. The corporation as machine was born.
This is where part two starts.