People Want To Work, They Just Don't Want To Work For You

Ed Zitron 6 min read

A classic thing that really specific people are writing at the moment is that people “don’t want to work.” It’s the ghastly refrain from the GOP (and a certain kind of guy who claims he’s a centrist but is a right-winger) that they used to justify removing unemployment insurance early, one that started out as a problem with finding the cheap, exploitative labor that a lot of people use to fix things in their house. It’s now grown into a full-blown hysteria in the media, framed as a “labor shortage,” and some combination of being able to “get paid to do nothing” by unemployment insurance and people being demanding of their employers.

Economist Esther Duflo called the current system “not very workable,” remarking on how women are oftentimes forced to stay home not because of a lack of interest in working, but because they are all-too-commonly left with the job of childcare on top of a job and a society that refuses to make the efforts to support them. This is indicative of a larger approach that modern society has to work - you are lazy (and a bad person) if you don’t choose to take any job, and you should be grateful for whatever job you have and contort/ruin your life to get it.

The narrative is slightly shifting, though, toward the idea of the “great resignation”:

A Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 global workers showed that 41% of workers were considering quitting or changing professions this year, and a study from HR software company Personio of workers in the UK and Ireland showed 38% of those surveyed planned to quit in the next six months to a year. In the US alone, April saw more than four million people quit their jobs, according to a summary from the Department of Labor – the biggest spike on record.

The Great Resignation is the idea that a large number of people are quitting their jobs, and doing so because the pandemic gave them perspective about their careers or were burned out during the pandemic. It’s an interesting narrative because it - as with most of these discussions - puts the motivations and explanations of these resignations on the shoulders of the worker. In most cases, people explain it as being tired of the work, or not seeing any way to grow in their position, or simply not liking the company, which rocks, but I don’t see many people closing the loop on the why of this situation.

Home Versus Office

The forced societal adoption of remote work changed the way in which people regarded their jobs in the sense that it significantly increased the amount of time that people actually spent in their own homes. Those who went from in-office to remote had the script flipped as far as where they spent most of their time - it’s easy to forget how much time we spend at jobs versus living our lives, and I think that people had an alarming, violent realization of what their home lives were actually like.

This seems like such a simple thing to talk about, but people suddenly spent 45+ extra hours a week in the place that they lived, which means that they got to think about the shit they put up with to live close(r) to work. Instead of work being the dominant thing that controlled their time and their life, work became something that you did at the computer at home, but - theoretically - if your work was done, you could be anywhere, doing whatever. This naturally would lead to introspection about why you need to have a place near work, whether you liked the place you live (but are barely in because you’re constantly working), and whether you couldn’t do something else with your life on the computer.

This is specifically not what a lot of companies wanted to happen because it actively disconnects the live-to-work mindset that many of them prey upon, as well as flipping the power from the company to the worker. Companies have made a good business in finding ways to compensate workers with stuff that costs way less than actually paying them - company gyms, food, and so on - and the exchange in that agreement is a non-specific absorption of their time, energy, and proximity.  The conscious effort isn’t really to make the employee happy, but to make them feel important - Apple’s work on “something bigger than [the worker]” - and to have them build their lives around the company, making it tougher to leave (how will I pay for my apartment I got to go to this job?) and tougher to negotiate with (look at how cool the office is!)

I truly believe this removal of the office and making people spend more time at home simply made people realize how little those benefits meant compared to cold hard cash and not being treated like garbage. Quarantine laid bare the foundation of our lives - where we slept, who we slept with, what we did for money, how much money we got, and whether any of this combined to something fulfilling. It’s the same logic as to why there were so many breakups and divorces in the pandemic - successful relationships are rarely about the highs and the lows, but how enjoyable the in-betweens are, how much you like doing basically nothing with the person, and so on.

In the case of work, it was stripped down to the bones - what do I do for a living, what am I paid, and how do I do that job? Is it made harder by other stuff? The microaggressions and bullying of shitty management became that much more obvious not just because you weren’t there to suffer it, but because it was now transparently invading your home life, which made it that bit more dissonant and that bit more offensive. Instead of guessing whether someone was a dick to you at the office, you could now see it on Slack or remember it from a specific Zoom call, and it was in your house, meaning that it was an intruder.

It’s not just burnout; it’s the clarity through which you can evaluate the sources of burnout. Without the ability to justify your job by it being close to where you live, or having nice perks, or giving you a nice computer, you’re reduced to whether you are compensated enough for the work you’re doing and the problems that come along with it. And anything that’s a problem has to justify its presence in your home and in your life, with no real tradeoff other than how much you’re being paid to tolerate it. The result is that people likely want to work from home so that they can have more clarity into whether the exchange of money for labor is fair and retain said working from home so they’re able to truly evaluate it.

The confusion people have about people “not wanting to work” is that they don’t understand that work is an exchange of labor for money. They also don’t realize that saying you want to work is a bizarre thing to say, borne of the borderline-relgious way in which labor is considered a question of morality. While providing shelter and food for your family is a moral imperative, the simple act of working is not - labor in and of itself is not noble, nor should it be lionized as such. The pandemic put a giant spotlight on the way in which some companies see themselves as being “owed” workers, versus having to court them and actually give them something in return for their labor.

When people treat those they’re hiring with distaste because they demand remote work, or say that people “don’t want to work,” it’s because they either lack self-awareness, either in how their business runs or how they conduct themselves. They believe on some level that they are owed workers, or owed labor, simply because they have some money because to them, the worker is simply a good to be bought and then thrown away. This may masquerade as them seeing work as an exchange of cash for labor; it’s a little bit more - they don’t see workers as having a choice, and do not see it as an exchange, but a bargain in which the worker is knowingly at a disadvantage.

I think a lot of the knowledge-worker-based part of this conversation is coming from managers and executives that have no home life and thus invest their entire lives into work and making a number go up. When there’s nothing to enjoy other than work, you’re only focused on the creation of more money and power, filling an endless pit but telling yourself you’re just one deal or one big milestone from happiness. When you’re constantly on the go, there’s no need to go home, there’s no need to think about your home life, and you expect that same attitude from those you’ve hired and will hire. When all you have is work, you can’t understand those who have more than their work, or want to actually be at home.

Now, this form of management is that bit less palatable, and it’s that much harder to accomplish remotely.

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