The Problems of Privilege and Writing About Work

Ed Zitron 8 min read

I am lucky.

I have money,  a company, I have stability, and the ability to set my own schedule, because I run said company remotely. These are things that I am extremely grateful for, but  also things that I have to take into account every time I write about work.

Specifically, I try to be very careful about being too prescriptive about what workers should or should not do. I recognize that I am not in a place, nor have I ever really been in a place, to speak “to” them.I can advocate for workers, and I can attack those I perceive as suppressing workers, but I cannot, for example, recommend ways that they can “care less about work.”

Work is not a choice for most people. It is not something that they can simply pick up or put down, because it is necessary for their ability to live. It is a paycheck, but also in many cases an issue of health insurance … at least for the places that offer health insurance.

That’s why I find the latest Charlie Warzel/Anne Helen Petersen piece so upsetting.

So what work is actually valuable? It’s incredibly unclear. Many knowledge workers, ourselves included, find themselves insecure in some capacity about the work they’re doing: how much they do, whom they do it for, its value, their value, how their work is rewarded and by whom. We respond to this confusion in pretty confusing ways. Some become deeply disillusioned or radicalized against the extractive, capitalist system that makes all of this so muddled. And others throw themselves into work, centering it as the defining element of their self-worth. In response to the existential crisis of personal value, they jump on the productivity treadmill, praying that in the process of constant work they might eventually stumble across purpose, dignity, and security.

This could - and should - have been a piece about the dissonance between the idea of work - traditional labor, with physical effort - and knowledge work, which is still work but is not “hard labor” in the traditional sense. Charlie and Anne should ould have an interesting perspective on this! But they do not choose to share it, deciding, instead, to tell people shit like this:

So ask yourself this: Who would you be if work was no longer the axis of your life? How would your relationship with your close friends and family change, and what role would you serve within your community at large? Whom would you support, how would you interact with the world, and what would you fight for?

The majority of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency debt. It is significantly more expensive to live than it used to be.

Think back on a time in your life before you regularly worked for pay. Recall, if you can, an expanse of unscheduled time that was, in whatever manner, yours. What did you actually like to do? Not what your parents said you should do, not what you felt as if you should do to fit in, not what you knew would look good on your application for college or a job.

There is a vast disconnect here between the real world and the imagined world that is being written about from fantasy island. This is the second excerpt I’ve read of this book, and as was the case before, Charlie and Anne appear to be totally separated from what most people have the freedom to do, likely because they’ve failed to really consider what most people go through or, perhaps, failed to talk to actual workers while researching the book. . I’m sure their response will be that they did “lots of interviews,” but this is the second piece that feels as if it was written for an imagined audience of wealthy-enough individuals that use the computer a lot.

In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell conceives of these sorts of activities as a means of wresting back control of your own attention. You’re harnessing a desire and acting on it, instead of ceding your time and effort to others’ ideas of what’s important. Which is why it’s crucial to try to remove yourself from ideas of hobbies that are cool or popular in some capacity, and deflect the voice that says you should try to find an activity that you can “share” with your partner or your kid. They can come along later, if they want, but focus at first on excavating what you like. In the beginning, that’ll mean avoiding pursuits that require significant investment, time or financial, which will just place outsize pressure on the activity itself.

Jenny Odell … now where have I heard that name? Oh right! A piece from last year where Charlie took to the New York Times to write a long piece that can be summarized as “ignore people being rude to you online.”

While there’s nothing wrong with Odell herself, there is a greater problem that both Petersen and Warzel fall into - that they are not writing about something, but creating mental health-adjacent pablum out of people’s regular habits, like claiming “using the internet at night” is “revenge bedtime procrastination.”

Take this:

One day last winter, a subscriber to Anne’s newsletter told her that she’d recently taken up drawing. She’d never drawn before in her life, had no natural skill, and didn’t really aspire to cultivate it. She just liked making what she called “shit-tier” renderings of scenes in her life—such as her dog, say—and then sending them to her friends as amusement. Her pleasure isn’t in the product itself, or trying to perfect it. It is in the transportative process, the radical delight of doing something that has no purpose or value other than you like it, because it grabs something indescribable in you and refuses to let go.

You’re describing a fucking hobby! There is nothing impressive, new or important about this! Tons of people have hobbies! I have hobbies! Everyone reading this has hobbies! You are not special if you do this stuff! And while there are many people who do hobbies to impress other people or to be “good” at them, there are plenty more that do not.

And that’s the core problem of this piece - it is seemingly written for everybody, or, if you look a little deeper, “knowledge workers.” However, just like their last piece, it really feels as if it’s written for a wealthy, privileged audience - those who have the freedom and ability to dream about not working, who can say “if I wanted to relax, I would simply work less.” These articles - and this book, I would imagine - are written to give privileged people the warm and fuzzy feeling that their very standard and boring activities are in fact deeply meaningful.

Take this paragraph:

Find the path of least resistance to whatever will create this feeling [the feeling of liking something] for you, clear time for it, and then make a promise to yourself for when you’ll find that time again. It might feel weird, as if you are forming a habit out of selfishness, or scheduling yourself as you would a child. But shut that voice up. If you live alone, it’s probably just your work addiction talking; hanging out with your own hobbies is not selfish. If you have partner or parenting obligations, carving out this time is possible, even if it means being intentional and collaborative about clearing that space for each other. Sublimating your desire for activities that don’t involve your children does not make you a more impressive parent; it just makes you a more exhausted and resentful one.

I went and looked and I see no other place in this article that says “work addiction,” or really explains what this means. But I wanted to spray acid all over my monitor when I first read it.What in blue blazing fuck is “work addiction”? Who is addicted to work? What work are they addicted to?

And…okay? Carve time out for yourself to do things you like? Sounds great. I’m sure the reason that people aren’t carving out time for their hobbies is because they weren’t told to, not because they’re working longer hours for money that doesn’t go as far.

This maxim holds true for other areas of your life as well. When you get a good night’s sleep, you’re better at basically everything. When you take rest days, you’re a better athlete. The restoration we find in hobbies can make us better partners, better friends, better listeners and collaborators—just overall better people to be around. Hobbies help cultivate essential parts of us that have been suffocated by productivity obsessions and proliferating obligations. The hobby itself ultimately matters far less than what its existence provides: a means of tilting your identity away from “person who is good at doing a lot of work.”

The reason so much of this is infuriating is that anyone reading this and going “oh wow, yeah” isn’t in the orbit of enough people who are working regular jobs, or lacks the self-awareness to realize that these are things that most people do not have time for. Those of us who are not working remotely have to commute and have to be at work when they’re told to, and their ability to arbitrarily start hobbies or “preserve those inclinations toward delight and whimsy” is vastly restricted by the raw deal that most people get. And while most people do have time for hobbies, I severely doubt most people are thinking in terms of “productivity obsessions.”

As my friend Kasey told me while discussing this piece with him, I’m mostly dancing around a fairly obvious point: that this is the labor equivalent of telling a depressed person to look on the bright side of life. The people who are suffering the most - even if you’re entirely focused on knowledge workers - are the ones that cannot afford (fiscally and otherwise) to take any of this advice. Somehow both of the authors have failed to reflect upon how difficult it is for most writers to make a living, how a lot of successful writers are privileged, and how many journalists struggle to make a living wage.

Most people cannot buy a first or second home, or live on an island community, and they certainly do not have the flexibility of writing a book or newsletters for income. To tell most people that they should simply realign their priorities away from work is an exercise in privileged irresponsibility - the kind of thing that you say only when you have totally lost your connection to the real world.

Why I’m so specifically annoyed is that this is the second excerpt from what people will be calling the remote work book, and it’s clearly written for a certain privileged audience of people that want to talk about work as a choice. As with their previous piece, there is an underlying sense I get from this writing that workers (and by extension work) are things to be gawked at and remarked upon. I cannot judge someone for having an easier, wealthier life - that would be hypocritical - but I can harshly judge someone for failing to reconcile said privilege with the things they’re writing.

Now, one might argue that the rest of the book may reconcile these thoughts with the idea of flexible work, that “anyone” can make work “less important” because of flexibility. But the reality is that even in flexible working environments, you are still working for someone else, you are still getting health insurance from them, you are still on their clock and reliant on their dollar. I also would argue that most people are not, as Warzel and Petersen say they are, “[optimizing] for peak productivity.”

This is the problem that I face a lot with my writing, because the problems I face are oftentimes not the same problems that most people face - and I’d argue I face less of them. I’m sure my writing is flawed on some level as a result - I often speak of problems that I learn about from others, or from reading, or from the problems I faced in my early career. And when I do write about workers, I try and do so from the bottom up - that writing for those who are already successful or about the struggles of those who struggle less is, as Warzel and Petersen prove, either misplaced or ignorant.

I am also imperfect, and I am sure I have committed a few sins of privilege within my writing. Writing about big, all-encompassing issues and making statements while also not being part of the group that deals with most of the consequences is a constant challenge that requires you to actively disconnect yourself from your own life, or at the very least be aware of how these things might affect you if you were to live through them today. I am constantly anxious in writing about the future of work, as I don’t have to work as hard as I did as a salaried person - and thus I lack many of the pressures and stressors that the people I’m writing about face.

I hope and pray that the rest of this book, which I will inevitably read, isn’t the pro-boss, anti-worker sludge that I expect it to be. Perhaps I will be deeply surprised by the nuanced thinking, or missing the big picture where these two bizarre, privileged excerpts fit in. Or maybe it’ll be exactly what I fear - another tome from which management will cherry-pick the analysis of well-to-do people to suppress those who make them rich.

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