Why Should Workers Be Ambitious?

Ed Zitron 8 min read

The latest issue of the New York Times Magazine is about “The Future of Work” and features some of the more aggressively annoying writing I’ve seen on the subject in a while. One particularly awful (over 4000 word) piece is Noreen Malone’s “The Age of Anti-Ambition,” a meandering diatribe that mockingly suggests that people aren’t “ambitious” anymore, with the vague suggestion that people are lazy and proud of it.

It’s not in just the data where the words “job satisfaction” seem to have become a paradox. It’s also present in the cultural mood about work. Not long ago, a young editor I follow on Instagram posted a response to a question someone posed to her: What’s your dream job? Her reply, a snappy internet-screwball comeback, was that she did not “dream of labor.” I suspect that she is ambitious. I know that she is excellent at understanding the zeitgeist.

It is in the air, this anti-ambition. These days, it’s easy to go viral by appealing to a generally presumed lethargy, especially if you can come up with the kind of languorous, wry aphorisms that have become this generation’s answer to the printer-smashing scene in “Office Space.” (The film was released in 1999, in the middle of another hot labor market, when the unemployment rate was the lowest it had been in 30 years.) “Sex is great, but have you ever quit a job that was ruining your mental health?” went one tweet, which has more than 300,000 likes. Or: “I hope this email doesn’t find you. I hope you’ve escaped, that you’re free.” (168,000 likes.) If the tight labor market is giving low-wage workers a taste of upward mobility, a lot of office workers (or “office,” these days) seem to be thinking about our jobs more like the way many working-class people have forever. As just a job, a paycheck to take care of the bills! Not the sum total of us, not an identity.

The primary thing that I want to address is the extremely broken assumption that Malone makes throughout her article - that we should, by default, respect the nebulous idea of “ambition.” I also find it detestable that someone would conflate someone being excited about not working at a job that ruins their mental health with someone lacking ambition. This entire piece drips with privilege and condescension - the general feeling that any worker that isn’t extremely excited to go to work and planning for their next big move is a lethargic dolt.

This may be because Malone is incapable of seeing the forest from the trees:

Things get weird when employers try to address this discontent. Amazon’s warehouse workers have, for the past year, been asked to participate in a wellness program aimed at reducing on-the-job injuries. The company recently came under fire for the reporting that some of its drivers are pushed so hard to perform that they’ve taken to urinating in bottles, and warehouse employees, for whom every move is tracked, live in fear of being fired for working too slowly. But now, for those warehouse workers, Amazon has introduced a program called AmaZen: “Employees can visit AmaZen stations and watch short videos featuring easy-to-follow well-being activities, including guided meditations [and] positive affirmations.” It’s self-care with a dystopian bent, in which the solution for blue-collar job burnout is ... screen time.

Other than this being a bizarre tangent - the previous paragraph talked about lawyers - it also fails to evaluate the problems at hand. The real issue here isn’t that this is “dystopian” - it’s that they are having to choose between going to the bathroom and losing their job. To ignore this is the kind of scummy ignorance that I’ve come to expect from the Times - an utter lack of awareness of the basic worker circumstances and the sense that people should be grateful to work and that work is a moral concept.

Naturally, she quotes Anne Helen Petersen in a paragraph that somehow fails to understand anything:

It’s also not entirely a fluke of this moment. For decades, job productivity has been increasing while real wages haven’t. People were already stretched thin. The writer Anne Helen Petersen, who has made a specialty of truffle-hunting for the millennial internet’s preoccupations, recently wrote a book about professional-class burnout based on a viral 2019 BuzzFeed article she wrote on the same subject. (Her lead personal example involved not getting around to having her knives sharpened.) I was in a particularly stressful moment of a management job at the time and would Google the symptoms of burnout late at night, on a private browser screen. But I was allergic to people talking ostentatiously about it, and I was embarrassed by the indulgence of the language, or, maybe, what I saw as the self-importance of it.

Okay, if you are someone from the New York Times is reading this, please email me. Not because I am amazing at writing, but because I am better than whatever this is. This piece is a culmination of every bad idea I’ve seen in the mediated discussion of the future of work - a complete lack of awareness of what happens at jobs, burnout victim-blaming, and weird anti-remote tropes:

Essential or nonessential, remote or in person, almost no one I know likes work very much at the moment. The primary emotion that a job elicits right now is the determination to endure: If we can just get through the next set of months, maybe things will get better.

The act of working has been stripped bare. You don’t have little outfits to put on, and lunches to go to, and coffee breaks to linger over and clients to schmooze. The office is where it shouldn’t be — at home, in our intimate spaces — and all that’s left now is the job itself, naked and alone. And a lot of people don’t like what they see.

As someone who has written hundreds of thousands of words on this subject, the biggest philosophical hurdle that none of these articles seem to clear is that work is not a moral good, it is a transaction of labor for money. If you start from any other position, you are corrupt - you are not able to make a cogent argument or statement about the workforce if your philosophical belief is that we “should want to” work.

America’s moral view of work stems from the protestant work ethic - that our worldly calling is to do hard work - and that those that do not aspire to work hard are bad. This vile, pervasive philosophy underpins many of the dimmest minds writing about labor today, coloring every judgment and statement they make about the workforce. When someone doesn’t want to do a bad job that pays poorly, they are considered “lazy,” and “don’t want to work.”

Let me tell you, buddy - I am lucky enough to have a good job that pays well with good hours that I enjoy, and if I could somehow meet my obligations and not do it, I would. This is nothing to do with my ambition, my drive, or my ability to deliver results - it’s just that I have many other things I’d rather do than work, but I have to do work, as playing Slay The Spire all day won’t pay my bills. I would argue that majority of people would rather not work, and, conversely, that the majority of people have to work and do not have a choice in the matter.

This is why I find the derisive comment that “the act of working has been stripped bare” so offensive. The phrase itself drips with privilege and is yet more pro-boss propaganda that frames work as something more than being paid money for services. What are we mourning, exactly? The office? Sitting in an office with other people? Meetings? I don’t know. I don’t know what “the act of working being stripped bare” means, other than the vague idea that you don’t go to a place anymore. It also suggests that there was a holiness to the office - that work was only ever real there - that is so despicable.

Who Cares About Ambition?

Ambition, in the case of the workplace, is another word for greed. As I’ve recounted before, people aspire to become managers so that they’re paid more and can exact more power over people. While there are examples of people that genuinely love managing people, I have met very few managers that are genuinely invested in managing anyone versus enjoying the fringe benefits of being able to order people around.

“Ambition” refers to aspiring toward something and working for it - which is fine, and one can be ambitious, but in the world of work, you are only really dealing in power or money. Being greedy is fine, in the case of the workplace - you should want to get paid what you’re worth, because you, as a person, are selling your labor to a company - and I believe that bandying about “ambition” is an attempt to valorize greed. It’s a suggestion that conscious generation of resources and consumption is something everyone should aspire to, and that the only thing that gives us value is our ability to generate capital.

This is another loathsome position to take when writing about labor. There is nothing virtuous about work - someone is not “better” because they have a better job, they are not “better” because they work at a big or small company, and someone that doesn’t aspire to be wildly wealthy is not a worse person as a result.

What’s so utterly offensive about Malone’s writing is that one can be ambitious and not work. Someone can aspire to be happier, which means leaving a job that they hate. They may work less and be happier. Someone that has the ambition of being happy may constantly work to save up for stuff - or, indeed, they may not work as much, but focus on something important to them, like a hobby, or a personal interest.

Workplace ambition is also spurious, because it suggests that the workplace is meritocratic. I can only imagine that those who are feeling less ambitious may have realized that the chances of their ambitions being realized in the workplace aren’t possible. After watching a pandemic in which the worst people seemed to get rewarded with endless amounts of money and laid off millions of people that they’d treated like crap, I would not blame someone for lacking in enthusiasm and ambition.

Take this quote for example:

It’s not in just the data where the words “job satisfaction” seem to have become a paradox. It’s also present in the cultural mood about work. Not long ago, a young editor I follow on Instagram posted a response to a question someone posed to her: What’s your dream job? Her reply, a snappy internet-screwball comeback, was that she did not “dream of labor.” I suspect that she is ambitious. I know that she is excellent at understanding the zeitgeist.

Malone ends the following paragraph with an astonished statement that someone would treat a job as “just a job, a paycheck to take care of the bills! Not the sum total of us, not an identity,” framing it as some quirky little response versus a significantly more reasonable one than the rest of the article.

What have we shown workers in the last few years that should make them excited or ambitious about entering the workforce? What path is there to real wealth for the average person? There is no path for the majority of people to go from a blue-collar job to an executive role, and college has become an extremely expensive requirement to get many basic office jobs. Ambition is something that is realized through hard work - but it’s become alarmingly obvious that those who are wildly successful are not necessarily working that hard.

Scolding people for lacking “ambition” is just another part of cult of personality capitalism. It is the suggestion that work is more than just money - and the beneficiary of that suggestion is the boss, who will use vague promises or suggestions of ambition as ways to encourage you that don’t involve money or benefits.

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