By: Daniel Engber – slate.com – March 11, 2019
“Welcome to hustle culture,” wrote Erin Griffith in a January essay for the New York Times. “It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and—once you notice it—impossible to escape.” She’s right about that last part: Writers on the burnout beat are everywhere. The Times piece followed on the one from BuzzFeed in which millennial Anne Helen Petersen dubbed her work-obsessed cohort the “Burnout Generation.” A couple of weeks ago, the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson moved the ball forward with his claim that a new religion has taken hold throughout the land—a gospel of “workism” that is making people his age sad and stressed and disengaged.
Which of these essays is the least convincing of its central claim? What the heck, let’s give trophies to all three. Millennials have been very hard at work explaining to their readers how millennials are very hard at work, and such effort certainly merits some reward. But please, let’s not indulge the hustle-culture critic’s thesis, based on shaky facts, that the young people of today feel a novel burden to be working all the time, or a special sense that their occupation must provide the major purpose in their lives. It’s true this generation has been shaped by a somber set of circumstances—more college debt, greater instability, lower pay on average. That doesn’t mean that they’ve become work-obsessed fanatics.
Thompson’s piece begins, as many in its genre do, with a quote from John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 essay predicting a radical decline of working hours, to just 15 per week, by this century. Thompson says that Keynes was thinking in the right direction: Americans, like those in other developed nations, now work shorter hours than before on the whole. Yet certain segments of the population—rich college-educated men, in particular—have somehow bucked this long-term trend. This group has been working somewhat longer hours, and enjoying somewhat less free time, than people further down the socioeconomic ladder.
This fact, on its own, is neither new nor that obscure—and there are lots of theories to explain it. Some suggest that work may have grown more pleasant (or less awful) than it was before. The decline of organized labor could also have had something do with it. Thompson has himself suggested, in an earlier Atlantic piece from 2016, that technology might be to blame for allowing work to encroach on our leisure time. His latest essay, though, zooms in on another theory that he floated several years ago: Maybe the growth in hours among well-educated professionals derives from this group’s rigid faith in work for work’s own sake. The pursuit of their careers has turned into a search for deeper meaning.
Since this trend toward longer hours, whatever its cause, has been limited to rich well-educated people (and mostly men), it wouldn’t seem to have that much to do with the millennial generation. Here’s where Thompson’s argument melds in with those of his fellow hustle-culture critics: “Workism may have started with rich men,” he says, “but the ethos is spreading.” Having grown up (like him) in the 1990s, millennials were reared in this religion; now they’ve become its most fervent believers, the workiest workists of all.
Millennials have made themselves the “congregants of the Cathedral of Perpetual Hustle,” says Erin Griffith.
They’re on a religious quest for a “holy grail career,” says Anne Helen Petersen.
So that’s the claim. What’s the evidence?
Griffith leans on anecdotes and the idea that a few corporate marketing slogans (“Hustle Harder,” “Rise and Grind,” etc.) sum up her generation’s psychology. Petersen’s essay is more personal but links to an often-cited 2016 study of generational work habits that purports to show millennials are workaholics. Let’s talk about that survey for a minute, as it’s been used to make this point by the Boston Globe, the BBC, the Harvard Business Review, and even Slate.
Commissioned by the U.S. travel industry, it aimed to find out why people aren’t taking more vacations. Young people, the study’s authors say, are especially likely to forgo trips because they’re “work martyrs”—which means they said it’s difficult to go on vacation because they “feel guilty” taking time off, want to show “complete dedication” to their jobs, fear being seen as “replaceable,” and/or worry that no one else at their company can fill in for them.
Here’s the study’s take-home finding, as it’s been reported: “More than four in ten (43%) work martyrs are Millennials, compared to just 29 percent of overall respondents.” Note the bone-headed, apples-to-oranges comparison—if 43 percent of work martyrs are millennials, then 57 percent of work martyrs are not millennials. Meanwhile, the study also showed that millennials were more inclined than older colleagues to avoid vacations because they simply can’t afford them and because they’re afraid of getting fired. This all makes sense, given that millennials were the most junior people surveyed (43 percent had less than two years’ experience at their companies), and would thus have had the least job security. If the survey showed anything at all, it’s that millennials have less money and experience than people in other generations. Put another way: They’re young.
Thompson, for his part, leans on a recent Pew Research survey finding that 95 percent of teenagers described having an enjoyable career as an “extremely or very important” goal in their lives. That’s compared to 81 percent who said the same of helping those in need, and just 47 percent who described getting married as being crucial. “Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people,” Thompson writes.
Is it surprising that a group of high-school students seems more focused on their careers—which, after all, are soon to start—than on helping other people, getting married, or having children? More to the point, are the top ambitions of “today’s young people” really any different from the top ambitions of yesterday’s young people, or the top ambitions of the young people from the day before that?
The answer appears to be “just barely.” That Pew survey drew from a set of interviews, conducted late last year, of 920 teenagers. A rather more comprehensive set of data, summarized in this government report, […]
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