The end of work as we knew it? And is that a bad thing?

Ah, the Dignity of Labour!

The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

Actually, the headline of this long piece I read today in The New York Times was “The Age of Anti-Ambition,” with the subhed, “When 25 million people leave their jobs, it’s about more than just burnout.”

It was actually the word “ambition” that grabbed me. It’s one of those apparently simple words that I ponder in my own strange way and find far more complicated than most people would expect. You know, like “friend” and “freedom.”

Whenever I try to apply this particular word to my own experiences in life, it occurs to me that I’m not sure I ever was ambitious — although I’m sure plenty of people thought I was — in the way I think most people mean it. I know I’m not that way now, and I look askance at people — usually much younger people, of course — who seem to fit the description.

But back when I myself was young, and eager, and I suppose hungry — and even you might say somewhat inclined to run right over people who stood in the way of what I thought ought to be done at a given moment — I don’t recall having any specific longing for this or that title, or money, or power, or status. But I did have a very strong sense that there were certain things I was better at than than I was at other things — and better at than most other people were, for that matter, however limited that range of things might have been. This guided me from position to position, occasionally. When I arrived at The State in 1987, it entered my head that the best job at the paper for someone who was good at the things I was good at, and I suppose bad at the things I was bad at, was to be editorial page editor. Eventually, others agreed, and I was doing that job 10 years later. It was a good fit, until it didn’t exist any more. So I count myself lucky to have had that chance. Not everyone gets it.

Some — Brutus and the rest — might call that ambition. Maybe it was; I don’t know. But it still seems slippery enough to me that the word grabs my attention.

But the thing is, I don’t think it’s necessarily the word that sums up this interesting piece in the NYT. It’s more about… the way work, and our expectations of it, have changed. It’s about millions of people wanting to do something else — or do it very differently — with all those waking hours.

It’s about the way the pandemic has changed things over the last two years, if course, but it also correctly notes how those changes were coming about before we all started using Zoom so much.

An excerpt:

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.

There are two kinds of stories being told about work right now. One is a labor-market story, and because that’s a little dull and quite confusing, it’s mixed up with the second one, which is about the emotional relationship of American workers to their jobs and to their employers. The Great Resignation is the phrase that has been used, a little incorrectly, to describe each story.

It’s true that we’re in the midst of a “quitagion,” as this paper has jauntily termed it, citing the record number of people (4.5 million) who gave notice in November alone. An estimated 25 million people left their jobs in the second half of 2021; it’s all but certain that this is the highest U.S. quit rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking those numbers in 2000….

The piece isn’t always on target. It sort of gets lost in some things I find inconsequential, such as unionization among white-collar types such as the author herself. And I’m not sure such things are central to what’s going on.

But it’s interesting. If you have access (I’m never sure what people who don’t subscribe can see) and have the time to read the 4,000-plus words, I recommend it.

And after you do read it, let’s talk about it. As I say, I don’t really have “ambitions” or whatever you call them for myself going forward, but my kids and grandkids have to earn their way in this world, so I feel pretty invested still in what’s going to happen.

Here’s another good excerpt, then I’ll close:

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 computer-smashing scene in “Office Space.”…

I had to quote that because, you know, “Office Space”…

7 thoughts on “The end of work as we knew it? And is that a bad thing?

  1. bud

    Let’s not overthink this too much. Sure, people leave jobs for lots of reasons. But clearly the top reason is because employers treat their workers like crap. Low pay, bad working conditions, condescension. Those are the driving force behind quitting. By why now? Employers have always treated workers badly. But now they can’t get away with it because of worker shortages. Perhaps this new paradigm is something good to come out of the COVID nightmare. Workers finally have a bit of power. Good for them.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Yeah, I was pretty sure this post wouldn’t be a hit. And I know that if you can’t go read the piece, that’s sort of predestined.

    Maybe before I go to bed tonight, I can crank out an Open Thread or something.

    The thing is, as I keep saying (and I’m not kidding), those kinds of topics either repel me or just don’t interest me much these days.

    Sure, there’s stuff I care about. I care about what’s going on in Ukraine, for instance. But I’m kind of fresh out of prescriptions on that. I don’t know what I’d want to say, beyond the fact that I hope we’re not about to have WWIII.

    And other things people keep going on about out there pale in comparison to that one…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ve even started thinking about dropping some of my newspaper and magazine subscriptions, which is the sort of thought that should make anyone who knows me say, “Who are you, and what have you done with Brad?”

      But then, I won’t be able to read the occasional thing that interests me, such as the subject of this post.

      So it’s a dilemma…

  3. Barry

    many people are rethinking the type of work they want to do. I don’t think there is one explanation that fits though.

    The younger generation saw some (not all) of their parents or grandparents working themselves to a frazzle to buy things and they aren’t interested.

    I’ve worked in offices (like your picture above) and I have no interest in ever doing that again. I prefer to work out of my home and visit customers as needed.

    I know my 18 year old has told me he would like to find a job where he’s not in an office and can work from home. He’s gearing up for college so he can land such a job. Of course many employers are now offering those options so it will be easier for him than it was for me.

    My oldest is in college and wants to do computer work- programming, etc. Working from home will be standard fare. Folks that technical don’t really seem to be interested in working in an office anyway.

    I talked to a customer this morning in Greenville over Microsoft Teams. She was in her office, but admitted that almost no one else was there and she’d likely work the rest of the week from home.

  4. Barry

    Watched some of the highlights of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday where they were considering the nomination of Nina Morrison.

    Republican Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Josh Harley and Mike Lee attacked the Innocence Project lawyer, stating outright lies about the facts of cases, seemingly oblivious to the fact that DNA evidence trumps eyewitness testimony, confusing dates, accusing her of things she had no role in, and seeming to be confused about her actual job.

    We will not be hearing right wing conservative news reports on this hearing because she was excellent at rebuffing them in a calm manner while sticking to the facts…. Pointing out, for example, in a Missouri and also in a Texas case that Hawley and Cruz seemed upset about that the REPUBLICAN legislatures in both states overwhelmingly passed a bill that directly supported the work she had done on two cases.

    “I cannot support your nomination” or anyone else who is soft on crime, Josh Hawley dramatically declares, because it is a “pattern with this administration.”

    We are talking about an Innocence Project attorney here. Who has helped free 30+ innocent people from prison and death row. She’s not a prosecutor.

    In what felt like a subtle burn, Morrison replied that in Ted Cruz’s home state, *Republicans* unanimously passed a law named after one of her former clients to help wrongly accused people access exculpatory evidence in cases with proven misconduct.

    Tom Cotton now competing here for most offensive claims and questions to Morrison.

    “Are you proud that you encouraged such defiance in convicted murderers?” he asks her, referring to a man executed in Arkansas who made a snarky comment to a warden before being put to death.

    Morrison had noted there was “significant” DNA evidence that this man who was executed, Ledell Lee, was innocent.

    Cotton knew this, but just kept describing the details of the heinous crimes he was found guilty of.

    Cotton, acting outraged that Morrison said there was compelling evidence that Lee was innocent: “Compelling evidence that the courts somehow overlooked?”

    Morrison: I’ve rep’d many ppl exonerated by DNA evidence who lost dozens of appeals in courts because DNA wasn’t available.

    Cotton, still acting outraged: “He was convicted based on eyewitness testimony.”

    Morrison, calmly: “Eyewitness identification, which you referenced, is actually the single leading proven cause of wrongful convictions.”

    She closed the hearing by reminding these supposed legal masterminds on the Republican side that putting innocent people in jail while the guilty go free is not equal to being tough on crime.

    Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse also reminded the Republicans of that fact at the end of their questioning.

    Great thread

  5. Norm Ivey

    I’ll play. I’m fascinated by the current job market.

    I paid for the NYT subscription just for this article. I think it misses on one point in particular. It places too much stock on the relationship between employers and workers. It mentions a couple of what? Minor labor uprisings? I hardly think that’s the biggest issue. Those are people just trying to improve their current work situation. Perhaps they feel more empowered in the current environment, but workers have been doing that forever.

    It gets this part exactly right: A job feels like just one more incursion, demanding attention and sapping mental energy.

    Workers are responding to that dynamic by exercising their options. The pandemic proved to many of us that we don’t need everything we want. Technology has opened up possibilities for people to hang out a virtual shingle for themselves. Less pay, perhaps, but greater satisfaction. We can escape burdensome or toxic environments. The Great Resignation has created upward mobility for some, and lateral mobility for others. People are abandoning crappy jobs. That’s not less ambitious. It’s just ambitious for something different.

    I’m excited by what I see. If I were younger, I might even be a part of it.

    My own attitude toward work has changed significantly as I’ve aged. I’m no longer ambitious as I know the word. What was once a passion and a mission is now simply a job. I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t have to work. If I weren’t being well compensated as a working retired teacher, I don’t think I’d keep doing it.

    I’m still pretty good at it, and I particularly enjoy the position I’m in right now. It’s low-stress. Small class sizes. I blow off meetings I’m not interested in (which is most of them). They leave us old guys alone.

    But I’m witness to stress and burnout like I’ve never seen before. Teachers are quitting mid-year, which because of how education works, means they’re likely quitting for good. I need most of both hands to count the number of educators I know personally–most younger than me–who are retiring at the end of this year.

    They’re exercising their options.

    I hope it is the end of work as we know it. We’ll be fine.

    1. Barry

      My wife is quitting teaching this year too. She still has 12 or somyears to retirement but she made her decision. Shocked me, but she is done.

      Like you, a large number of her coworkers are quitting this year. The schools dint know yet. There is no way they are prepared for what is coming this year, and neither are legislators but i don’t give a spit about them.

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