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.
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”…