By Charlie Wazel
In all of my reporting on the future of work, one of the most interesting and potentially profound trends is the growing skepticism around ‘careers.’
‘Careerist’ has long been a dirty word in the working world — usually it’s meant to signify a cynical, ladder climbing mentality. A careerist isn’t a team player. They care more about the job title and advancement than the work. The current brand of career skepticism I’m talking about is different, more absolute. It’s not a rejection of how somebody navigates the game, it’s a rejection of the game itself. The idea isn’t limited to a specific age group, but the best articulation of it comes from younger Millennials and working age Gen Zers. Many of them are fed up with their jobs and they’re quitting in droves. Even those with jobs are reevaluating their options.
An August job-seeking survey found that 55 percent of respondents who were actively employed planned to look for a new job within the next year. Though millions are unemployed, at the end of June job openings surged to an all-time high. While labor protections are still weak and haven’t caught up to the parameters of modern work, the covid job reshuffling feels a bit like the beginnings of a changing power dynamic. Employees have a tiny bit of leverage right now and many are trying to use it to send a message about how the status quo of modern work feels exhausting and unsustainable.
People are quitting jobs across class and industry lines. Perhaps the most famous example is the “nobody wants to work anymore” meme that bounced around Twitter in April. The meme kicked off after a TikTok user named @BrittanyJade903 posted a video of a McDonald’s drive-thru sign which read, “We are short-staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did show up. Nobody wants to work anymore.”It triggered a whole series of posts about low wages and worker exploitation that quickly grew beyond the service industry.
In May I ended up on Burnout TikTok, where every 5th video offered withering commentary on the futility and frustration of toiling away for long hours at a job they didn’t particularly like. I can’t find the video anymore but the one that sticks in my head was a TikToker venting about how the idealized career is — when you think about it — a raw deal. It went something like this: You devote the bulk of every day for 30-40 years in the prime of your life to various companies to make them and their shareholders money and then you get ten years near the end of your life to do what you please. Sounds like a bad arrangement.
Perhaps my favorite articulation came from YouTuber Katherout and the title of her May 2021 video: “I no longer aspire to have a career.” Aspire is the key word here. It’s not that she rejects all labor — she rejects how central it is to our sense of self and worth. Katherout’s idea is frequently misunderstood and dismissed as laziness, entitlement, and/or lack of ambition. That’s wrong. And I think we dismiss it at our own peril. To illustrate why, I’ll use a particularly egregious example from a recent article in Fortune.
The piece, which ran with the headline, “Want To Work 9-to-5? Good Luck Building A Career” starts off with the writer firing her first-ever1 direct report. Her specific reasons for terminating the employee are pretty vague. She cites, in a Trumpian fashion, that the employee was ‘low energy’2 and a bad speller, (not sure those are standard fireable offenses) and then confesses that “what ultimately led him to the ax was his insistence on boundaries.” The dude apparently came in at the beginning of the workday (9am) and left at the end of it (5pm) and this was simply unacceptable. (Aside: This is a fantastic example of just how warped our conceptions of work have become. Only in a truly broken system could working the agreed upon hours be reframed as erecting a rigid, dangerous set of boundaries.)
I’m not going to waste much time on the author’s argument that work/life balance has gone too far and that an emphasis on self-care is an example of a “woke work environment”3 because I think it’s purposefully contrarian. But there’s value in the lesson she chooses to draw from her “low energy” employee, namely that work/life balance is dangerous to the career:
A work/life balance that truly divides the work and life components of a person’s experience may be okay for a job. But for a career? It simply won’t fly. There’s no disputing it — sometimes emails need to be sent at night. Sometimes calls need to be taken early in the morning. Sometimes a Monday deadline necessitates a few hours of work on a Saturday.
The examples the writer sets forth here sound quite reasonable. Life is chaotic and unpredictable. Emergencies happen! Offices depend, to varying degrees, on collaboration. If an employee refuses to collaborate, it’s easy to imagine that their personal preferences might start to hurt or inconvenience those around them. That sucks. Now, maybe the writer’s employee was a true disrespectful asshole — they exist in some workplaces! If so, you’d imagine the writer would have included an example of a few very reasonable requests that the employee refused, which then caused undue burden or stress to the whole group. But she didn’t provide any.
That she didn’t do that leads me to think that the problem may have come from poor management. Good management is about clear communication and expectation setting. In this case, a good manager might say, ‘Hey, so this sucks but it looks like we’re going to need to put in some extra time over the next week on X project. I know this isn’t ideal but I wanted to tell you in advance to give you time to plan around it.’ Then, the manager should offer to compensate for the extra work with overtime or a comp day. In the event that the job demands constant communication and an ‘always-on-call’ mentality (it probably, actually doesn’t), then this should be communicated in the interview process, where a lot of expectation setting takes place.
I don’t get the sense the writer cares about the employee’s specific offenses, though. Throughout the piece, she seems more interested in the optics surrounding work than the work itself. She never mentions if the fired employee successfully performed the job he was paid to do. She did, however, mention his lack of energy. She doesn’t frame his failings in terms of productivity but, instead, in terms of enthusiasm He was not bought in. This, for a class of bad manager, is the cardinal sin. Being ‘bought in’ is perhaps more important than the work itself.
This dynamic came up a lot in our book reporting. Employees who don’t show enough deference to the company and, most importantly, to the manager are seen as a liability. Sometimes (especially if they are not white and male enough) these employees are deemed to be ‘a bad culture fit,’ a garbage term4 that’s often an excuse to get rid of employees who threaten the status quo or make managers uncomfortable. Other times, as the writer does here, the employees are branded as wallowing in an “ugly mediocrity.”
This is where the career comes in. In this instance, the career is a device that businesses and managers can use as a motivation to get the deference and feigned enthusiasm that they want (and often feel they need) from employees. It’s a great tool, in part because career arcs are real. Perceptions and reputations matter and offices have promotional structures that workers want to move up. But the career concept is also frequently abused and lorded over employees. What is billed as mentorship and training (here’s how we do things/here’s how to get ahead) can quickly turn into intimidation and even a vague threat against a person’s future (don’t cross me or it’ll cost you).
It’s entirely possible that author of the Fortune piece didn’t mean to frame her article as a threat, but it sure comes off that way. The author framed her employee’s decision to put boundaries between his work and personal life as a fundamental weakness. She’s not alone. Many in positions of power misinterpret those who strive for a better relationship to work as weak or selfish. I’d argue that what they really want is obedience — or for one worker to do the work of one and half workers without more pay.
The modern understanding of a career in most knowledge work fields involves a non-trivial amount of sacrifice. You are expected to pay your dues, work your way up, and ride out the rough patches. Endurance is key. If you stick it out long enough, there’s something great on the other side — primarily security. Even in jobs where management is less cynical and exploitative, the focus is always on the long term: It might suck now, but you’re building toward something. And that something — the resume at the end of your life — is a genuine measure of a person’s worth.
What the career skeptics are asking is a simple question: What if all that reasoning and endurance language is bullshit? What if, instead of working toward something for decades and barely tolerating the day-to-day process, we created a different value system around labor? What if we built our working lives around a concept other than endurance and submission? In her YouTube video, Katherout put it like this:
In reality, 40 years is a long-ass time…to pick something at 22 and stick with it. It actually concerns me to do the same thing for 40 years. Jt does not give me safety and comfort…Jobs aren’t designed for you to love them. That’s not the point. The point is to give you income so you can participate in society and most people can’t accept that.
When you talk to people who reject the modern notion of a career, many of them say the same thing: They crave more balance, less precarity, and better pay. They also, crucially, want to work. But they want to work for places that see them as three-dimensional human beings and that actually invest in them and their futures without expecting workers to sacrifice everything. They want to be a part of organizations that recognize that meaningful and collaborative work can bring dignity and create value but that work is by no means the only way to cultivate satisfaction and self-worth As one reader told me, “most of us don’t mind hard work and putting in the necessary time — when we are respected, valued, communicated with honestly, and paid right.”
When I first tweeted about this Fortune article, I received some understandable criticism. In my own work life, I tend to have a hard time drawing boundaries. I often work way more than 40 hours a week, which might render my argument a bit hypocritical. I get that. But I think that argument misses the bigger point. I do struggle all the time with work life balance. But, even though I am incredibly lucky and love my job, many of my habits are still guided by a fucked up hustle mentality that is driven by fear and anxiety (of missing opportunities, of losing my job, of being branded as lazy or ‘mediocre’). And, frankly, I want better for others.
What’s profound about the career rejectionists is that their guiding questions are simple. What if work didn’t make you feel awful? What would life be like if we didn’t live to work? What do workers and employers actually owe each other? What if we structured our work lives around a different idea of success? It’s not a full-scale rejection of capitalism (though it can be that) or a call to burn down the system altogether. Those questioning their careers are simply daring to imagine what a better, more equitable future of work might look like.
I don’t know exactly if this energy will keep up but I don’t believe it’s a fluke. The pandemic has left people sick, tired, exhausted, and rattled. It has also changed peoples’ priorities and upended their notions of what is possible. For the first time in a while, they’re starting to ask big questions about the status quo. People in charge ought to be listening.