Tech Layoffs Reveal America’s Unhealthy Obsession With Work

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Apr 14, 2023 9:00 AM

Tech Layoffs Reveal America’s Unhealthy Obsession With Work

Author Simone Stolzoff argues the US is in thrall to “workism”—the dangerous illusion that your job is the only source of self-worth.

It’s so nice that everything’s back to normal at the office now, isn’t it? If “normal” means mass layoffs, empty office buildings, confusing return-to-office policies, AI panic, and the whiplash-y feeling that just when employees were starting to redraw some boundaries between work and home, an economic downturn has forced society to fret even more about work. Managers are channeling this too by emphasizing “efficiency”—at least if they’re not among the many managers Mark Zuckerberg has laid off in his quest for, well, efficiency.

In this sense, Simone Stolzoff’s new book couldn’t be better-timed. The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work posits that we—and Americans, especially—have fetishized work to the point that we’ve lost our identities to it. “For white-collar professionals, jobs have become akin to a religious identity: In addition to a paycheck, they provide meaning, community, and a sense of purpose,” says Stolzoff, a designer who has worked at IDEO and written for The Atlantic, Quartz, and WIRED.

The book kicks off with a parable about an MBA type urging a fisherman to scale his business into a global operation. The fisherman replies that he already has what the MBA is promising he could achieve in the long term: enough success to feed himself and his family, as well as plenty of time for leisure. The MBA is, of course, befuddled. It’s a tiny but meaningful story that goes down as easy as an oyster; the book makes a tasty meal of snackable tales and anecdotes.

The Good Enough Job, which I’ve been reading this week, also includes reporting on the decline of organized religion, the rise of always-online work culture, and our willingness to use work as a means of self-actualization. It all adds up to a stark portrait of a society truly obsessed with work. That’s risky, Stolzoff says, especially in light of the recent layoffs in the tech sector. I talked with him about our relationship to work and whether it’s possible to achieve any kind of work-life equilibrium in the modern era. The book comes out in the US on May 23.

WIRED: Why is office work so weird right now? Assuming you agree that it is, in fact, weird.

Simone Stolzoff: Yeah. I’m reminded of when I worked as a summer camp counselor growing up and during our training the camp’s director always said, “Kids’ biggest fear is that no one is in control.” And I think that is happening for office workers right now, without a clear mandate or a clear vision of what the future of the workplace looks like. It feels like everything is in flux. Managers are dealing with their own uncertainty around the reevaluation of the role of work in their lives while they’re also trying to be leaders and speak with confidence about a future that no one can really predict.

Just yesterday someone told me, “I am a manager and my employees are coming to me and being forthright about the fact that they’re updating their LinkedIn profiles and their resumes.” She has been telling them that she’s doing the same. Increased uncertainty has led to much more open communication about the fact that even jobs that felt stable, are not necessarily such. But this also speaks to the fact that no one really knows what the future of work holds and people are making it up as they go along.

It sounds like a continuation of the pandemic, in the sense that this has all led to some people being their most vulnerable and transparent at the workplace.

It’s a combination of both the pandemic and the economic climate. An employee at YouTube was telling me about how Alphabet is making workers come into the office three days a week. And she said that on the one hand she thinks it’s bullshit and that the company is just trying to justify the capital expenditures that they’ve made on offices. But she also admitted it makes sense because morale is low and employee workplace culture is nonexistent and coming back to the office is really one of the better ways managers have found to facilitate a more collectivist identity.

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You write about “workism,” a phrasecoined by Derek Thompson fromThe Atlantic. How does it play into the current workplace dynamic?

The basic idea that Derek laid out is that workism is treating work akin to a religious identity. It’s looking to work not just for a paycheck but also for a community, a sense of identity and purpose and meaning in your life.

There are a few risks to that. One is that it’s just not a burden our jobs are designed to bear. When we look to work for transcendence, it creates these massive expectations, and jobs can’t always deliver on those expectations. A second risk is that over-investing in just one aspect of who we are is risky because those other aspects of our life might be underinvested in. We’re not just workers, we’re also friends, siblings, parents, neighbors, and citizens. As so many people found out during the pandemic, if your job is your sole source of identity and you lose it—what’s left?

You argue that workism is generationally distinctive and write about your own Italian family and how your grandparents worked to live—and the emphasis was really onlive. They had structure to their days, but there was that long break in the middle of the day where they went home and ate orecchiette with the family. Work-as-a-religion seems relatively new, or at leastindustrial agenew.

There are many possible explanations of how we got here—economic explanations, historical explanations, political and cultural explanations. The one I focus on in the book is this huge objective value that Americans give to the workplace. You know, we’re an incredibly individualistic country, where we treat CEOs as celebrities and we plaster “Always do what you love” on the walls of our coworking spaces. There’s this push toward wanting work to be our means of self-actualization.

You can pair that with some historical trends, for example the decline of organized religion over the course of the past 40 years, which has left a spiritual void in many American lives. You look at policy decisions in this country, the way that we tie health care to full-time employment for so many people. You look at the historical factors, how our country was founded and the way capitalism and the Protestant work ethic were the two strands entwined to form our country’s DNA.

And what we’ve found is that, unlike our peer nations, like France and Germany, where at-work time has steadily decreased since the beginning of the 20th century, certain subsets of Americans are working more than ever. And this is a historical anomaly. In the past, the richer a person or a country was, the less they worked, because they could afford not to.

Of course, the majority of people not just in the US but in the world do not work to self-actualize, they work to survive. Wages have been stagnant for the past 40 years, so they’ve had to work harder to buy the same loaf of bread. But the argument of my book is that regardless of what type of job you’re in, we now all live in this culture of productivity and thinking our self-worth is somehow tied to our output at work.

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The danger of that, you write, is that we end up taking work events quite personally if they don’t go right.

Totally, yeah. There is research around the value of what researchers call self-complexity, or just kind of cultivating different aspects of who we are. This also makes sense intuitively, right? If you’re rising and falling with the professional successes in your life, then one piece of negative feedback, one comment from a coworker can throw your life into a funk. But if you’ve cultivated other aspects of who you are, then maybe you’re having a bad day at the office but you feel like you have a very supportive partner or you’re having a good day with that recreational softball team you play on, then there are other aspects of your life that make you feel whole and aren’t predicated on market forces or what your manager or boss says.

The tricky question is where to draw the line. We need money to survive in this world. But as you write, work can be incredibly paternalistic and often exploits people who are most dutiful and hard-working. Is there a formula for finding the right amount to invest in work?

If there was one main question driving the book, it’s how to balance the pursuit of meaningful work without letting work take over your life. I’m not anti-work. We work more hours than we spend doing just about anything else in our lives, so how we spend that time matters. But I also think that the more we can be clear-headed about work’s role in our lives and understand that fundamentally it’s an economic relationship, the better.

We’ve been told that jobs are meant to be callings and vocations, and thinking of it as an exchange of your time and your labor for money is not the most sexy thing in the world. But I actually think that a more transactional approach to work can liberate both employers and employees. It frees employers to focus on setting clear expectations about what good work looks like, and it frees employees to, for example, advocate for fair compensation. More broadly, it frees employees to treat work as a living and not the entirety of their lives.

This is something that so many tech workers in particular have discovered recently, especially at companies like Meta and Twitter and Microsoft and other places that have had layoffs. I’ve spoken to so many employees that say, basically, “I used to think this was my life’s work, my dream job, and the past year has shown me that this is just a job.”

I’m trying to introduce the framework of the “good enough” job. For one person that could mean working in a particular industry or having a certain job title, and for another it’s getting off work at a certain hour so you can pick your kids up from elementary school. Rather than thinking about work as this endless pursuit of perfection, it’s more about having an approach that allows you to understand that what you do for work is not the entirety of who you are as a person.

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Ten years ago, WIRED’s Tom Vanderbilt wrote about the new ways we were watching TV (distractedly) and how official Nielsen ratings weren’t doing a good enough job (see what I did there?) at capturing the hyper-social, data-driven platinum age of television.

“We watch with tablets on our laps so we can look up an actor’s IMDb page. We tweet about the latest plot twist (discreetly, to avoid spoilers). We fill up the comments section of our favorite online recappers. We kibitz with Facebook friends about Hannah Horvath’s latest paramour. We start Tumblrs devoted to Downton decor. We’re engaging with a show even if we aren’t watching it, but none of this behavior factors into Nielsen’s calculation of its impact.”

The solution for this was, improbably, more Twitter. A few months before the WIRED story was published, Nielsen acquired a service that analyzed "the social impact of linear television.” Twitter itself bought a social-TV analytics company in 2013. And later that year, Nielsen launched a partnership with Twitter. The two entities seemed determined to redefine ratings as they were known.

A decade later, Twitter’s role in TV hasn’t evolved all that much. It still interests advertisers trying to reach TV watchers, especially during breaks for live televised events, and for viewers it’s still a place for chatter, spoiler tweets, and hot takes on TV characters we’ve become unhealthily attached to. But these days it doesn’t always capture the zeitgeist, not unless you consider the Elon Musk Show must-watch TV.

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Michael writes and asks, “With all this activity around generative AI, where’s Amazon?”

Good question, Michael! And WIRED’s Will Knight has the answer: Just this week he reported that Amazon’s AWS cloud division is launching a platform called Bedrock, which will provide “access to cutting-edge language models from Anthropic and AI21, two startups developing language models that compete with those of OpenAI and Google.” AWS will also offer access to Stable Diffusion, an AI model for generating imagery. While it’s easy to chalk this up to just the latest large tech company joining the GenAI arms race, it’s worth noting that AWS powers so many apps and services that this may presage a lot more chatbots appearing all around us. Will has more details here.

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You can submit questions Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

Tech Layoffs Reveal Americas Unhealthy Obsession With Work

It’s the guns.

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Voice AI is getting scarily good, Boone Ashworth reported for WIRED this week—with help from an algorithmic clone of his own voice we call Boone 2.0. He also joined our Gadget Lab podcast to demonstrate how AI can mimic our voices.

Gig work in India is incredibly dangerous, and a common complaint among the workers WIRED spoke to is that the platforms aren’t doing enough to help.

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A trove of leaked Pentagon documents was posted on Discord, and the documents contain information about the Ukrainian army’s air defenses and plans for a future counteroffensive against Russia.

WIRED's Kate Knibbs’s story on might be one of the few feel-good stories you’ll read this week.

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Finally, WIRED launched a new podcast this week, and it is cohosted by yours truly, alongside our global editorial director Gideon Lichfield. It’s called Have a Nice Future, and our first episode features an interview with San Francisco mayor London Breed. Listen here, or wherever you get your podcasts, as I am obligated to say.

That’s a wrap for now!

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Lauren Goode is a senior writer at WIRED covering consumer tech issues. She focuses on the intersection of new technologies and humanity, often through experiential or investigative personal essays. Her coverage areas include communications apps, trends in commerce, AR and VR, subscription services, data and device ownership, and how Silicon… Read more
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