In the paper of record, a man writes that millennials, flush with savings from the past year, are prepared to quit their jobs in droves. He calls it the “YOLO economy.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have problems with this framing. First, as this Gen Xer can attest, this is not a pattern specific to millennials, and really, any analysis that rests on arbitrary marketing categories is doomed to miss some things. But setting that aside, treating this like a flippant meme-driven move and not a correction to generations of worker abuse does a real disservice not only to the people making these choices but also to our understanding of how professionalized labor is changing more broadly.
Another way to frame what I also suspect will be a summer of quitting is this: given the chance, people will buy their way out of burnout. This is both a privilege and a salve. After a year of relative comfort, spent largely observing the impacts of the pandemic without being at risk from the worst of it, what a lot of people want isn’t stuff but relief—from work that is deadening and too much all at once. Meanwhile, the corporate response to burnout has been earnest but superficial: offering meeting-free Fridays and subsidized yoga, plus an extra week or two off—while the Q3 roadmap and OKRs crank along—is like trying to put out a house fire with a glass of pinot. What people really need is months of rest and control and autonomy over their work. What we need is a total reset about what work is for, and who gets to decide how it gets done.
I keep looking at the word “burnout” and feeling like something about it is off. It’s an image of being out of fuel, a tank run dry, a fire with a few rapidly cooling embers and no kindling in sight. But that may not be sufficient for what this past year feels like. Maybe we’re not burned out but burned up. The former assumes we’re empty vessels simply in need of refueling while the latter asks what might rise from this heap of ash at our feet. However we come out of this year, it’s not going to look like what came before.
There’s this poster from the New America Movement—a precursor to the DSA—that I have been thinking about a lot lately:
Here’s the text:
If you’re unemployed, it’s not because there isn’t any work
Just look around: a housing shortage, crime, pollution; we need better schools and parks. Whatever our needs, they all require work. And as long as we have unsatisfied needs, there’s work to be done.
So ask yourself, what kind of world has work but no jobs. It’s a world where work is not related to satisfying our needs, a world where work is only related to satisfying the profit needs of business.
This country was not built by huge corporations or government bureaucracies. It was built by people who work. And it is working people who should control the work to be done. Yet, as long as employment is tied to someone else’s profits, the work won’t get done.
I think this lights up to the real crisis underway: how crushing it has been to work from your comfortable apartment or house, to ship another product feature or finalize a marketing plan or adjust a P&L, while people gasped for air in the hospital just a few blocks away. It’s not just that people have worked too hard with too little interruption over the past year. It’s also that the pandemic has made present how little most of our work matters—and how much real work there is to be done.