the millennial/gen-z strategy

“Tell a subset of your population that they are entitled to economic security if they play by certain rules, provide them with four years of training in critical thinking and access to a world-class library — then deny them the opportunities they were promised, while affixing an anchor of debt around their necks — and you’ve got a recipe for a revolutionary vanguard.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this article by Eric Levitz, published earlier this week, with the straightforward title “This One Chart Explains Why the Kids Back Bernie.” The chart (or rather, the stats that create the chart) are indeed explanatory:

(1) The unemployment rate among recent college graduates in the U.S. is now higher than our country’s overall unemployment rate for the first time in over two decades, (2) More than 40 percent of recent college graduates are working jobs that do not traditionally require a bachelor’s degree (while one in eight are stuck in posts that pay $25,000 or less), and (3) the median income among the bottom half of college graduates is roughly 10 percent lower than it was three decades ago.

This is the millennial (and Old Gen-Zer) reality: an “anchor of student debt,” as Levitz puts it, taken out in the hopes of achieving fabled economic security. But who convinced us that college was going to solve, well, everything? In the book I’m finally finished writing on millennial burnout (actual cover coming soon, I promise) I try to work through that question: how did we come to believe in “(the best) college at any cost”? (See also: grad school at any cost).

A lot of the answer can be traced to “the education gospel,” a term coined by an economist (W. Norton Grubb) and a sociologist (Marvin Laverson) to describe the nexus of ideologies (about the future of America and democracy; about how to beat the USSR, then Japan, then China; about how the economy could replace the manufacturing jobs displaced by globalization) that undergird “college at any cost.”

Grubb and Laverson chose the word “gospel” to evoke just how ideological integrated — how naturalized — the idea had become. Of course more education is better than less education; of course you should go to college by any means necessary — even when the costs of that college outweigh the benefits, despite increasing evidence that college is not “worth” its cost for those who drop-out, or for those who come from lower-class backgrounds. They point to a study from the National Commission on the High School Senior year, released in 2001: “In the agricultural age, post-secondary college was a pipe dream for most Americans,” it declared. “In the Industrial Age, it was the birthright of only a few. By the space age it became common for many. Today, it is just common sense for all.”

The roots of this “common sense” go back to the mid-20th century, when the government decided to create the grant and loan programs that made it much, much easier for people to go to college. In 1947, 4.2% of women and 6.2% of men had a college degree; in 2018, those numbers had risen to 35.3% and 34.6% — but that’s of the entire population. A more useful statistic is the percentage of high school graduates who immediately enroll in college: which, in 2016, was 69.7%.

And here’s where the stats become really telling. For the group of students who started college — any type of college — in 2011, only 56.9% had finished their degree by 2017. Around 70% of graduates have student debt of some sort; in 2016, the average debt load was $37,172. That’s a huge amount of debt, especially given the fact that it’s $20,000 more than it was in 2003.

But that’s the people who have degrees. If you reverse the completion stat above, you realize that 43.1% of students who started college in 2011 had not finished their degree in six years. These are students who believed that college could be a pathway towards success, of stability, or their dream job — but couldn’t make it work. There are so many reasons why people are forced (or choose) to drop out of school, and some do find success and stability because they quit school. But they often have nearly as much debt as those with a degree but none of the credentials to put on their resumes — which helps explain why they’re three times as likely to default on their loans.

The institution that pisses me off the most in this scenario are for-profit colleges, where only 23% of students graduate, and 48% of those who do leave with more than $40,000 in debt. A whopping 52% of student loan defaults come from graduates of for-profit colleges. If you don’t know about the general scamminess and ethical grossness of the for-profit college, I can’t recommend Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed enough (you can buy it here, and read an excerpt here).

But if college is theoretically an “equality machine,” then for-profit colleges are inequality machine: they target first generation students, they disproportionately enroll (and fuck over) students of color, they charge massive amounts of money for degrees and education that could be obtained for far less at local community colleges, they jack up their price to the maximum allotted under loan guidelines, and they get away with it because 1) Betsy DeVos and 2) millennials have been so inculcated with the education gospel that, again, we believe that no matter how much it costs, how difficult it will be to complete a degree, how tight the market might be in the field we’re pursuing, the degree itself will be worth it.

To be clear: people with college degrees make more, statistically speaking, than people without college degrees. But the “equality” component of the machine is broken. There’s a massive gap between the promises that floated around that degree — and that includes graduate degrees — and the lived post-degree experience. We’re not talking about liberal arts graduates ski-bumming until they decide they’re ready for that six-figure job. We’re talking about those 40% of graduates working jobs that don’t even require a college degree, and the one in eight working jobs that pay $25,000 or less.

I’ve talked to and heard from hundreds of millennials in this position. If they have loans, they’re either on income-based repayment (and they’re convinced that they’ll be paying them off forever), in default (with reverberations and shame across the rest of their lives), or in deferment (amassing huge amounts of interest). They feel stupid and ashamed that they took out as much money as they did, or pissed that so many forces in their lives — parents, guidance counselors, professors, culture, peers — assured them that it would all work out, if they could just get that degree. It’s hard to convey just how difficult and devastating it is to pay down a broken dream every single month for the rest of your life.

I’ve written extensively about student loans, and the broken state of the student loan forgiveness program, here. That piece was the first thing I wrote after the original millennial burnout article, because it was the most tangible expression of the gap between what millennials were told their future would look like, if only they worked hard enough, and the lived, post-Recession reality. To understand millennial burnout, you can’t just understand the amount of student loans we’re carrying; you have to understand what they feel like. And if and when you understand that, it’s incredibly straightforward to see why so many support Sanders and Warren.

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, middle-class boomers and young Gen-Xers were faced with the reality that their parents’ broadly stable middle-class existence would not necessarily pass down to them. The so-called Golden Age of American Capitalism had lasted just long enough that those who grew up under it could believe that it might last forever. They responded to the decline in stable middle class jobs in a number of ways: many of them, too, went to college, but because public institution funding had yet to be gutted by tax cuts, it cost much, much, much less. (Cue: your boomer uncle who loves to tell you he worked his way through college and graduated without loans).

But as Barbara Ehrenreich persuasively argues in Fear of Falling, they responded by turning decisively inward: how can I do whatever is possible to help me and mine? You could work tirelessly at cutthroat, soulless jobs (investment banking!) no matter the cost (to yourself, to your family, to the environment, to society), adopting what Ehrenreich calls “the yuppie strategy.” Or you could vote for politicians who promised to lower your taxes, make your life better, regardless of the effects on those who didn’t act and spend and look like you. (See: the widespread embrace of Reaganism). As Levitz points out, in 1984, 61% of voters under 25 voted for Reagan. Conservativism — think Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton from Family Ties — was, I dunno, cool? Not actually cool, but very much mainstream.

The strategy makes “sense,” in so far as it was motivated by self-preservation and fear. And a whole lot of millennials were raised by parents who lived through, if not fully embraced, the guiding ideologies of that period. But it’s fascinating to watch as millennials and Gen-Z — — faced not just with the fear of falling, but the widespread reality — embrace a profoundly different one.

Things I Wrote These Last Few Weeks:

Things I Read and Loved These Last Few Weeks:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and find the shareable online version) here. You can find me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to write this thing.

what a hobby feels like

That shot was taken over the Clark Fork in Missoula, Montana, about halfway through my 12 mile marathon training run earlier this week. I used to be steadfast in my commitment to never run a marathon: a half-marathon was fine, but marathons were for masochists. But my attitude began to switch last year. I was training for a Ragnar — a 200-mile relay, split between twelve people for three legs each, and involves running through the night, driving around in large vans, sleeping on high school gym floors, etc.

I had one of the two most challenging runner assignments, including a significant amount of elevation gain, and I found myself more and more eager to push myself with new training goals — more elevation, more mileage — every week. Along the way, I ran a half-marathon as “training” and PR’ed, which felt amazing, but more amazing was the actual experience of the Ragnar, which provided the sort of exhaustion, pay-off, and catharsis that had largely drained away from the rest of my low-key burnt out life. I had been researching and writing the book non-stop for six weeks by the time we showed up in Bellingham the night before the start, but then I spent the next 48 hours thinking about nothing other than the race: fueling my body, running, resting my body, repeat (plus being very present, and talking about nothing other than the race, with the other people on my team).

Races like the Ragnar are often conceived of as “stuff (bourgeois) white people like”: paying for the privilege to exhaust yourself. And I don’t disagree. But I think the motivating factor is perhaps more the “bourgeois” more than the whiteness, and probably has even more to do with a certain type of work/lifestyle. People within this realm work so much — and, depending on age, have so many obligations towards their families — that they have to formalize and extremetize leisure in order to rationalize seeking it. It has to involve consumption in some way (buy this running Camelbak!), and planning / long-term commitment (you sign up months before), societal buy-in (knowledge that this is a cool thing that you are doing), and secondary optimization (exercise). Then you can give yourself permission to spend 48 hours doing something exclusively for yourself and your suffering-and-survival as enjoyment.

But there’s a secondary quality to these larger races, whether a Ragnar or a marathon. Part of what makes them a privileged space isn’t necessarily the gear (here’s a great piece from a great marathoner disabusing that myth) but how much time they require in the lead up. You have to have a certain kind of job, or home situation, and a certain amount of liberty in order to train nearly every day in some capacity, but also to snatch several hours for a long run once a week. My friends told me that they gave me the hardest Ragnar segments, for example, because I didn’t have to “negotiate” every time I wanted to go on a training run — because I don’t have children.

Women, in particular, find it difficult to “ask” for the time necessary to train, or do anything that requires significant and regular time investment. The answers to my parenting burnout survey from earlier this summer came back to this point again and again: their male partners felt justified in spending an entire Saturday golfing, or attending a football or soccer game every week through season tickets. But the women didn’t have hobbies that took took an entire day. Training doesn’t take an entire day, but it takes a big chunk of one. It is a way of standardizing un-negotiable personal leisure segments the same way that buying a season ticket pass to the Seahawks or the Sounders does. Which helps explain why more and more distance races and running clubs are filled with women; and, for the first time, more women than men are running marathons.

My personal reasoning for running has less to do with the need to ruthlessly declare time for myself, and more to do with the desire to ruthlessly segment time away from work. I like training schedules because I like schedules and routine, but I find I am unexpectedly nourished by the vast nothingness of a long run. You’re forced to hang out with your own mind — even if you’re doing it with someone else, you’re still hanging out with your own mind a whole lot. Some people call it meditative, and I guess that’s what I mean when I say that it forces present-ness: you can think about work things, or relationship things, or plan your outfit for the next day, but you’re still right there in your body, doing the thing for the foreseeable future. At the end of a long run, my partner and I always joke “it feels like I’ve never not been running.” You want it to be done, but it also just feels like your current reality: there’s nothing you can do about it; it just is. And there’s something profoundly liberating in that.

I know that might be hard for someone who doesn’t distant run to understand, and you might have different experiences that produce a similar feeling. I also feel that way while backpacking, especially the two-week backpacking trip I did over the Haute Route in Switzerland. But amidst all of my thinking on leisure and the decline of hobbies for the book, I’d started thinking about why I do it: is it just another route towards intensely documented self-optimization? Or does it do something different?

It’s probably different for people who want to compete. My mom was a state champion sprinter, and always wanted me to run in junior high and high school, but no way. I started running the summer after I graduated from high school, starting with 2 miles. In college, remember going on a 6-mile run with friends through the wheat fields around Walla Walla and thinking it was the most momentous thing I’d ever done. But I never conceived of it as obligatory, or even that I ever needed to go faster. It was certainly interwoven with disordered ideas about my body — I still blame the popularity of low-rise jeans for making me feel like my body needed to look different in the early ‘00s — but as I’ve grown older, I haven’t completely shed those ideas so much as come to recognize what they are (ideological bullshit) and that your body in your 30s is incredibly difficult to change (outside of pregnancy) so might as well figure out its strengths instead of obsessing over its weaknesses.

I think that’s part of what Lindsay Crouse is talking about in this NYT piece on running the fastest she’s ever run at age 35. “I had internalized a narrative about my body,” she writes, “that once I turned 30, there might not be much to look forward to. I didn’t know the opposite could be true.” I don’t have the same interest in getting faster, but I do love the feeling of acquaintance, for lack of a better word, with my body. For so long, I had felt alienated from it: I didn’t know what it was, really, except not Britney Spears’ body. But the last twenty years of running, combined with a five-year interlude/devotion to yoga, has re-introduced me to it.

I felt that keenly over this weekend, when I went skiing for the first time in 12 years. I grew up skiing at a small but mighty mountain in Central Idaho, a place where brother, my friends, and their brothers spent our childhoods figuring out the limits of our bodies. We were almost entirely unsupervised; we were fast and often reckless; we spent seemingly endless hours trying to perfect one jump. We got better very gradually, over the course of more than a decade. We didn’t ski because it was cool, or because our parents forced us (although they certainly paid for it, although our season passes were mind-bogglingly cheaper then) but just because it was what we did, every weekend we could. It didn’t feel like a choice, it just felt like a natural gravity.

To me, that’s what I think a real hobby feels like. Not something you feel like you’re choosing, or scheduling — not a hassle, or something you resent or feel bad about when you don’t do it. Earlier this week, Katie Heaney wrote a piece in The Cut that speaks to what I think a lot of people feel when they think about their hobbies: she keeps trying to start one, but can’t make it stick. The truth is, it’s really really hard to start a hobby as an adult — it feels unnatural, or forced, or performative. We try to force ourselves into hobbies by buying things (see: Amanda Mull’s piece on the “trophies” of the new domesticity) but a Kitchen-Aid will not make you like cooking.

It’s also hard when the messages about what you should be doing with your leisure time are so incredibly contradictory: you should devote yourself to self-care, but also spend more time on your children and partner; you should liberate yourself from the need to monetize your hobby but also have enough money to do the hobby in the first place. This “Smarter Living” piece in the NYT on what to do with a day off is emblematic of just how fucked up our leisure messaging has become: you should “embrace laziness,” “evaluate your career,” “have a family meal,” “fix your finances,” “do that one thing you’ve been putting off,” AND/OR “do nothing,” AND THEN tweet the author about what you did over the weekend!

Apart from running, a hobby I’ve cultivated over the course of two decades, all of my hobbies are things that I’ve done, or seen modeled for me, since my childhood. Some of those things, like hiking, I resented fiercely. Some I just observed, like my mom’s gardening. And some, like skiing, have been unavailable to me: first, because I didn’t have the money to do it; then, because physically accessing good skiing was impossible from New York; finally, because skiing takes a whole ass day that, of course, I would always opt to devote to working. I didn’t have any gear, and felt weird about renting, and was scared I’d forgotten everything. There were too many barriers to entry, and as Katie notes, each barrier makes it all the less likely that you will continue with a hobby.

This mountain I went to yesterday, though, it was cheap, and the rentals were equally cheap and easy, and it was just a 90 minute drive away. (That might sound long, but in the West, 90 minutes is truly nothing; the mountain I skied growing up was 3 hours + a time zone change away). And after a few runs, all of those feelings of childhood came rushing back: feeling strong and fearless and hedging that thrilling line between total control and losing it, but also the glorious, unbound expanse of the mountain and the day. It felt at once easy and challenging, natural and all I wanted to do forever. I think that’s what a hobby is supposed to feel like: not an obligation, but a state you’re always returning to. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be organized, it doesn’t have to depend on other people. It just has to be yours.

But I grew up in a place, and a time, where hobbies — activities that had no place on your resume, no function in getting you into a better school — were still commonplace. Amongst the bourgeois American middle class, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Old Millennials were the last to experience this attitude towards activities and leisure. My partner spent his junior high and high school years at a competitive prep school on the Main Line in Philly, and has only recently come to realize that he had no hobbies, and no sense of what he actually liked to do, just what he needed to do in order to shape himself for school, then college, then work. Every hobby, for him, is an adult hobby — and thus all the more difficult to discover and adopt.

It’s weird to think of yourself as privileged to know what you like. It’s certainly privileged to be able to know it and have the means — the time, the money, the wherewithal, the health — to pursue it. But one of the saddest predicaments of the current millennial moment is feeling desperate for something that isn’t work, but having no clue how do figure out what else there is.

Things I Read and Loved/Was Compelled By This Week:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and find the shareable online version) here. You can find me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to write this thing.

expands to fill the space it's given

I’m back on Lummi Island this week, a place I’ve written about in the newsletter before. I took the week to drill down on final edits for my book, and Lummi is the perfect place to stare out the window, stare at your edits, stare out the window some more, and then go walk the dogs. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat.

These last two months, when I’ve devoted all of my weekends and vacation days to these final edits, I’ve felt myself inching ever-closer to the Melissa Gregg’s definition of productivity: “a form of training through which workers become capable of the ever more daring acts of solitude and ruthlessness necessary to produce career competence.” Daring acts of solitude and ruthlessness! Is that the right phrase to describe how I’ve refused to open my work email?

But I don’t know if I’ve been that productive, per se. Let me rephrase that: I’ve done all the things that I needed to do. But a lot of that involved the freedom to sit and stare at my draft, to read sentences aloud, to re-read an article and think if there was a way to include it, and ultimately not. Most of the times when I’ve found myself embarrassed about a piece of (formal) writing are times when it hasn’t had some time, no matter how brief, to marinate. (Blogging, which is what I’m doing when I write this newsletter, is different — it’s a different mode, with a different purpose, and I’m always fine with the raggedness).

With that said, I’m keenly aware of time during each of these days that isn’t wasted so much as taken for granted. Could I have done the work of seven days in six days? Definitely. In five? Probably. Work expands to fill the space it’s given. That idea is at the heart of the renewed drive for the four-day work week — the proposal that we could do all the things our job requires of us in four days, instead of five, and still get paid as if we worked for those full five days. Not by working four ten-hour days. Working normal hours, but fewer of them.

It’s worked in New Zealand — not at a hip start-up, but at a good old fashioned wills and trusts company. It’s worked at Microsoft Japan. It’s currently being trialed in multiple places in the UK and, I’ve been told, under the radar in the United States. In Germany, one company successfully moved to a five-hour work-day (but still works five days a week). It’s obvious that worker happiness would go up. But so, too, did productivity: with the promise of a day off if their work was done, people started hacking the waste out of their days. But they did it collaboratively: the premise, particularly in New Zealand, was that the privilege of the day off was contingent upon your team completing the week’s tasks.

It wasn’t about one person being ruthless with their productivity, but a team deciding what wasn’t actually necessary to create that productivity. In their case: a lot of unnecessary attendance at meetings, inefficient communication, and aimless internet time. Their work had expanded to fill the five days it had been allotted. But that didn’t mean it needed to take five days. One key difference, too, was that the day off is always conceived of as a benefit, not a given. If and when the productivity levels fall, it can be taken away. Otherwise, they’ve found, workers will just fall into the same style of work from before, only do it four days a week instead of five.

I’ve long heard people with kids — and women with kids in particular — talk about how their sense of time and its possibilities change after those kids arrive. An hour set aside for writing changes its character, its urgency. In America, at least, many women transition back to the workplace by asking for a four-day week — a means, at the very least, to save on one day of expensive childcare. 80% of their previous work, the agreement goes, at 80% of their previous pay. But they also almost always end up doing 100% of the work —  with 80% of their previous pay.

One of the women involved in the New Zealand experiment told me that she tells women, when coming back to the workplace, to ask the following: Can you tell me what 80% of my work responsibilities are? Okay, can you tell me what 100% of my work responsibilities are? And then ask: If I complete 100% of my responsibilities in four days, can I still be paid 100%?

I’m going to be writing a lot more about the four-day week — and how three days of time off somehow completely shifts the paradigm of what’s possible, leisure-wise — in the weeks to come, especially thinking through how it can be applied outside of the traditional arenas of “knowledge work.” But I’d love to hear from you, and your thoughts about how/whether your work could be compressed. There’s a survey here, which I’m also using for my thinking/writing on leisure for the book, because the two questions are incredibly interlinked. You can also just respond to this email, if you have even more detailed thoughts on what the four-day work week would like for you. As always, I’ll never publish any of your thoughts without your permission.

One thing to keep in mind: a lot of people hear about the idea and think that’s great, but it could never work for me. There’s an immediate reticence, at least for some people, to immediately dismiss the possibility. If that’s you, think about why that might be — and just play with the thought of it being otherwise. If you could make it work, what would it look like? And how, in turn, could it transform your life and everyone’s around you?

Things I’m watching and loving: Sex Education, Season 2 (Netflix)

Thing I Wrote This Week: On Cheer and why all sorts of people find themselves in cheerleading for all sorts of reasons (including me)

Cookbook I Love This Week: The Sprouted Kitchen Bowl and Spoon (Indiebound / Amazon)

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and find the shareable online version) here. You can find me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to write this thing.

the wages of productivity

I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about leisure and productivity, as I research and begin to draft an additional chapter for the millennial burnout book (Pre-order! I promise that’s the cover!). A lot of you sent me reading suggestions, and everything’s been useful in various ways, but there are two books that have shifted and clarified my thinking. (They’re both somewhat academic, but if you can develop a tolerance for overuse of the terms ‘rhetorical,’ ‘discursive,’ ‘performative,’ etc. you’ll find something interesting in there)

The first is Elizabeth Currid-Hackett’s The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (Amazon / Indiebound), which argues that as economic class continues to disarticulate from education level (aka, people with PhDs can be barely making ends meet, and people with a high school education working in the trades, or owning their own businesses, can be solidly upper middle class) people increasingly signal their class status, or their aspirational class status, through “productive” leisure.

Before, you could announce your spot in the upper-middle class through the purchase of recognizable luxury brand items. Now, buying an item for its luxury status is conceived of as crass, or uncultured — a mark of new money. The real way to show that you’re cultured is to evidence (through conversation or Instagram) consumption of cultured things (podcasts, articles, award-winning books, quality television) and participation in cultured activities (pottery class, skiing, bread baking, endless numbers of self-optimizing physical activities).

This style of bourgeois signaling makes me think of the Portlandia skit in which the conversation over dinner circles around asking one another “did you read” [this longform article from this esteemed publication] without ever actually discussing the contents of the articles. What ultimately matters is being the sort of person who reads longform articles and talks about them at dinner, not actually reading them.

Currid-Hackett also points out that it’s not enough to just read the “best of” — to cultivate middlebrow taste, to watch all the Emmy and Oscar and National Book Award winners. That’s basic. The real way to mark your position is to evidence a cultural omnivorousness, an eclectic mix of high and low: attend the ballet, but also be familiar with the latest dances on TikTok; go to the opera and be a master at karaoke.

When people complain about “too much television,” this is part of what they’re complaining about: not that there’s an abundance of options, for all manner of tastes, available in the marketplace, but that the amount of consumption necessary to keep up at a dinner party, or on Twitter, or in the 21st century of the watercooler (aka, Slack) is exhausting.

Is watching movies, going to yoga, and listening to podcasts work? Of course not, not technically. A whole lot of people would love to feel pressure to watch more television instead of being forced to spend those hours in the workplace. But when it comes to feel like the only way to buy a ticket into your aspirational class, it doesn’t feel like a choice, but an obligation: a form, however unpaid, of labor. Which explains why “relaxing” by engaging in these activities can feel so exhausting, so unfulfilling, so unrestorative. 

The second book, Melissa Gregg’s Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy (Amazon / Indiebound) has totally refigured my understanding of productivity. Gregg, who currently works as a researcher at Intel, started collecting time management manuals, guides, and how-tos from the discount racks at bookstores years ago. And like any good researcher, she started to discern patterns, and spikes in popularity — and went backwards to try and figure out why, for instance, these manuals first started appearing in the ‘70s, and then again in the early ‘90s (see especially: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and have found their contemporary iteration in late 2000s and 2010s in productivity apps.

The timing, of course, is not coincidental: each spike in the fetish for productivity aligns with a moment of mass anxiety over layoffs, downsizing, and general precarity in the workplace. Within office and knowledge jobs in particular, that precarity translates into a need to demonstrate one’s value — and the most straightforward way to do so is through productivity. (In today’s climate of freelancing, independent contracting, and general side-hustling, cultivating productivity is also a way to make ends meet, or beat others’s out for a contract).

It’s also no accident that the first office productivity manuals arrived as secretaries — once standardized in most work places — began to vanish, or at least vanish as a regular feature for most every (man) with an office job. Before, productivity was possible partly because all of the “mundane” labor of the workday, from typing to making dinner reservations, was offloaded to the paid and unpaid women in your life. And every productivity manual or app is a blueprint, in some way, to returning to this model of work, where the concerns and demands of others’ largely did not concern or demand of you.

Think about the most popular productivity modes right now: Inbox Zero, and turning off the internet entirely (through programs like Freedom from the Internet). When your goal, as you go through your emails, is simply getting rid of them, the results are often shitty, haphazard, incomplete. I delete things I can’t muster the energy to respond to. I forward things I don’t want to deal with. I write incomplete responses, or ask a question when I should be answering one. I create more work for others in the name of “productivity.” One thing marked off my to-do list, one thing on someone else’s.

Sequestering yourself also makes more work. I’m the first to argue that there’s too much expectation for connectivity and immediate availability. But when availability is woven into your company’s way of working, claiming the right to be unreachable can again make more work for others. (To be clear, there’s a difference between cultivating time when you’re regularly unreachable, and making sure all duties are attended to ahead of time, and sporadically absenting yourself in the name of self-preservation and productivity).

In this way, the cultivation of productivity becomes, in Gregg’s words, “a form of training through which workers become capable of the ever more daring acts of solitude and ruthlessness necessary to produce career competence.” It doesn’t matter if underlings, team members, spouses or children suffer under the weight of excess work, so long as your ostensibly productivity shines brightly.

And for those tasks and inefficiencies we can’t offload on coworkers and family, we now underpay others to perform them for us: TaskRabbits, Uber drivers, Instacart grocery shoppers, Trunk Club stylists, Blue Apron packagers, nannies, home organizers, Handy housecleaners, Amazon warehousers and drivers, Seamless delivery people. People have always paid other people to do the mundane, time-consuming things they can afford not to do. But the current price of those services makes them widely accessible in a different way.

We’re creating a new class bifurcation, between those who work so much, and are so conscious of squeezing productivity out of every hour, making enough money to offload all unproductive tasks, and those making very little in order to make that productivity possible.

So what’s the solution here? Most people I know don’t hate grocery shopping, or detest walking instead of Ubering, or loathe picking up trash bags. The problem is working so much, and cultivating such a hunger for total productivity, that the few hours we do have off, we’re desperate to preserve, in whatever small ways, for ourselves: to spend time with our children, to consume the products that announce our aspirational class, to sleep, to breathe.

In many Western countries and America in particular, working all the time has become so normalized that, despite an abundance of research to the contrary, the idea of working less (and living better, and actually becoming more productive during working hours as a result) seems radical. But as has become a refrain for me, it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m currently working on a story that explores that idea, but for now, I’m collecting stories from people about their own relation to leisure, and productivity, and hobbies. You can find the survey here.


Side Note: I’m continuing/mindfully accelerating my decade’s long move towards vegetarianism, and I found the NYT’s meat-lover’s guide to eating less meat helpful. I also like this Wirecutter collection of way’s to reduce plastic waste, which is very frank about the fact that you don’t really need to buy a bunch of shit, including the stuff that they have on the page. With that said, I started using the beeswax saran-wrap replacement six months ago, thought it would suck, but now I don’t think I’ll ever buy saran wrap again. I like the Lily Bee ones, which you can find on Amazon (if you can, bulk order with other stuff!) or their own site.

This Week’s Things I Read and Loved:

Things I Wrote: Knives Out and the Revenge of the Pretty Good Movie

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a weekish, forward it their way. You can access it online (and subscribe) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; relative inattention to perfection is what allows me to make the mental space to get this out in the world.

presents to myself

I wrote a lot this past month — for BuzzFeed, in book edits, just not in this newsletter, which I hate, because this newsletter works as a sort of release valve for the stream of consciousness I’m forced to filter for my other writing. Like a lot of people, I feel unsettled during this so-called dead week, when it’s never clear how much you should be working, whether you should feel shame or glee about it. But it’s increasingly clear that my unsettledness has less to do with the actual structures of work and more to do with my increased antipathy towards ambient-always working. I want to work or not work, not have this melty liminal space that seeps into everything.

But I love new planners, and our New Year’s tradition of a massive Portuguese Fisherman’s Stew, and reflecting, generally, on the year — especially all of the truly excellent writing and thinking I read/consumed. You can see my favorite books below, but I’ve also collected a mishmash of favorites from the internet and quasi-categorized them below. As I wrote last year, with all the arbitrary energy around a new year, it feels important to spend time to allow the old, in all its sorrow and glory, to catch up with us.

Uncategorizable Favs:

Media criticism, broadly defined:

On Daily Life:

Profiles That’ve Stayed With Me:

Just Trust Me Again:

And some things I wrote this month:

I read 49 books this year. I set out with a goal of reading, well, a lot more. The aim was somewhere around 52, but really what I wanted was a return to that feeling of near-constant grounding in some book, any fiction book, amidst everything else. I read dozens more for work, and for my own book, but I don’t think of them — or the reading process — in the same way. These 49 books were read on planes, on beaches, on long Sunday afternoons, in hotels after a long day reporting, at night to take my mind elsewhere. They were presents to myself, and what you see above are a few of my favorites.

I’d love to hear what you also loved — and, as always, your suggestions for future reads and potential “Just Trust Mes.” Simply reply to this email — or find me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com. You can follow me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. And if you want to give someone a New Year’s present, or think they’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, just forward it their way. (You can subscribe here).

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