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Dispatches from a defensive crouch
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Back in the summer of 2020, I quit what was ostensibly a very good job in media to write this newsletter full-time. I didn’t do it for money. I didn’t do it because I didn’t like editors (I had excellent ones, whom I appreciated deeply). I did it because I had Layoff Brain.
At that point, I’d been at BuzzFeed for six years. I was hired at the beginning of what would become a massive hiring spree, as BuzzFeed expanded mightily into news, lifestyle, and video content. It felt like being on a garishly painted rocket ship. Yes, I had to spend a fair amount of time explaining to people that BuzzFeed was more than listicles. But I also had a decent reporting budget, a lot of leeway in what to write about, and — at least after the first rumblings of unionization — a salary that had been “leveled” to meet industry standards.
The problem was: BuzzFeed kept changing its strategy, its focus, its pivot. Facebook Video, long-form video, quizzes, longform journalism, no-wait-no-more-longform-journalism, no wait Investigative Journalism, no wait less of that and more Tasty. The company was and is a digital media company, which is another way of saying that it uses its placement within the journalism industry to mask or at least distract from some of its most egregious, obnoxious, or otherwise nonsensical start-up behaviors. I watched entire departments unceremoniously let go because they weren’t making enough money, even though the company had openly refused attempts to monetize their content. I saw re-org after re-org, double-downs and retractions, the cutting of essential components of the publishing process (copyediting! design!) down to the barest essentials, and horribly handled nightmares of layoff notifications. And again, that was just in six years. Every time, I wondered if my department was next.
When I started at BuzzFeed, I had been in academia for nine years. I knew what it felt like to wake up every morning with an anxious pit of despair about your future employment. None of the precarity of digital media was new to me; in fact, it meshed seamlessly with the lessons I’d internalized graduating into the aftermath of the Dot-Com burst and watching the Great Recession decimate the academic landscape. None of this was unique to me, either. “My relationship with my work is one of mistrust,” one millennial worker told Clio Chang in 2020. “I have very little trust for the system and for people running systems.”
We knew to expect nothing, to trust no company, to rely on no promised path. It was exhausting, but what other choice did we have? At least I had a job, if an utterly insecure one.
When the pandemic hit, BuzzFeed quickly addressed anticipated revenue declines with stark cuts, including significant layoffs in News. The BuzzFeed News Union (which, at that point, was still unrecognized by leadership) worked tirelessly to come up with a plan that would preserve as many jobs as possible. We traded layoffs for across-the-board decreases in salary — a trade I’d make again. Some managers fell on their swords and resigned to save members of their teams.
Layoffs are the worst for the people who lose their job, but there’s a ripple effect on those who keep them — particularly if they keep them over the course of multiple layoffs. It’s a curious mix of guilt, relief, trepidation, and anger. Are you supposed to be grateful to the company whose primary leadership strategy seems to be keeping its workers trapped in fear? How do you trust your manager’s assurances of security further than the end of the next pay period? If the company actually “wishes the best” for the employees it let go, why wouldn’t they fucking recognize the union whose animating goal was to create a modicum of security for when the next layoff arrived, as we all knew it would?
Leaving to write your own Substack might not seem like more security than a features writing gig at a multi-million dollar company, but if I was going to have a fickle overlord in control of my destiny, I decided I’d rather play that role myself. I feel more secure writing Culture Study than I did at BuzzFeed, but I live, save, and cultivate side gigs as if the bottom can and will drop out at any moment. You could call this good business sense, or you could call it the strategy of a brain irrevocably shaped by the Great Recession, academia, and digital media layoff culture. A millennial brain, but also, I’d argue, a boomer brain, a Gen-X brain, and now — a Gen-Z brain. And just because hundreds of thousands of other people share that posture doesn’t mean it has to be this way.
In case you haven’t heard, we’re in a recession. Actually we’re not, but we’ve spent the last year talking about how we will be, which has the effect of altering behavior as if we were. Even if you’ve come to terms with the fundamental irrationality of the stock market, it’s still difficult to fight the feeling that CEOs are willing this recession into existence to create a justifying narrative for layoffs. Not because they necessarily want to save money, or even redirect the company, but to press reset on what they view as out-of-control compensation packages and worker demands.
After more than a decade of hiring sprees and bidding wars for talent, these actions have been labeled a sort of natural, totally expected “course correction.” And some of that argument makes sense. But it’s also a very convenient way of (re)instilling fear in the workforce.
To be clear, I’m not contesting the existence of decreased earnings reports. I am, however, contesting the near-universally accepted belief that layoffs are the natural response to decreased earnings reports — particularly for companies with significant cash resources. Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has studied the psychology of layoffs for the last forty years, and argues convincingly that layoffs do not actually cut costs, or increase stock prices, or increase productivity.
“Layoffs do not solve what is often the underlying problem, which is often an ineffective strategy, a loss of market share, or too little revenue,” he explained. “Layoffs are basically a bad decision.” (Click on the link for more of the explanation, with lots of citations, if you don’t buy it)
What do layoffs do? First off, they cost money: in severance packages and unemployment insurance, but also reduced productivity and innovation. They also destroy trust, as Harvard Business School professor Sandra J. Sucher and research associate Marilyn Morgan Westner point out, and increase anxiety and disengagement. “Post-layoff underperformance” is very real.
All of that makes sense. And yet, some companies really do seem to believe that layoffs goad remaining workers to grind harder or whatever ridiculous phrase we’re using for working all the damn time — and yes, for employees with the potential to lose everything (like, say, their employment visa) if they lost a job, that can happen. But those desperately grinding employees will eventually burn out, and you’ll either lose them to another company…or their skills (precision, creativity, ability to collaborate) will diminish.
As for the rest of the workforce, maybe they wish they could churn themselves into a sliver of imagined stability, but they’re too busy fighting intrusive thoughts regarding their own instability. It’s hard to be productive when you spend days at a time backchanneling, hodgepodging your department back together, accustoming yourself to new org charts and workflows and desk locations, and just generally internalizing the demonstrated logic of your organization: that layoffs can happen without warning, in seemingly irrational and surprising and untargeted ways, and there is no way to protect yourself from the next wave. Might as well start quietly building your life raft.
Recent articles in the New York Times, the BBC, and the Seattle Times have suggested that Gen-Z and younger millennials are simply getting their first (adult) taste of what older millennials and Gen-Xers have come to understand as the norm: of course you’re going to get laid off from your job. One 48-year-old engineer, recently laid off from Coinbase, told the New York Times that since his first tech layoff, back in 2003, he’s always asked himself: “If I were laid off, what would I do?” By contrast, a recruiter for Meta continually “assured colleagues that their jobs were safe, pointing to the more than $40 billion in cash the company had in the bank.” She was laid off in November.
My first impulse is to congratulate the Gen-X engineer on his lifeboat strategy and tell the Meta recruiter that obviously everyone knows that the amount of profits your company is banking means absolutely nothing when it comes to job security. But even just typing that feels ridiculous. Workers have been socialized to absorb the risk previously shouldered by corporations, including and especially the c-suite, and the fact that Gen-Z employees have managed to make it nearly a decade into their work careers without major waves of layoffs doesn’t make them naive. It just means their expectations of the sort of security a job can provide haven’t been lowered to the ground.
Denigrating younger generations’ higher expectations is just another way of saying you’ve internalized the understanding that you should have none — which permits companies to behave accordingly. Layoff Brain is terrified of Layoffs, but it also readily excuses them: this is just the way things are, even if the way things are makes no sense.
See, for example, a recent speculative post from an engineer in the tech industry about the seemingly haphazard layoffs at Google:
Have been trying to figure out exactly how Google decided who it was going to fire. The pattern doesn't seem particularly clear - people got let go right up to VP level, including some very long-standing employees who were well known as admired thought leaders. Some people who got promoted in the last cycle got fired. At least one SRE got fired while they were oncall for production stuff.
I believe this was an attempt at some kind of "double-blind" exercise where nobody inside the company saw the list before the exits happened. This is beneficial to the company as individuals can't be accused of (for instance) discrimination or retaliation against individuals if they didn't know who would be going. It sidesteps a whole lot of potential legal problems if you can just say "It was the algorithm!".
Even more importantly this protects the feelings of those senior executives as they don't have to make the painful decisions on who to cut themselves, especially if some of those being cut are former colleagues, or ex-managers, someone they slept with under slightly inappropriate circumstances or one of the various people who they stabbed in the back with a well-aimed peer review at perf time on their way up the greasy pole.
And it can't have been about preserving the element of surprise. What the press has not been clear about is that the axe has yet to fall in EMEA and APAC - in other words, tens of thousands of workers there get to spend the next weeks in suspense waiting to hear if they'll still have a job at Easter. (As an aside - this is a *terrible* thing to do - people who are prone to depression or have other health issues will be hit particularly hard by this wait and they should expect the number of people off sick to skyrocket as a result.)
Best theory I have is that an outside company was hired and given a "clean room" export from the HR systems to work with, stripped of identifying information and any demographic data that could incur a *direct* disciminatory bias in the results. They were then told to write code to determine which rows to cut from the dataset based on the output of some weighted formula designed to determine the "fireability" of that employee while maximising the savings achieved by the exercise. They then took the output of that algorithm, stack ranked the results (because Google just LOVES to stack rank things, especially people) and returned the top 12,000 employee IDs.
This also meant the smallest possible number of people at Alphabet knew about the exercise, and meant they only needed to find a couple of people who knew the HR systems well enough to be able to act as "executioner" as Google's internal hiring-and-firing systems are very well integrated and can take care of everything to do with offboarding an employee by magic without needing assistance from those troublesome argumentative engineers. Just feed it the employee IDs and off we go.
Think about how these layoffs would’ve felt if you were inside Google watching them unfurl, with so little understanding of the why or who, and no legible rules to master to prevent it from happening to you. Granted, there is a difference between getting fired from Google with a hefty severance package and, almost certainly, a sizable savings account. But what happens at Google — or at any of the other major tech organizations — does not stay there. Google’s layoff strategy will become some sort of business school case study (“Minimizing Risk Through Algorithmic Cost-Cutting,” actually this probably already exists) and trickle down to other companies, which will employ the same (alleged) company to complete the “clean room” cuts.
Outside of tech and finance, workers will almost certainly not have the same level of severance — nor will they have the same skills as many of those let go at Google, who might weather a short-term stormy job hunt before landing on their feet with another company. Ex-Google employees, like those laid off at Microsoft and Meta, have something no amount of hustle can buy: in-demand skills. The demand might be less than, say, the summer of 2021, and they might take a pay cut, but the jobs, even full-time jobs, are there. And that understanding further lessens the psychic weight of layoffs for CEOs and other members of the leadership team: they’re able to tell themselves a tidy story, likely born out from their own experiences, of layoffs being no big deal. Or, even better, an opportunity.
This is the second iteration of Layoff Brain. The first is the Layoff Brain I have, the one I share with millions of other millennials and Gen-Xers. It’s a defensive crouch masquerading as “smart saving habits.” It’s a thrum of fear and student debt default and medical bankruptcy rebranded as “hustle culture.” This form of Layoff Brain copes by planning obsessively or ignoring aggressively, both with their own form of everyday or eventual suffering. It normalizes precarity and understands the responsibility for protecting against it as a personal responsibility. Let’s call it Worker Layoff Brain.
Then there’s Corporate Layoff Brain. This Layoff Brain mistakes their own experience of layoffs (good! generative!) as everyone else’s, regardless of their field or position. It casualizes layoffs, categorizes it as a “management tool,” and underlines employees’ status as disposable, disempowered widgets — instead of humans with rights and responsibilities to others outside of the work environment. There’s a reason so many CEOs are so bad at communicating layoffs: when you don’t think something’s a big deal, you do very little to get it right.
In his 2018 book Temp, historian Louis Hyman describes how consultants developed that second form of Layoff Brain, which we’re just going to go ahead and call Consultant Layoff Brain. Consulting companies purposefully overhire junior associates, then cull them mercilessly based on performance metrics in the first five years on the job. If they survive, it’s a sign of true excellence; if they don’t, they’re still understood as excellent, and with the help of the consultancies’ job placement services, quickly folded into companies that value their alumni status and perceived expertise.
“Leaving McKinsey was not the way it is when most of us leave jobs – it was more like graduating from college,” Hyman writes. “Unlike temps, consultants exited towards a great future. Jobs might pay more for an ex-McKinsey consultant because of the ‘prestige of the firm’ – the so-called McKinsey multiplier. Clients even asked to be told if any consultants would be leaving. In fact, this hiring away was part of the consulting firms’ business model.”
For consultants, layoffs have little material consequence — they’ve either experienced them and found a great new job, or watched their colleagues experience them and also find great new jobs. And that understanding inflects current and ex-consultants’ recommendations for layoffs in the companies that later employ them. Investment bankers — who also regularly get “downsized” and find fast placement with another bank or are absorbed at a high-level by other companies — have a similar understanding. And so do many (certainly not all!) tech workers, particularly developers and engineers. They might not find a perfect job after a layoff, but a job was there for the taking.
In hindsight, this was how the CEO of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, understood layoffs across the company: what he and the company were doing in terms of layoffs was no different than any other startup, refining its direction. But that attitude extended to the journalism arm of the company — and the jobs weren’t there for the taking. Depending on your beat, sure, you could probably find something at another digital media publication — and then steel yourself for its next round of layoffs. Some laid-off journalists spent months searching for a job. A handful got much better jobs. Many left digital media altogether.
You can reconcile yourself to Worker Layoff Brain, absorbing the blows each time they come, sitting with the cognitive dissonance of millions and profit and hundreds if not thousands of jobs cut, repeating the mantra “this is an opportunity,” “this is an opportunity,” “this is an opportunity.” But again: that’s shouldering risk that shouldn’t be yours to bear. If we understand layoffs as irrational — and generally the result of imitative behavior, in which companies compete to signal most strongly that they’re tightening their belts and/or pushing back against employee power — then there is no strategy to avoid them. But you can mitigate their effects and their power over you, and not just by amassing a personal emergency fund.
In June 2022, following six months of bargaining and the threat of a strike, the Vox Media Union finalized its three-year contract. Amongst its significant wins: a higher base salary for new workers, five months of paid parental leave, a three percent 401(K) match, an expanded bereavement leave policy, and a three-month minimum severance package. Some might argue that the union’s demands were part of what led to last week’s announcement that the company would lay off seven percent of its workforce.
But that’s anti-labor hogwash that indemnifies management. As a member of the Culture Discord smartly put it earlier this week, “unions aren’t the fix, they give you the power to write the fixes.” In this case: severance where there previously was none. In the case of tech companies where severance is already the norm: better severance packages on par with the worker-centric policies already in place in Europe and/or extending the period a worker may stay on the job after the announcement of a layoff, or employee representation on boards to increase layoff logic transparency. It also means legislation that makes it a lot harder for companies to replace laid-off workers with contractors, but that’s another newsletter. In the meantime, it could also mean: guarantees that laid-off workers are the first to be hired back.
The goal isn’t that a company shouldn’t ever fire anyone — it’s that companies shouldn’t use layoffs as a panic button. Unions and better contracts don’t just add friction to the system (those laid off already experience plenty) but distribute that friction equally: it should be hard to lay people off. But difficult layoffs undercut the logic of Consultant Layoff Brain — and any time a guiding logic is undercut, people get pissed. The anti-union activity across industries comes into sharp focus: it’s not just a fight about wages or benefits, although it is that. It’s a fight about what employment means, of what layoffs do.
When asked for advice for workers who’ve been laid off, Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Stanford Business professor, said that “when they find a job in a company where they say people are their most important asset, they actually check to be sure that the company behaves consistently with that espoused value when times are tough.” It’s decent advice — and there are a handful of companies that might pass the test. But it’s also, to my mind, far too dependent on a company’s steadfastness, the whims of its CEO, and the consensus of a board you have no means to sway. The better strategy? Find a company where workers have codified their present and future treatment.
Companies are not our friends; our workplaces are not our families. But contracts enforce responsibility to one another. There is nothing that says that our current understanding of who those contracts ultimately favor (always the employer!) is the way they have to be. To willfully ignoring as much is capitulate fully to Layoff Brain and its ongoing rationalization of precarity. Just because you can’t remember a time when you haven’t felt this way doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to feeling it forever. ●
Sandra J. Sucher and Marilyn Morgan Westner, “What Companies Still Get Wrong About Layoffs”
Clio Chang, “The Generation Shaped by Layoffs”
Dylan Matthews, “Europe Could Have the Secret to Saving America’s Unions”
Andrew Van Dam, “The Unluckiest Generation in U.S. History”
Annie Lowrey, “Millennials Don’t Stand a Chance”
Amy Adkins, “Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation”
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