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Feb 5, 2021Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

I had a friend a few years ago whose boyfriend had retired from a lifetime of work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He was so permanently wired he could never let go. And a big part of him didn't want to. He was addicted to that life, and living without it made him feel empty and a little crazed.

I don't know that we Gen-Xrs knew better, but we did have a combination of being told we could achieve anything we wanted, a lot of skepticism about establishment anything, and--probably most importantly--scraped through college with less debt than the next generation (that's a sweeping generalization crafted only out of my own experience). I never had a job that paid great, but my college paid almost all my tuition on the basis of need and I had pretty low student loan payments for 10 years. It makes a difference, as probably anyone reading this newsletter knows.

I find myself resenting that guy's statement that other people don't know how to work their butts off. I assume he's never waited tables knowing his tips were going to pay his rent!

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Feb 5, 2021Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

I kept thinking, as I read this, of my time as a grocery store cashier during college around 2008-12. The check-out space for the first three years consisted of a belt that moved the products to be scanned into a kind of carrel placed so that either I or my customers could bag the groceries easily without too much strain. Then, the company called for the items scanned per minute to dramatically increase, and the carrels were replaced with taller expanses of counter space that you simply couldn't reach all the way across. But you sure could FLING the items much more quickly down the line.

The first day with these new productivity-increasing point-of-sales, I felt on the verge of tears the whole shift. I wasn't used to working this fast and my whole body hurt from reaching and reaching all day to grab the stray items that rolled to the corners. The managers were so enthusiastic about our new "bagging stations" but we cashiers knew the score--they never scheduled baggers and we would be bagging the groceries ourselves--this time, with a lot more physical strain.

Socially, too, it was like a pall settled over my fellow cashiers. Before, we cashiers would bag for each other if we had a free moment and that was a place for bonding, jokes, banter with customers. But now we really didn't have any free moments and I remember the steep drop-off in co-worker conversations and general fellow feeling. It was bleak.

Anyway, I had not thought about this experience in a long time until reading your piece--never thought I'd identify with 1980's office workers, but hey! I'm a teacher now, another profession where, of course, there's never enough time for all of the work to be done in a human way.

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"Knowledge workers have embraced our own deskilling, and the subsequent de-valuing of our labor, and rebranded it as personal productivity." Such an excellent summary of the dynamic. Thank you for this!

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Feb 5, 2021Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

This also reminded me of a fantastic 2010 Ph.D. dissertation by Johanna Radsma (https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/24860) that examines the ways in which clerical work has become devalued. Her analysis is based on the feminisation of that work, and I can't remember if the advent of technology was a part of her analysis, but she talks about how "…The perceived value of the role is limited to the execution of the overt functional tasks. The lack of recognition for the complex and skilled relational labour that underpins successful administrative support work has contributed to both lower job status and increased job vulnerability for clerical workers."

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Feb 5, 2021Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

“To contribute to a stock price that benefits a select few?” Yes, that’s the point. Productivity really benefits the few rather than the many.

It’s all about leverage and technology gives owners a degree of control over workers that could never have been imagined outside of slavery.

Technology is not just the tools to do more, but the means to monitor and judge not just the end product, but the keystroke or the route and speed at which you drive the Amazon delivery van. Why squeeze more productivity out of a day when you can drill down and optimize every minute of the worker’s day?

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Work harder, longer and smarter than your peers and you'll "win." That was the 80s mantra, and I leaned into it with gusto -- even dragging myself to work two weeks after the due date of my first (very late) baby. It's taken most of my career to figure out that it's what I contribute to those I work with that matters. Am I a coach, a mentor, a support system, or am I a get-more-done maniac? The former, I hope. My kids know what I didn't. Work is a means, not an end. I need to joy and fulfillment in what fills me, not in what pays the rent. The rent must be paid, and hopefully with the best I can bring each day. But, I need to ensure I have gifts left at the end of the day so I can bring my best to my family, my friends and perhaps those who seek my work because it fills them.

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This is so, so good.

This discussion reminds me of a book I read years ago, Never Done: A History of American Housework by Susan Strasser (whom I had the pleasure of knowing in person a long time ago through a publishing company I worked for). Among other topics she lays out how the invention of home appliances brought work in and put it all on the "woman of the house" with new expectations whereas before there may have been additional paying jobs, such as being a laundress, that distributed the labor. I read it a long time ago so I'm not doing justice to it. Couldn't find it at bookshop.org so here's the link from that large online retailer: https://www.amazon.com/Never-Done-History-American-Housework/dp/0805067744.

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"Gen-X knew better" -- finally, the slacker generation (my generation) gets its props! Ha.

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In my previous life as a manufacturing consultant, I was often the guy bringing in "automation" to "make your jobs easier" to rooms full of workers not even bothering with side-eye and going straight to death stares. That as much as anything is what drove me out. To this day, "efficiencies" as a noun makes me want to hulk the fuck out.

The other thing with all the technology to make our jobs easier is the planned obsolescence. Every update from any software application seems like learning it all over. I can't tell you how many times Word has fucked me over the years. Just look at our phones! Updates to iTunes have ruined my ability to listen to all the CDs I burned over the years and sold because I was duped into thinking that was the best way to handle them. What a nightmare. The only thing I want in "the cloud" is the cooling vapors of my physical body after all this shit makes me set myself on fire.

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The cult of productivity has caused me multiple mental breakdowns and job firings over the years. I would be a superstar until I broke. I baffled all of these employers and society made me feel like a failure for being unable to be productive nonstop, and I mentally beat myself up over it. I legitimately cannot understand how most people put up with this culture without breaking! I work in government now, which is great precisely because it's not breakneck speed, but I hate that I'm here 8 hours a day when I could get all of my required work done in less time. I actually really like my job but I like spending time with my husband and daughter and friends more - why aren't we pushing for that? If I think too hard about how messed up the world is it just makes me spin back into depression again...

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Omfg, this piece starts with a book that foundational in my thinking about our current version of capitalism and then goes on to my beloved former boss, Karen Nussbaum, who I was just watching in the 9 to 5 documentary.

And it comes against the backdrop of my extreme discomfort at being told to ... write fewer (but longer) pieces at my job. It’s almost eerie how much this speaks to me.

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"Maybe a disability meant that productivity was never an option, and you had to learn to live in a society that venerates it above all else."

I grew up a "gifted" kid in a doctors-lawyers-executives area and then went to a selective college, but I also have ADHD that wasn't diagnosed until I was 27 and started my career in environmental advocacy that was so hopeless that attrition was often the best we could do. Like a lot of people with ADHD, I got the idea that I was secretly just lazy, and in order to not burn myself out disproving that or hate myself, I had to think critically about the concept of laziness. Environmental advocacy in a capitalist society also really brings out the absurdity of productivity--industries expend massive human and financial resources towards destructive projects, regulators spend years evaluating permits that will be broken anyway, environmental advocacy workers spend years laboring towards tiny victories that are then overturned or don't bring justice, etc. (Just look at the history of Keystone XL!) The savviest lawyer for a pipeline company is just helping destroy people's homes and pay for someone's yacht, and we have a massive infrastructure of illusions to make them feel accomplished about their work.

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Thank you for this wonderful essay. As an Xer who quit a 25-year career last February due to extreme burnout, I felt so much of this. I can’t imagine going back to that life, yet how to avoid it and still eat? The cultural imprinting is so great that it will take many of us to change it working intergenerationally. We must have more open conversation that exposes the true cost of productivity like the one you’ve raised.

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Your article goes along with an observation I have made over my 25+ year career as a Flight Attendant. People used to come on board, before laptops, tablets and cell phones were a thing, and they could relax. Maybe they would work on some paperwork, buy they would usually set it aside after a while and read a book or the paper, or God forbid, chat with the person next to them. Now, they are connected 24/7 and never get a break. Work follows them home, on the plane, on vacation. They are never free. My job has been largely immune to automation and technologies making our work more “productive”, but management still gets creative and finds ways to get more without paying more. That has been the name of the game for American business for the last 40 years. And when you can no longer squeeze productivity and profitability out of your American work force, you close up shop in the States and go overseas where the labor is cheap and the regulations are few. I come from a family that is productivity obsessed - my parents, to this day blather on about being productive. That was not a good thing for my bipolar brother. He always skewed toward the manic side of things, but when he was in a full blown mania, his obsession with productivity would get way out of hand. Like, he didn’t sleep for 3 months out of hand. Things, ultimately, did not end well for him, but my parents still do not make the connection with how our upbringing in an environment where we were expected to constantly be productive, took the ultimate toll on my brother. I, being the Gen X slacker that I am, do not have the need or desire to be constantly productive. Some days I am content to just be. Others, I get stuff done. I like balance.

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Production at all costs especially here in Australia where we received the news there will be no more pay increases for at least another 3 years. In the 1970s workers such as steel workers and nurses did 8 hour shifts. There was overtime rates that made it attractive to do overtime. However these were stripped away and the said workers were put on to 12 hour shifts at one standard rate. School teaching became more demanding with increased class sizes, school closures, extra hours after classes added into the teaching agreements, increased requirements for endless, mindless, training, less help with increased violence in classrooms, changed discipline structures giving more control to students, increased curriculum subjects to teach. Furthermore there was a large increase of drones in the education system, middle management who made sure the latest fad was being adhered to and who only contributed to more work being passed on to classroom teachers. Planet earth herself is rebelling against the mindless greedy production ethos we are constantly being fed. Time to be still and think where we are headed.

Paul- Australia

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X-ennial here, 1 part slacker to two parts overachiever. Thanks for motivating me to embrace the x-side of that equation (and noodle around this sub stack today instead of “killing it”) today!

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