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.