what great inconvenience

I get asked a lot about “tips for alleviating burnout,” and if you’ve been reading this newsletter for awhile, you know I have a few: put your phone on airplane mode before you go into the bedroom; don’t listen to podcasts on walks; dedicate time to hang out with your own mind. But the biggest one is something I first heard from fellow burnout scholar Jonathan Malesic: think deeply and consistently about how your own actions, and standards, and practices create burnout in others.

That can be as simple as not being the one who emails at 9 pm on a Saturday (just because it feels fine to you, and maybe not even like a personal burnout behavior, doesn’t mean it’s not creating expectations of always-on-ness in others). How you act — as a manager, as a co-worker, as a partner, as a parent — has ripple effects that extend far past the immediate relationship.

That’s easy to understand on an intimate, inter-personal level — but harder, I think, when we start thinking about the deeper causes of burnout (economic precarity and exploitation) and our place within the larger world of contemporary capitalism. In other words: how our own spending habits create burnout in others.

I thought of this earlier this week, as the California legislature passed AB 5, a “controversial” bill that forces gig economy companies to classify their employees as….wait for it….employees. (If you’re not familiar with the long gig economy employee saga, the narrative, in short = companies like Uber, Handy, DoorDash, etc. got off the ground by classifying their employees as “independent contractors,” thus immunizing themselves from labor laws and/or calls for ethical employee treatment.) But under AB 5, all those “contractors” become employees subject to California labor protections/benefits, which means: unemployment insurance, paid parental leave, overtime and mandatory rest breaks, workers comp, at least a $12 minimum wage, health care and/or health care subsidies, and, most important of all, the right to unionize.

Uber et. al. are furious, and Uber has indicated it will litigate the ruling, arguing that its drivers aren’t, uh, central to its business model (of driving cars!!!). It’s unleashed a bevy of counter-PR, suggesting that the law would FOREVER CHANGE the rideshare industry and CREATE GREAT INCONVENIENCE to users. (The reasoning = Uber will be forced to decrease the number of employees if it actually has to treat them like employees, which will decrease the number of people driving in your area).

These are scare tactics designed to appeal to your totally self-centered inner-optimizer, inviting you to frame the ethical treatment of employees as a massive personal inconvenience. There’s a similar argument at work in the yoga world, as the hedge fund that owns YogaWorks is attempting to quash attempts by its teachers to unionize. (Yoga teachers are asking for the ability to negotiate for higher pay, salary transparency, predictable scheduling, and benefits). The hedge fund’s (spoken) reasons for union busting are the same as most companies: it’s not right for our company. What that really means is that if you treat employees as employees, then you either have to decrease your profit share (which means the hedge fund pays out less to its investors) or you have to raise prices (which means the customer might go elsewhere, and the overall customer base will decrease, and profits will again fall).

Hedge funds and private equity are the driving force behind so many of today’s shitty jobs, which I generally think of as jobs that 1) provide little stability, economic or otherwise; 2) make your work experience hell through inconsistent scheduling, surveillance, and algorithmically controlled work environments; 3) refuse to provide or provide truly shitty forms of benefits (paid leave, health insurance, retirement, etc) that make modern life tenable; 4) often require you to get another shitty job on the side, just to make things work. Because hedge funds and private equity care don’t actually care about a company and its mission — let alone its employees — they cut everything, especially employee pay and benefits, to the lowest common denominator.

Hedge funds and private equity often take pretty solid jobs and render them shitty. But start-ups, with their dependency on the independent contractor model, are shitty job generators. They launched their services, grew them exponentially, and insinuated them into everyday life — and were celebrated for their “disruption” for the unoptimized, analog way of doing things. For those who could afford them, they’ve made life quicker, easier, more seamless. But they’ve done it by creating a whole layer of shitty jobs, excused away as “side gigs” without acknowledging that those side gigs are necessary because of how many other layers of shitty jobs there are.

Which returns us to the question of creating burnout in others, and how it relates to the actual economy. Are you willing to embrace that truly slight inconvenience — and maybe pay a few dollars more — so that a person’s job is significantly less shitty? Think about in practice: are you willing to wait five more minutes for an Uber so that, when you get in, you know that your drive has health insurance and is making a living wage? Are you willing to pay $4 more for your yoga class (YOUR YOGA CLASS!) so that your teacher, who you likely venerate, can have some semblance of the stability/peace you yourself are attempting to find BY GOING TO YOGA??? Are you willing to have slightly less so that others can have significantly more? Or, as I like to think about it, do you actually care about other people?

Back in 2015, the New York Times published a massive investigation into the nail salon industry, appropriately titled “The Price of Nice Nails.” One of the conversations immediately prompted by the piece was simple: can I still get my nails done? Of course, the answer seemed to be — but, well, mindfully, with attention to the type of place you go to, the types of protections offered employees (specifically from noxious chemicals), and the way you tip the person doing your nails. My personal decision was to start tipping around 80%: if the pedicure cost $25, which they often did, I’d tip an additional $20. Yes, this makes the pedicure $45. But is that actually an exorbitant amount of money for service offered — especially if half of it goes directly to the underpaid technician?

Just because something’s cheap and efficient doesn’t mean that it should be that way — or that your ability to access it doesn’t have significant human cost. In an interview about her new book, Fashionopolis, Dana Thomas points to the example of the “secretary special”: an “off-the-peg ready-to-wear collection for the middle market” from the height of The Depression. That suit cost $19.99. Today, a similar suit/outfit/dress costs the same amount at Zara or H&M.

“Is anything else we buy today the same price as it was at the height of the Depression?” Thomas asks. “Of course not. Is anything we’re buying today the same price it was in 1928 before the crash? Of course it’s not. Eggs were, let’s say, 20 cents and now they’re $3. A pound of ground beef was less than 30 cents. Everything’s gone up 100 times but we’re still paying the same price for ready-to-wear, off-the-peg “secretary specials.” That for me was clarifying, no matter what the book was going to be about. How did we get to that point where we’re still paying the same price as we were during the Depression?”

The cost of that $19.99 dress, as Thomas outlines in her book, is truly horrendous working conditions for other women — and massive ecological impact. But we’re removed from the conditions that produce it, the living conditions that result from it, and the realities of the waste it produces. All we see is a deal.

All we see with an Uber is convenience. All we see with a cheap yoga class is the ability to spend money on other things. None of this is discount what rideshare has made better, or mainstream yoga affords in terms of access. But there’s a disconnect between things that we value and our willingness to pay what they actually cost — what those conveniences, that “affordability,” does to the actual humans who provide them. (As for the argument that we shouldn’t enact any policy that will eliminate jobs, that’s a shitty argument that just protects and perpetuates the paradigm of shitty jobs. The glorious thing about raising standards, especially in large industries or in states as massive as California, is that it often has the effect of raising standards across the board).

Someone on Twitter suggested affixing services with the equivalent of the newly-mandated restaurant calorie count: this is the lived employment reality of the person serving you, this is what this particular service does to the environment. That feels blunt but appropriate, given how effective capitalism is at cloaking the means, conditions, and realities of production. If that’s not going to happen, we can still be vigilant about it in our own lives: tipping is a good stop-gap, but choosing to buy / patronize companies that work to treat themselves and the natural world ethically, even if it might cost more, is even better. Same for voting and advocating for politicians and policies that do the same.

That doesn’t mean that only rich people can act this way. It means that each of us can make mindful decisions given the options available to us. Adding stability to someone else’s life has ripple effects — and those ripples will accumulate, however gradually, and return, in some way, to you.

If you’re actually serious about treating burnout — yours, your partners, your future children’s — you have to be serious about treating it for people you might not even know. If you want to actually make life better, more livable, less of a slog for yourself, that involves making it better for a whole lot of other people as well. For that, you don’t need a self-help book with an asterisk in the title to blunt the profanity. You don’t need a better organizational app. You just need to legitimately and actionably care about other people.

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