This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. The reading and research process for a “big idea” book like the one Charlie and I are writing on working from home
I'm finding this (along with your wonderful book which I'm almost done with!) so interesting because it's completely shifted my perspective on my unhappiness at work. This is the first healthy job I've had -- good boundaries, flexible, absurdly good benefits, generous pay, clear and frequent feedback, clear paths to advancement but the option to stay where you are and continue getting raises if you want, supportive management. But even with all that... it still feels exhausting and pointless and soul-sucking. And the idea that actually, maybe that is just a condition of capitalism and office life as they're currently designed... and not necessarily just me being ungrateful or precious... it's been a rollercoaster. I feel like I'm slowly starting to think of myself as part of a collective whole for the first time.
Loved this. I think someone at The Atlantic (maybe? maybe WaPo?) wrote a piece on this subject sometime in the last year looking at why journalists didn't support typesetters and so on when they were unionizing and what the long-lasting effects of that were on their relationships. While reading this and those incredible quotes, all I could keep thinking was "identity." Identity, how we see ourselves, is at the core of so much of how we behave, what we work for, and what we fail at.
This is so great, thank you! While reading it, I kept thinking about Steinbeck's essay "A Primer on the '30s" in America and Americans, when he talks about the various political identities of people he knew while living on the California central coast at the time.
He's often misquoted as saying that Americans are temporarily embarrassed millionaires; instead, he wrote that "the trouble was that we didn't have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist." The larger point he's making, as I've always understood it, is that, whatever their professed political ideology (including devout communists), almost everyone he encountered was really looking out for their own advancement. Essentially, everyone thinks they're the boss – they just have to get there, and their political ideology is just a tool for that.
I often think about this in the sense of why some people want lower taxes on the rich even if they're not rich: because they believe they will be one day. Which all goes back to that question of identity, as another commenter noted.
But your point about how this attitude has been weaponized in the white-collar workplace is really interesting, and one that rings true to my own experience working in media companies. I guess the question is, can that scarcity mentality ultimately be turned into one of solidarity? Are unions enough? Or are we simply relying on using everyone's self-interest to make things better for a larger group? (Do we essentially have to reverse-HR white-collar workers?)
Thank you, again, for all your great work!
This is interesting and office jobs have gotten worse with COVID. I haven't had an office for 8 months so even the 15 min coffee breaks and free lunch hours are gone. There is no bonding time...
I'm an audit manager in a Big 5 accounting firm and the highlights of my job are gone. I like mentoring staff, taking the teams out for lunch, or dropping off care packages to them when they're stuck in a board room and I've come in for the day to meet with management. I even miss the looks from across the office from a fellow manager that mean ”I need to bitch over coffee now.”
It's leading to less motivation, and more dissatisfaction because companies can't cope with this new way of working. The difference with my field is, we have no risk of mass lay-offs, everyone has been working overtime since February, but we will will hemorrhage staff in 2021 because of it.
Accounting firms need unions to force better wages amongst staff, and reduce workloads. The regulatory requirements we face are such that we can not physically get through the work we need to on 45 hours a week. Hiring is hard because wages and hours are shit which creates a cycle of burned put employees, high turnover and poor quality.
I work in the nonprofit industry and think about this a lot. There is a particular kind of toxic soul-sucking and exploitation that happens anywhere that is "mission-driven". How many of us have been denied raises (or you know, livable wages to begin with) in dedication to the higher cause? We are expected to give our time and dedication to the work and not complain because what we do MATTERS. But it leads to serious burn-out and an industry that has a hard time keeping talented people. It is doubly challenging because if I want to unionize with my colleagues and say, demand any paid parental leave, there will be a push back because every cent we get should go to the people we serve.
I really enjoyed this - as a communications professional who has dabbled with internal comms for an extremely large company, I'd appreciate you exploring more the dichotomy/ reality that "HR is there to protect the company rather than the community" - i.e. its actual people. This is at play in the larger multi-conglomerate entities than say a coffee shop, but I know your observations and critiques of it would resonate.
Also one petty gripe: your links this week have more-than-usual paywalls/article limits. : (
More free, please! (Laugh cry laugh).
Thanks for highlighting Mills (1951). It's interesting to think that 2 years earlier Arthur Miller wrote "Death of a Salesman."
Two things: 1) Have you seen "Clockwatchers"? It's a really great reflection of women as temp office workers that doesn't necessarily center on sexual harrassment/sexual politics (although I would argue that the gendered nature of temp work is definitely a subtext) --- it stars Toni Collette, Lisa Kudrow, and Parker Posey and dives into the soul-killing loneliness of the office temp. I was an office temp my first year out of my Master's degree program and I swear I could have written the damn thing. It felt so accurate --- the first scene: Toni Collette is called in as an office temp and is told by HR/Receptionist (I forget which) to "Take a seat and someone will be with you." Meanwhile, hours pass while the office buzzes around her, she is completely forgotten. It's just....whoof...
Also, 2) I've been watching "The Office" on a continuous loop (mostly late at night to get to sleep by) since the pandemic started and I can't quite ferret out why? I am an adjunct, a literal "freeway flyer", and left office work years ago --- so, it's not a pandemic response to familiarity. And, I have to say, I resisted watching "The Office" for years because my initial reaction to clips/advertisements for the series was that it looked mean-spirited. I hate "mean" comedy that really serves a kind of reflexive sadistic joy in watching people be humiliated, abused, or degraded (or made abject) -- which is kind of where a lot of comedy goes. And, "The Office" IS actually meanspirited --- the classist/sexist way that Meredith is treated or the abuse that Toby takes or the amount of fat-shaming that is directed Kevin, Phyllis, and Stanley or the way they humanize the mediocrity and absurdity that is Michael. But, the first scene of each episode often opens on Pam's receptionist desk where she has her head tucked down and is working on something or answering phones ----- and if you think of it as Pam's story rather than Michael's it takes on a different tone. You start to see Pam as immersed in all of the things you write about above --- the yearning to be something more but unable to leave the security that is the low salaried job that she has --- the ways in which she compromises then tries something new, but then keeps coming back to the safety of reception/office work. Anyway.....
I'm a clerical worker in the almighty Teamsters union. I have been in a mandatory union for almost all of my career. To put it bluntly, while I want to be all GO UNION! UNIONS ARE AWESOME, mine has.... not been At all. I will say that they have managed to negotiate cost of living raises every few years and that's been the greatest success they've had. However: the management of my local union has just been pretty terrible. My most pro-union friend who used to love the union got fed up and quit.
And a few years ago, someone tried to get me fired for something I didn't do. My supervisor (knowing darned well I didn't do it) warned me to contact the union. I tried. I at first got no response. I knew someone slightly who turned out to be a shop steward and my previously pro-union friend got us connected and she went to the meeting with me. I did get a phone call from the union leader here and she was literally MY BEST FRIEND for an hour.... and then decided not to go to my meeting, and was never heard from again. I wasn't fired (no evidence that I did it, but nobody supported my innocence either) but still got penalized anyway.
Another coworker of mine did get fired. I don't know all the details of it, but I do know she was very pro-union and worked heavily with them to save her job, and management did whatever they could to make sure the union rep couldn't come and whatnot.
I get it, unions are great. But mine has .... well, I have absolutely no hope or faith that mine would support me if I need them again, which I probably will. Unions won't save you. Nobody will save you but you, and if you can't save you....then too bad for you.
We're all on our own.
Thank you for this! Very timely for me as I just started a customer service job with a major health insurance carrier that is a bargaining unit position with the UAW. When I accepted the position, one of my first thoughts was how excited I was to tell AHP!
The job I left was essentially the same customer service job at a large hospital system. I only stayed 6 months. Currently and as I start this new role, I want to parse out the differences between the two jobs and why the job I left was so miserable, why it felt like I was just a body in a chair and why this new job seems so promising and feels like they are really investing in me. And the role the union plays in that difference. I will keep you updated!!
There’s interesting parallels to nursing history here, I think. Obviously, nurses don’t work in offices. But nursing is very much the story of how the profession's white, middle-class leadership aimed to make nursing into a skilled profession that had nothing to do with the trade union movement, at the cost of establishing true solidarity among all nurses. These leaders regarded trade unionism as crassly focused on salaries and strikes, to the detriment of the patient and/or the “nurse’s vocation”— even though many rank-and-file, working-class nurses did in fact belong to trade unions— and instead focused on bringing nursing into the university and creating managerial career pathways for the best and brightest. Essentially, they sought to ape the forms of medicine (scientific, degree based, professional) but were unable or unwilling to challenge the patriarchal logic that placed doctors above nurses in the hospital hierarchy in the first place.
The nursing historian Susan Reverby even makes a very similar point to Mills re: white collar workers and trade unions: nurses were so divided by class, she writes, that they were never able to find collective solidarity on the basis of their gender (other historians have added that race was another dividing line)
At any rate, thanks for this fascinating piece— will have to check out the Mills book!