The Rage of the Career Defenders

'You are 100% dispensable.'

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Two weeks ago, I published a piece entitled “What If People Don’t Want 'A Career?” It was roughly three times as popular as anything I’ve ever written for Galaxy Brain, which was a surprise. What wasn’t a surprise was how the reaction was violently split between people who felt the piece spoke to something they’d felt and hadn’t seen articulated and those who saw career skeptics as entitled, coddled complainers looking for handouts and, in the process, sullying the American work ethic for good.

Again, I expected some of that. The career skepticism movement — honestly, it probably hasn’t even reached movement status yet, it’s merely a loose conglomeration of people who are burned out and wary of investing in a system that feels overly precarious and owes them nothing — is a potential threat to the status quo and a critique of most systems of management. It is psychologically painful when a younger generation comes along, points out flaws in a system/set of rituals you were forced to tolerate, and then opts not to participate.

I tried to prepare for this objection, noting that career skeptics do, generally, want to work (“for places that see them as three-dimensional human beings and that actually invest in them and their futures without expecting workers to sacrifice everything”). But, alas. People got mad online. Within a few hours, my comments section went from about a dozen or so people having a productive back and forth to a veritable disaster. Around 450 comments in, I turned off the discussion (this was around the time somebody commented on the post with the display name “Guy above sure is a Moron”).

I’m not usually one to linger on the angry parts of the comments section, but I think the rage expressed in some of these responses is instructive — if only to truly understand the extent of the callousness currently baked into American work culture.

Here is an excerpt of an email I received (you can read all of it here but it was long) in response to the piece (emphasis mine):

We live in a competitive society requiring individuals to distinguish themselves from the “pack” in order to be successful. If one is content to be average or ordinary, feel free to show up at your desk at 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m.; make sure you take your 60 minutes – not 55 or 65 – for lunch; be sure not to volunteer doing something beyond what you were hired to do; be sure to get good at copying and pasting instead of writing creatively and thoughtfully;  be sure to do the bare minimum to collect your paycheck.  Believe that you are entitled to a raise this year, even if you are no better at your job than you were last year. 

Follow these “be sures,” and you too will have earned a life of mediocrity, at best.  Hey, it’s okay to be average; most people are. Once in a while, remember to look over your shoulder and you will see the next applicant who would love your job.  Know that if you are average, you are 100% dispensable. 

Most of the above is merely chest clearing for the last line, which is some solid “quiet part out loud” material. 100 percent dispensable. I realize the emailer is trying to make a point to be especially trolly and take the posture of a no bullshit hard ass. But this idea of dispensability is really core to both contemporary capitalism and contemporary American work culture. Dog Eat Dog. Kill Or Be Killed. Competition. Big Explosive Wanking Motion.

Even if you agree that a modicum of precarity and/or performative competition is a good motivator for workers and innovation, it’s worth stepping back and thinking about the deep inhumanity of that emailer’s argument. In addition to emailing me directly, this person also commented on the piece, where they noted that there is nothing wrong with an average work ethic (aka, a life not monomaniacally focused on one’s job). But that attitude comes with a cost, and that cost is total expendability. The overarching thesis: in exchange for security, a “good” worker must subsume most parts of themselves outside of their devotion to labor.

There’s a cruelty to the “100 percent dispensable” line that reminds me of the premise of a recent column by Ezra Klein. “The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it,” Klein writes. “Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages.”

The piece is mostly not focused on knowledge work and I’m not trying to compare the indignities, outrages, and dangers of many low wage jobs to those of many office workers, but the ‘America runs on the threat of’ frame is helpful. Most knowledge work runs on the threat of your career being derailed by not giving enough of yourself to it.

Klein argues that our politics reveals a clear choice that we’re making as a country: in his words, “it is rising worker power, not continued poverty, that we treat as intolerable.” With the caveat that the situations are not perfectly or morally equivalent, this is generally how I see responses to criticisms of modern knowledge work culture. We treat the rise of worker power, not the encroachment of work into every area of our lives, as intolerable.

Here’s another bit from that reader email (again, emphasis mine):

Younger “average” people today are in for a spectacularly rude awakening.  They have expectations of a work/life balance. Here it is: first you work your ass off, then you’ll have a life.  Stop bitching about what your boss doesn’t do for you, and start performing at an above average level. You want a raise? Earn it … Take the initiative and THEN you have earned the right to ask for, and get, a raise or promotion (or maybe both). If your boss fails to recognize above average performance, find one that does. 

This was another theme running through the comments: the idea that, when we don't like the work we're doing, we are free to change jobs or careers. When our plans don't align with our employer's expectations, we are free to find other opportunities. That argument makes sense on the surface but, especially for the part of the workforce that graduated into and directly after the financial crisis, that kind of freedom and flexibility is a true luxury. The entire point of career skepticism is the notion that the erosion of pensions and worker benefits have created a system where workers rarely have leverage in the workplace.

These ‘you are free to leave and find a better job’ emails I got almost entirely came men who were late into their own careers. Many had email signatures indicating they owned their own small business; the rest included as much in their preamble. They all cited their own hard work; many mentioned leaving their own dead-end jobs 20 or even 30 years ago and bootstrapping their way to success. To put it plainly, their career advice is rooted on a version of the knowledge work economy that no longer exists. These people classify themselves as entrepreneurs (and they are) but they’re also managers, a group that would be most threatened by increased power in the work force.

While the older, small business owners were legion, the angriest people appeared to identify not as management but as regular workers. I will spare you the examples (including the few errant death threats), but you can peruse the comments section if you’d like. The commonality: they were also late in their careers. Here’s one of the less scream-y commenters:

I am, like you, towards the end of my "career" but here's the thing we are just working hard. There is not now nor was there ever a safety net. This is America. Corporations run the congress and they just want cheap labor - hasn't changed since Reagan killed the unions for better or worse. I don't get why anyone thinks there ever was a safety net or cushy job.

The gist is a familiar one. We worked hard. Everyone works hard. Stop complaining, you’re not special. In these comments, you could see the true frustration. These individuals did not feel threatened, they felt insulted. One of my commenters summed it up this way:

And they should feel insulted. After all, they have spent the majority of the waking hours of their adult lives doing something they did not particularly want to do, and are irate at the thought that maybe, possibly, others may not want, and, GASP, eventually may not even NEED, to do the same as they. Because, perhaps, they look at the silver in their own hair, the lines around their eyes, growing deeper down their cheeks, feel a pain in their lower back that wasn't there the day before, and wonder, quietly, if they've been had.

Whatever you think of this description, it feels directionally true. A meaningful part of the resistance to changing how we work has come and will continue to come from those who suffered from the old way of doing things. The reaction reminds me a bit of a previous newsletter I wrote about vaccine hesitancy. In the piece, sociologist Brooke Harrington argued that vaccine resisters were a classic example of a mark — and legitimate victims of a con. She said that, after realizing they’ve been conned, they double down and act as if they’ve been in on the scheme from the beginning “as a way to save face and avoid the “social death” and the humiliation that would accompany confronting the ways in which their belief system had failed them.”

Again, the parallels aren’t exact, but the dynamics are similar. In the case of the angry late career workers, they are right to be mad. The system did fail some of them. At the very least, it abused a number of them. Many workers have eaten a lot of shit and some of them have risen above all the crap and made something out of their career that they are proud of. But even those folks share something in common with the people who struggled: hearing that you’ve been playing a rigged game can bring about feelings of shame. We can, however, break this cycle by admitting the flaws in the current system.

Before the comments section went to hell, a more reasonable reader offered this line in their larger critical review of the piece: "An employer only owes an employee two things: a safe working environment and the agreed-upon wages at or above the legal minimum."

In terms of the status quo, he’s right. But what I'm arguing is that this is an unnecessarily cold way to approach our work lives. It is absolutely the way that the working world has treated employees for years, accelerating alongside the general erosion of worker protections and benefits. But why, exactly, should our culture aspire to such a calculating and extractive means of employer/employee relations? What if employers and even late career employees choose to imagine something better? That’s the real point of the last piece’s argument — that there is a choice here. It’s a choice that so many people make every day. And it’s telling that simply pointing this out causes such deep defensiveness.

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