Young people really love work — or love to pretend they do
Never once at the start of my workweek — not in my coffee shop line, not on my crowded subway ride, not as I begin my bottomless in-box slog — have I paused, looked to the heavens and whispered: #ThankGodIt’sMonday.
Apparently, that makes me a traitor to my generation. I learned this during a series of recent visits to WeWork locations in New York, where the throw pillows implore busy tenants to “Do what you love.” Neon signs demand they “Hustle harder,” and murals spread the gospel of TGIM. Even the cucumbers in WeWork’s water coolers have an agenda. “Don’t stop when you’re tired,” someone recently carved into the floating vegetables’ flesh. “Stop when you are done.” Kool-Aid drinking metaphors are rarely this literal.
Welcome to hustle culture. It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor and, once you notice it, impossible to escape. “Rise and Grind” is both the theme of a Nike ad campaign and the title of a book by a “Shark Tank” shark. New-media upstarts like the Hustle, which produces a popular business newsletter and conference series, and One37pm, a content company created by
the patron saint of hustling, Gary Vaynerchuk, glorify ambition not as a means to an end but as a lifestyle.
Ryan Harwood, the CEO of One37pm’s parent company, said the site’s content is aimed at younger people who are seeking permission to follow their dreams. “They want to know how to own their moment, at any given moment.”
“Owning one’s moment” is a clever way to rebrand “surviving the rat race.” In the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers. Why else would LinkedIn build its own version of Snapchat Stories?
This is toil glamour, and it is going mainstream. Most visibly, WeWork, which investors recently valued at $47 billion, is on its way to becoming the Starbucks of office culture. It has exported its brand of performative workaholism to 27 countries, with 400,000 tenants, including workers from 30 percent of the Global Fortune 500.
It’s not difficult to view hustle culture as a swindle. After all, persuading a generation of workers to beaver away is convenient for those at the top.
“The vast majority of people beating the drums of hustlemania are not the people doing the actual work,” said David Heinemeier Hansson, the cofounder of Basecamp, a software company. “They’re the managers, financiers and owners.” We spoke in October, as he was promoting his new book, “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work,” about creating healthy company cultures.
Heinemeier Hansson said that despite data showing long hours improve neither productivity nor creativity, myths about overwork persist because they justify the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite techies. “It’s grim and exploitative,” he said.
Elon Musk, who stands to reap stock compensation upward of $50 billion if his company, Tesla, meets certain performance levels, is a prime example of extolling work by the many that will primarily benefit him. He tweeted in November that there are easier places to work than Tesla, “but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”
Musk, who has more than 24 million Twitter followers, further noted that if you love what you do, “it (mostly) doesn’t feel like work.” Even he had to soften the lie of TGIM with a parenthetical.
Jonathan Crawford, a San Francisco entrepreneur, told me that he sacrificed his relationships and gained more than 40 pounds while working on Storenvy, his e-commerce startup. If he socialized, it was at a networking event. If he read, it was a business book.
Crawford changed his lifestyle after he realized it made him miserable. Now, as an entrepreneur-in-residence at 500 Startups, an investment firm, he tells fellow founders to seek out non-work-related activities like reading fiction, watching movies or playing games. “It’s oddly eye-opening to them because they didn’t realize they saw themselves as a resource to be expended,” Crawford said.
Internet companies may have miscalculated in encouraging employees to equate their work with their intrinsic value as human beings. After a long era of basking in positive esteem, the tech industry is experiencing a backlash both broad and fierce, on subjects from monopolistic behavior to spreading disinformation and inciting racial violence. And workers are discovering how much power they wield. In November, some 20,000 Googlers participated in a walkout protesting the company’s handling of sexual abusers. Other company employees shut down an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon that could have helped military drones become more lethal.
Heinemeier Hansson cited the employee protests as evidence that Millennial workers would eventually revolt against the culture of overwork. “People aren’t going to stand for this,” he said, using an expletive, “or buy the propaganda that eternal bliss lies at monitoring your own bathroom breaks.” He was referring to an interview that Marissa Mayer, the former chief executive of Yahoo, gave in 2016, in which she said that working 130 hours a week was possible “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower and how often you go to the bathroom.”
Mayer’s comments were widely panned on social media when the interview ran, but since then, Quora users have eagerly shared their own strategies for mimicking her schedule. Likewise, Musk’s “pain level” tweets drew plenty of critical takes, but they also garnered just as many accolades and requests for jobs.
The grim reality of 2019 is that begging a billionaire for employment via Twitter is not considered embarrassing but a perfectly plausible way to get ahead. On some level, you have to respect the hustlers who see a dismal system and understand that success in it requires total, shameless buy-in. If we’re doomed to toil away until we die, we may as well pretend to like it. Even on Mondays.