Welcome to Galaxy Brain -- a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture and big ideas. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. We're still figuring things out in our new home so let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org
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In two weeks, the book I co-wrote with my partner, Anne Helen Petersen, on the future of work comes out. Broadly, the gist of Out of Office is that it’s not really about where we work, but how we work. We argue that knowledge workers have been presented with a rare opportunity to do away with a lot of the performative, vestigial elements of our careers that exhaust us/burn us out/create toxic power imbalances and make us miserable. The book is a case for de-centering one’s job as the primary force and sense of meaning in one’s life.
Inevitably, most of the interviews we’ve done about our book have led to some version of the following questions: What can people do to cultivate a better sense of work/life balance? And: Do you really think it’s possible to reverse our all-consuming work obsession and embrace a healthy, flexible style of knowledge work?
The answer to both questions is: Yes, but.
Yes, it is entirely possible to transform the ways we work and to shift expectations around our jobs and careers. Our current dysfunctional relationship to work is not some natural state; it’s a culture we’ve forced on ourselves. My favorite bit of research from the book is a testimonial from a 19th-century English hosiery manufacturer, who wrote about how workers absolutely hated the constrictions of a newly industrialized environment:
I found the utmost distaste . . . on the part of the men, to any regular hours or regular habits . . . the men themselves were considerably dissatisfied, because they could not go in and out as they pleased, and have what holidays they pleased, and go on just as they had been used to do.
We’ve always bristled at the way work confines and restricts us. If we harness that fundamental yearning, change is possible! But. We can’t do it alone. This is why the question—What can people do to cultivate a better sense of work/life balance?—is so frustrating.
There are plenty of things a person can and must do to craft a healthy, flexible relationship to work. You can start by honestly assessing how much you work, and compare that to an honest assessment of how much work there really is to be done (for example, is some of that work performative?). You can then sort out which work is rigid and which is flexible and begin to craft routines around it. You can take a brutally honest look at what you value about your personal life and your job and find ways to bring that relationship into balance. Personally, this process has been really difficult and has included the revelations that I’ve been, at times: a shitty friend, an absent partner, so laser-focused on a narrow definition of career success that I barely even know what I like outside of being told I’m “doing a good job” at my job. If you’re honest and intentional, it’s a hard but ultimately rewarding exercise.
But it only goes so far. All the hard planning and self-inventorying and commitment to decentering work and cultivating a rich personal life means very little if you are trapped in a system that refuses to give you space, and actively rewards those who refuse to erect boundaries between their work and personal lives. You can crave balance in your life only to be caught in the vicious cycle of precarity that permeates American work culture. At-will employment, sparse benefits and worker protections, the valorization of productivity, the understanding that even a few weeks without health care could lead to financial ruin: They all lead us to perpetuate the system as a form of self-preservation. You become the person sending frantic late-night emails because you’re worried about looking productive; your work makes work for others; a culture of constant communication, busywork, and anxiety takes root.
That’s just one small example—I’m sure you could think of thousands. Hell, I just co-wrote a book on this topic, and here I am writing a newsletter on a Sunday afternoon instead of going on a hike with my friends because I feel the pull to get out as many editions of Galaxy Brain during The Atlantic’s free trial period for this newsletter. That’s because I want as many of you as possible to subscribe, so that the fine people who house this newsletter will feel good about letting me write it. I am a contract worker in this scenario, and while my employer couldn’t be more supportive and encouraging, I am naturally anxious about doing something to muck it up. So here I am, working on the weekend to talk about cultivating a healthy work relationship. Today, I am part of the problem.
Back to this question: Do you really think it’s possible to reverse our all-consuming work obsession and embrace a healthy, flexible style of knowledge work?
The answer is that we can start to move in that direction. Personally, we can make small choices that help ourselves and others around us. Different corporations can make a larger impact by changing the status quo and erecting guardrails (real barriers to work, like having hours where you can schedule but cannot send emails) and then enforcing them (legitimate penalties for breaking the email code). But those changes may not stick without the bigger, more institutional guardrails (unions, access to affordable health care that isn’t tied to employment, etc.). We will not develop a less toxic relationship to our jobs and careers if we feel that constant, all-consuming work is the only way to stave off an always-looming financial ruin. It is nearly impossible to put in the time to build a more equitable and community-minded system when the current system forces you into a hyper-individualistic mindset just to survive it.
(I want to be clear, here, that I’m not anti-work or against finding dignity or purpose in work. I’m talking about a specific relationship to work, one where people feel constantly overworked and underappreciated. And a system that rewards subsuming one’s identity to that of the job and company—demanding fealty and extracting all it can from workers, while offering an increasingly meager safety net for employees.)
The future of work, in other words, is dependent on forces outside the workplace. Because everything is connected.
Zeynep Tufekci’s New York Times column last week is a good example of what I’m talking about. She argues that the U.S.’s pandemic failures call for a “new public spirit” because individualized efforts will never be enough. She highlights her own experiences successfully navigating the pandemic: a patchwork of tests, filtration systems, masking and distancing strategies. Those strategies work, she argues, but only to a point. They aren’t tenable without the means to buy rapid tests or, say, an employer that takes virus mitigation seriously and prioritizes workplace safety. She then zooms out to talk about how various U.S. systems failed in the lead-up to and during the pandemic. She cites a dysfunctional medical system that “continues to disproportionately fail people from minority backgrounds; such shortcomings don’t help develop the necessary trust.” Of course, it’s not just the medical system; it’s the information environment and our broken political system and lobbying. It’s also the result of sclerotic institutions making poor decisions or not adapting to fast-changing pandemic data. So what do we do? Here’s Tufekci in her own words:
Fixing all this requires an interconnected effort that unleashes a virtuous cycle. Rebuilding the public health infrastructure and creating a sane, sensible health care system in which we don’t keep spending more than any other developed nation for poorer results will help restore trust and improve our lives. Fair taxation policies would reduce income inequality and generate resources to execute these measures. We can investigate what went wrong, with an eye to actually fixing it instead of simply finding scapegoats. Regulation and oversight can better align the incentives of social media platforms with that of a healthier public sphere. We’ve done that before with transformative technologies.
In other words, it’s a little bit of everything—the result of an outmoded system that is failing in dozens of ways. Each failure is building on the others and making them worse. Which means that an appropriate response to our pandemic failures has to take into account the myriad adjacent systems supporting public health.
I am not as well-versed in systems thinking as Tufekci, but this summer I enjoyed this short treatise, “How Complex Systems Fail.” I felt like there were little lessons embedded in every line. Here’s an example:
Complex systems run in degraded mode. A corollary to the preceding point is that complex systems run as broken systems. The system continues to function because it contains so many redundancies and because people can make it function, despite the presence of many flaws. After accident reviews nearly always note that the system has a history of prior ‘proto-accidents’ that nearly generated catastrophe. Arguments that these degraded conditions should have been recognized before the overt accident are usually predicated on naïve notions of system performance. System operations are dynamic, with components (organizational, human, technical) failing and being replaced continuously.
It feels like most of our systems are extra degraded in 2021. Despite their many flaws, many of these systems still mostly run, and so we convince ourselves that they work well enough. And then too many flaws pile up, or there’s a catastrophic event, like, say, a pandemic. A degraded health-care system actually breaks down. Its inequities lead to deaths, worker burnout, overloaded hospitals, COVID denial, and lack of access to care and good information.
American work culture has been running in degraded mode for so long that it’s now broken. Many of us know exactly the ways in which it is broken, but because so many of us have found a way to get by, we do the elaborate work of convincing ourselves the system works. We even valorize those who’ve managed to hack it, celebrating the hustlers and the grinders for their resilience and ingenuity, rather than question the flaws that force people to toil endlessly.
It is possible, though, for a vicious cycle to become a virtuous one. Tufekci uses the phrase “public spirit”; in our book, we dedicate a chapter to cultivating community and a collectivist ethos. It’s the same thing: a re-imagining of the broken system focused on the individual as one that focuses on a collective good. A taxation system, for example, that starts to narrow economic inequalities, instead of widening the gap. Or a health-care system that creates societal resilience and builds trust in public health, instead of alienating and excluding and fleecing millions. Or an economic model that doesn’t privilege people and companies who pursue growth at any cost.
Working toward this system feels, at times, almost foolishly naïve. But hopelessness is self-defeating. Because a public spirit, like any care network, weaves us into reliance on each other. Instead of ignoring suffering, we are encouraged to address it head-on. When we are, for example, not crushed by mounting job obligations and struggling to balance expensive child care, we unlock the necessary time and attention to cultivate our best and most generous selves. This, then, spurs us to deploy ourselves in service to others, in all kinds of generative ways. When we feel less vulnerable—less alone—we can begin to see the flaws in the system and how they’re all connected. Then, we can begin the hard work of building resilience.
That's it for today. If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy our book. And, good news: Bookshop is currently offering ten percent off it with the code OFFICE10. Pre-order, it really matters!