Does the Breakdown of the American Marriage Signal Something More Sinister?
I really struggled to keep a relationship going at my last startup, as did everyone else. No one got into a new relationship that lasted longer than a few months, but several people got out of old ones (including one divorce) that had been going on a long time. Could have been the work hours, could have been the stress, not sure.
One day, when my work lightened up for half an hour or so and I had a minute to think — I thought, this is it. This is what I’m giving up relationships for. This is what I’m giving up children for, this right here. And it was a horrible thing to realize, because I was miserable. Instead of pursuing things that might have made me happy and improved my life in deeply meaningful ways, I had decided to work long hours at a job that I hated.
How did I get there?
It took about another 6 months, but I did quit that job eventually. Then about a year after I left, they went out of business, and that year of hard, miserable work was absorbed back into the aether. (Pro tip for startups: if you make your working conditions miserable, only people who don’t think they can get a better job will stay in the long term. And your top engineering talent is probably being recruited all the time, so they won’t think that.)
But, startups aren’t the interesting part of this. The interesting part is, why did I spend so long giving up things I loved to keep working a job I hated? And, we can say options! or big payout! and that was part of it, for sure. I was hoping for the big payout. But it went deeper than that; I believed my worth was connected with how much I produced. I believed that being an engineer made me valuable in a way that being someone’s girlfriend or being a mother wouldn’t. Suffice it to say, I now believe I was deeply misguided, but it’s what I thought. Part of me believed I was “better” than women who were “just” homemakers or moms, and I lost a decade of my life to that belief.
And I’m not the only one. How do we motivate people to do miserable things they don’t want to do? How do we convince people to pour decades of their work into things that are not helping them achieve the goals that would bring them deep happiness? We tell them that they’re better in some non-definable way. We humiliate people who don’t play by the rules, aka, people who don’t earn enough money. Money has become more than just having the means for life; it has become a way of demonstrating your superiority to those around you. This is why people with millions of dollars work their ass off to make millions more; not because they need more things, but because they think twice as much money will make them twice as good. Twice as valuable.
Then, once they’re “good” enough, it’s presumed that everything will fall into place — marriage, children, etc. Except, it’s a bit of a lie. If you have kids at 45 vs 25, that’s 20 years of time you don’t get to spend with your children. If you kids copy your example, that’s 40 years you don’t get to spend with your grandchildren, which could easily be the difference between ever meeting them or not. This realization hit me a bit earlier than it tends to hit men because, absent invasive technology, I probably can’t have kids at 45. For me, it becomes about even being able to have kids at all. And I know I exist in an extreme area of society, aka the tech sector, but it’s also an area that’s rapidly expanding. It’s an area that has a shit ton of money in a time when people need money, so I expect these forces will intensify over time.
The book 1984 (shot from the movie at the top) imagined a world where people would be indentured to government mind control, but in the US, it seems to have happened with corporate mind control. In 1984, the government convinces its citizens to believe things are their exact opposite: “War is Peace”, “Slavery is Freedom”, and “Ignorance is Strength” are the three slogans of the controlling party. Slavery is Freedom especially rings true for me in the tech world. Somehow, people working 70 hour weeks and sacrificing their happiness and personal life for the goals of their employers believe they are free. They believe they are the luckiest people in the USA, because they have the most money, and not because they need the money, but because they feel like having money increases their innate worth. If I was going to rewrite the slogans for the tech industry, I might come up with this:
Slavery is Freedom. Money is Virtue. Suffering is Joy.
That last one came up because, not only was I expected to put in 70 hour weeks at the office, I was expected to enjoy it. I was regularly taken to task for having a bad attitude; I was even fired over it once (and, from then after, I learned how to pretend to be having a good time with mixed results.) My fellow workers would regularly not use all their vacation time, and when questioned on it at the office, they’d say things like “there’s not really anything else I’d rather be doing. If I took time off of work, I’d just be bored.”
THIS IS THE BEST GUYS! ISN’T WORKING HERE THE BEST!? THIS IS LITERALLY THE PEAK OF HUMAN EXISTENCE. IT’S LIKE I’M HAVING TEN THOUSAND SIMULTANEOUS ORGASMS RIGHT NOW!
I’m probably too honest for my own good, but instead of agreeing, I was like “what!? Are you guys joking? I can think of a thousand places I’d rather be than here.” I mean, how do people even say they have nowhere better to be than work with a straight face?
You could be fucking, you could doing coke of a stripper (male stripper, cuz I’m a feminist,) you could be dancing. You could be going for a walk in the park, or doing yoga, or getting a massage.
Or, you could *literally* be doing nothing, because doing what you’re told all day isn’t actually fun, it is actually *less fun* than not doing anything. But, most of us spend so long doing what other people tell us to do ALL DAY EVERY DAY that we forget that. If you can’t think of something to do with your vacation, at least take it to sit at home and watch TV. But, most people feel guilty when they do that, so it ruins it for them.
The voice of the authoritative “other” has been planted in our head, and thats ultimately what controls us. That is the point of school, by the way, and education. It’s less about imparting knowledge, and more about filling your head with societal doctrine so you will produce for your employer without seeing through the bullshit of the system (if you want to read the specifics about how this is done, I recommend the book Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt.) It’s where the guilt of non-productivity comes from. It’s where the delusion that your value is what you produce, as measured by money comes from. But it’s lies, all lies, that they put inside us so we’ll work for them. It’s lies they put inside us so we won’t find creative solutions that will help us achieve the goals we personally want. We become brainwashed to believe that the goals that our superiors want are the goals we want for ourselves so that we wouldn’t even know how to start if we wanted to improve our personal lives.
And, I think marriage is the canary in the coal mine. Fewer people are getting married than ever before, and there are a bunch of divorces, and etc. I personally don’t really believe in marriage, so I never really had a problem with that, but I think that most Americans do believe in marriage. I think most Americans want to get married, and they don’t want their marriages to end in divorce. This trend toward less productive marriages, I believe, is indicative of a cultural shift where people are less able to get what they want in their personal lives because of the demands of their professional lives. Most of the male engineers I’ve worked with, for instance, tended toward being single because they worked too long to date. And, even if they did date, sometimes they came across as “weird” because they had cultivated a social self that was suited towards being an ideal employee and not an ideal mate.
Or, on the other hand, a small subset did seem to become obsessed with having casual relationships with as many people as possible (this Vanity Fair piece on Silicon Valley sex parties kind of rang true for me) but not bonding with any one person (or more) in a way that would create obligations that might distract from their work life.
This trend towards the “self” developing as an “ideal employee” intensifies over your life as work becomes the major social force for a grownup. And, if you think about it, the ideal employee wouldn’t have a personal life. The ideal employee is probably a single, childfree workaholic and *what do you know* that’s exactly the type of person our society is producing more and more of. Ideally, they wouldn’t have too many distracting friends either, hey, check it out — the number of close friends people have is shrinking over time. The decline in marriage is, I believe, both a symptom of this, but also a cause of its acceleration.
As an analogy, consider the global ice caps. They are melting because of global warming, but as they melt, the reflective white ice and snow is replaced with darker rocks and vegetation, and more sunlight is absorbed. So, their melting also contributes to global warming, making them both a symptom and cause of global warming. (If this depresses you, scientists have found ways of re-freezing some of the ice, but it would not offset other aspects of global warming.) But anyway; similarly, I view declining marriage to be both a symptom and a cause of corporate mind control.
The book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power examines the methods that modern spiritual organizations — like religion, cults, and gurus — exert authoritarian control over their followers. In particular, how “gurus” tend to ensure the emotional fidelity of their followers seemed particularly relevant to modern tech life:
Gurus likewise do many things to ensure that their disciples’ prime emotional allegiance is toward them. In the realm of sexuality, the two prevalent ways control is exerted are through promulgating either celibacy or promiscuity. Although seemingly opposite, both serve the same function: they minimize the possibilities of people bonding deeply with each other, thus reducing factors that compete with the guru for attention.
By preventing deep emotional bonding with other humans, gurus make sure that followers get their emotional needs met from the guru himself, or the associated cult. Similarly, by preventing their employees from bonding deeply with people outside the company (I suspect this is implicit, btw, not that the people in power consciously try to create these conditions) companies ensure that their employees wellbeing is wrapped up with staying at the company. An emotional dependence as well as a financial dependence ensues. However, for obvious reasons, there are many emotional needs a person may have that a corporation is not suited to meet. This emotional dependence is all the more intense given we are living in a time of community breakdown, either through gentrification in the cities or ghost towns in more rural areas. The only consistent support structure a person is likely to find nowadays is their employer and this support will depend on their employability.
While community, and spouses, do tend to cramp down on people’s emotional freedom, a large employer is likely worse for your freedom than either. This is because, often the people making decisions about your wellbeing do not have to interact with you in person. They do not have to witness your sadness, or have any knowledge of your personal goals, so the constraints of exploitation normally imposed by human sentimentality break down. Your employer is free to demand what it wants from you, absent any mitigating checks and balances. So, to maintain the emotional support provided by your company, you are likely to have to work harder at less pleasant tasks than you would to get support from your spouse or community, because bearing witness to your suffering is something your employer will not do.
We think of ourselves as living in a time of great freedom, and when it comes to things like information and mobility, I agree we have great freedom. However, when it comes to the freedom for an individual to “spend each day pursing the tasks they’d like to pursue,” I’d argue we live in a time of less freedom than ever before. We live in a time where people tend to be underemployed and constantly worried about money, or over-employed with very little personal time. (Read about the leisure time paradox in the US right now.) It is difficult to hit a balance, and indeed, we are encouraged not to.
To break out of this cycle, we will need to get our emotional needs met outside of our work lives. A spouse could provide that, but it’s not the only option. For me personally, I think that the emotional support I got from the Zen center, and my Zen teacher specifically, gave me a lot of what I needed to start building a happier life for myself. And, I haven’t got it all figured out, but I’m glad I’m not staring down another decade of workaholism. I don’t have nearly as much money as I used to, but a giant cloud of misery has been lifted from my life.