The Great Slack

How Underemployment Will Define the 21st Century

Philip Dhingra
Feb 20 · 5 min read
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Scene from Office Space (1999)

Wouldn’t it make sense to celebrate unemployment instead of wringing our hands about job loss numbers? It’s a counterintuitive and possibly offensive thought, but only because of our collective misunderstanding about the true nature of work in America.

Who is actually working in America?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likes to bring up the single mom working two jobs. The narrative seems to work considering that the congresswoman became a rising star in the Democratic party overnight. However, the numbers show that less than five percent of Americans hold two jobs.

This iconic single mother makes sense in the context of Ocasio-Cortez’s district in Queens, where the median home cost is $600K, but the average household income is $69K. Furthermore, in our imagination, this single mother is most likely an immigrant. But immigrants tend to land in the most hardscrabble corners of America because that’s where they can connect with other fresh-start immigrants. Ocasio-Cortez’s story doesn’t represent America because it combines the extreme of living in a working-class neighborhood of the most crowded city in America with the extreme of the immigrant struggle.

The opposite vision of mass underemployment is the more accurate story of work in America. People are working a lot less than they ever did before. The largest sector of underemployment is the salaried office worker. According to one study, the average office worker is productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes per day. Even though the researchers studied the United Kingdom, the observation checks out from other people and my experience in the US. Even 3 hours seems like a lot. The goal at work is to pretend like you’re busy rather than getting things done, much like the characters do in The Office.

The working classes also have their analog of “hardly working.” Consider all the military bases around the world that aren’t being used, or consider the countless security guards patrolling office parks. I have two cousins stationed overseas, and I have a friend who is a comic book artist by day and a security guard by night. None of them are firing on all cylinders.

And now we have a third category, the gig workers. While the Uber driver or DoorDash delivery person looks busy and eager when you hire them, they work an average of fewer than 10 hours per week. These workers do not appear in traditional employment stats. Instead, the numbers show them as “no longer looking for work.”

Lastly, we have the odds-and-ends workers, such as the family gopher who does errands for an allowance. A majority of Millenials live with their parents, and many of them supplement their income by picking up a few shifts as babysitters or tutors. Again, these people are “no longer looking for work.”

However, the story of Ocasio-Cortez’s single mother is an important one. We feel that most Americans are struggling. But one can both be struggling and hardly working.

“How dare you say that hardly anybody works”

The reason for the gap between rhetoric and reality is simple: talking about slack is taboo. If you were to raise your hand at the next meeting and say, “I would like to mention that we’re not working hard enough,” you’d immediately become the most hated person at the company. This taboo extends to the national conversation. Could you imagine the headline on the news, “Americans aren’t working hard enough”? “How dare you!” the viewers would yell.

As long as someone somewhere is working hard, nobody wants to call out the legion who aren’t. Not only is the immigrant single mother working her tail off, so are the soccer moms and lacrosse moms striving to get their kids into elite schools. So are the doctors and lawyers who’ve never missed a beat after finishing med school or law school. And so is the ultimate American hero: the entrepreneur.

Elon Musk is the CEO of two companies, Tesla and SpaceX, and the founder of three others. Donald Trump once hailed Musk as “one of our great geniuses.” If the Republican ideal is the immigrant entrepreneur, and if the Democrat ideal is the single immigrant mother with two jobs, they’re still both sides of the same coin: an unrealistic image of an American working to the bone.

Neither popular conception represents the silent majority of Americans who are content to play Candy Crush or surf Facebook while their boss is not looking. We are all quiet because we’re ashamed. If we can’t fill our hours with productive work or can’t make ends meet, it must be our fault.

The redefinition of work is already underway

Even if Americans aren’t aware of the great transition away from work, there is early evidence that the train has already left the station.

Harvard Professor Michael Sandel is currently on a book tour laying out a critique of meritocracy. He argues that if you build a culture around the idea that successful people somehow deserve their wealth, then it’s all the more humiliating to those who aren’t successful.

The boundaries of political conversation are changing alongside the academic one. In the last two election cycles, low-income white people went from being unmentionable to becoming a part of ordinary discourse to now a subject of great sympathy. Underemployment is not just something that happens to some other group of bad, lazy people. It now affects all walks of life.

The pandemic has seen the automatic and unironic acceptance of not one but three stimulus checks. Such handouts weren’t a serious part of the conversation during the 2008 recession. Today, the checks are so popular that Americans are increasingly in favor of permanent stimulus, also known as universal basic income.

But a small portion of Americans aren’t just talking about the Great Slack. They’ve internalized it. Look no further than the so-called digital nomads who affectionately call periods between jobs as “funemployment.” For this group, Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Work Week wasn’t just aspirational but an actual blueprint for a way of life.

Or consider the people living out extended childhoods while on perpetual world tours of music festivals. These 24/7 party people are fulfilling Woodstock’s promise, which is to build a life centered on pure experiences.

Should any of this be disturbing? Should we try to put the genie of underemployment back in the bottle and “get back to work” once the pandemic is over? Why not embrace it? The sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once said, “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.” Maybe by letting go of our obsession with employment statistics, we can get to the real point of the conversation, which is to figure out how to have a meaningful life that exists beyond a paycheck.


Complete essays from Philosophistry: The Love of Rhetoric

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