Unpacking the Millennial Work Ethic

Or, what Hannah Arendt can tell us about LinkedIn’s content problem

Image: zokara/Getty

We want our personal capacity to accumulate at a rate faster than everyone else, so we can remain competitive.

Given that I was receiving no extra money and there was no increase in authority or duties, it stung mildly to be congratulated. This was exacerbated by the fact that I had pushed back against a new title because I liked the old one. I’d done nothing, in fact, except lethargically resist a change I didn’t care much about. I was updating my profile because not doing it would raise more questions. I’d toggled every available setting to make sure this change would not push itself on my friends’ feeds—to no avail. Without my consent, the program decided to breathlessly share my vapid non-achievement with 300-odd connections and did so in a way that made it look like I had taken another important step toward my dream career. It was total bullshit.

Personal Accumulation and Bullshit

The vacuousness of LinkedIn got me thinking about Dardot and Laval’s notion of “personal accumulation”—or “personal optimization” as this piece puts it. They argue that we relate to ourselves now as a Marxian capitalist is assumed to relate to capital: We want our personal capacity to accumulate at a rate faster than everyone else, so we can remain competitive. In a “marketplace” so crowded by the terminally anxious, any activity that can be framed as an achievement should be. LinkedIn just automates that framing for you.

Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit Jobs is not Graeber’s best work (and I loved Debt: The First 5,000 Years). Its major primary source is a collection of self-reported examples of apparently pointless work, solicited through Graeber’s large Twitter following. The book does almost no work to address the complexity of using self-reported, self-selecting sources, despite the enormous interdisciplinary literature on such topics.

How do you know you’re having an impact when your only metric is a subjective, mobile, and fraught reading of other people?

Graeber’s justification for his uncritical acceptance of self-selecting respondents is that “if the preponderance of those engaged in a certain occupation privately believe their work is of no social value, one should proceed along the assumption they are right.” There’s no effort to address the contingent cultural (or even social) factors that might lead to a person thinking their job is pointless. I can think of quite a few such factors off the top of my head that might have been illuminating: class, education, gender, the entitlement these things bring, cultural expectations of reward for effort or meaningfulness… and so on. Saying that a job is bullshit if the worker thinks it is bullshit seems like a canny attempt to capitalize on the article of faith among young leftists on the internet that the victim who speaks should always be believed. Graeber’s formulation of this prominent piece of groupthink strips it of its gendered and sexual baggage, in the process making it accessible to aggrieved, (mostly) young, (mostly) white (mostly) men who might normally struggle to articulate a marginalized subject-position in the face of a resurgent and potent identity politics.

Teasing out the Cultural Logic of the “Millennial“ Work Ethic

Warning: assumptions follow. I want to talk about millennials and the tail end of generation X (or, if you must, the “xennials”). I don’t think it’s controversial to say that they grew up in a culture that implied they would tread a standard progression from child to adult, one that came with predetermined milestones of success: get a university education, get a good job, buy a house, marry, procreate, accumulate wealth, and retire in self-sufficiency. It’s fairly common to say that that much of the anger and resentment felt by this group of twenty-to-thirty-somethings is because what was implicitly promised has been placed beyond their grasp by a volatile labor market in the throes of apparently permanent and traumatic change. The world they were promised, in short, is now impossible. The skills they have attained are useless. The goalposts never stop moving.

Labor — the realm of metabolism, maintenance, and consumption — has colonized and supplanted work — the realm of craft, fabrication, and use.

What if Graeber’s sources just signify that contemporary office work does not conform to many workers’ sense of what meaningful employment “should” look like in the early 21st century? We can ask all sorts of questions about where they get their assumptions from—parents, university, each other—but the main thing I’m driving at is that rather than ask structural questions about the utility of certain kinds of jobs, we can use Graeber’s source material to uncover a cultural logic of work in the contemporary moment.

Bullshit Is Just Another Word for Labor

Arendt’s notion is that labor—the realm of metabolism, maintenance, and consumption—has colonized and supplanted work—the realm of craft, fabrication, and use. Arendt describes the work of labor as both futile, in that it will never end, and necessary, because to be without its products is to die. The logic of the market that Neoliberalism extends to all spheres of human activity essentially makes everything into labor. I think it’s possible to read Graeber’s sources as reports of people who expected to be working, but found themselves laboring instead.

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

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