This is a post about what happens when you go down a one-way street
When I first started drafting this, I was knee-deep in a job search. Recently I waded out of said job search, thank the heavens, and while I’m sending out said gratitude, I should note that my present situation isn’t really going to be part of this little analysis. It’s still pretty fresh as it is, and anyway, it’s not super relevant here.
But while that search was at its height last year, I received a few requests for what else but those one-way virtual video interviews. I’d say which companies sent them my way, but I don’t think it necessarily matters a great deal. REI notwithstanding, but they’ve done enough to disillusion me what with their union-busting. Anyway, what does matter is how much more common these requests have become since the first time I’d ever received one. And after I finally conceded for the final time (to an SEO company that kept me on board for no more than one month, natch), I ultimately proceeded to refuse them because…well, they’re demoralizing. Far more so than the average modern job application is, really, which is quite the accomplishment.
But it’s obvious that they’ve become more and more of the norm, these one-way interviews. Or monologues, shall we say, since one doesn’t necessarily get to use them to interview one’s potential employer. That means responses—i.e., nonresponses—like mine are bound to get brushed over after not much more time. I’d give it a year or two, especially considering the current climate. And I would love to say that that’s fine, things change, whatever, but this sort of seems to be something on the other side of a given precipice.
It’s not surprising, though. Work culture in the U.S. is flabbergasting, to put it mildly. Perhaps it always has been, but now we have LinkedIn, so everyone can see it and cringe at the word salad on full display. In fact, you can go on LinkedIn if you want and share posts about why “no one wants to work” or, on the alternative end of the spectrum, share a link to the once-subversive headline about Bullshit Jobs that David Graeber (RIP) penned a few years ago.
(Offhand, said article was turned into an excellent book that I have to heartily recommend here. Like most all of his work, it is engaging and enlightening and so many other good words.)
Anyway, so what does this mean? That everyone knows this truth about work culture, but we’re just going to sit here and seethe over it and do little to nothing in response? Or maybe that nobody has time to do more than seethe? That a rebuttal from The Economist carries more weight than an entire, well-researched book? Or that r/antiwork gets to take the lead and, in turn, no one takes bids for change seriously?
Possibly, yes to all of the above. After all, that wave of strikes from last year seems to have waned significantly.
However, it’s also possible that I’m wrong, given that 2021 was one of the most active years for unions in decades. That isn’t nothing. It is a whole lot of something.
So I suppose I don’t really know what the status or solution is, aside the obvious situation of CEO salaries getting increasingly bloated up against slow-growing/stagnant wages. And that I heard on the radio (the real radio, yes actually) that the UK was doing a test run on a four-day work week, and all I have to say to that is: was every holiday weekend not a sufficient test run?
But I think, if you’re reading this, perhaps your response is at the ready. Perhaps you’re thinking exactly what I am. Or maybe you’re not. Either way, my natural next question is, “So what happens when people get treated the same way, but just within the confines a four-day workweek?” Or, “What if you can’t teach people to draw sufficient boundaries with their bosses no matter how many days they work?”
Or, “What if we continue to engage the system as it is, which means boundaries are disrespected in general, and thus none of these little efforts will really come to anything at all?”
Hmm. So many questions.
I think they need to be asked, though, because it’s incredibly common for organizations to pay lip service to certain ideals, and then for their internal dynamics to not reflect those ideals whatsoever. If you haven’t read the piece about Blue Hill at the Stone Barns that was published this week, that’s an incredibly compelling portrait of how that tendency can go to an extreme. Actually, I’m tempted to say that most workplaces, especially those that have lofty ideals, are prone to falling into problematic patterns. I’ve certainly seen it in action myself, albeit on a less extreme and more covert level. Last year, I left one of the biggest institutions in my then-city, and while it was for myriad reasons (including how incredibly painful my brain finds being an administrative assistant, see also this post), this was one of the key reasons. It wasn’t really a “bullshit job”; I had plenty to do and was rarely bored. But it was a role whose existence went against the raison d’être of the project it served.
Perhaps you are reading this and now thinking, “What the hell does that mean?” Okay, fair. It means that the project was focused on equity and mental health. And yet the hierarchy that fell into place there was very much in defiance of that focus, and the chaos that ensued was actively harmful. I have heard the dynamics have changed now, which is, you know, good to hear and all of that, but I’m confident it’s at least a partial result of several people who scaffolded the thing having left last year (not just me).
It was no surprise, then, when I later found out how much the data spoke to the project not really fulfilling its purpose. Yep: none of it worked. Not really.
But everyone had such good intentions! Everyone wanted to help others! Why didn’t it work? Why couldn’t we serve a higher purpose, like healing, or service? What happened? Or really, what didn’t happen?
Well, my theory is that, without inner work—without any kind of real soul-searching, or willingness to get quiet and not cave to the cult of staying busy—making any kind of lasting impact is close to impossible. At least, it is now.
I liked hearing that Rob Bell’s latest podcast episode, featuring Kristin Hanggi, hit upon this idea. In discussing the heroine’s journey, and its contrast with the hero’s journey, they spoke to a very important truth: that going within can actually create change in the outer world.
And in light of their anecdotal evidence, I would like to believe that this actually can happen.
So where do one-way interviews come into this? What do bullshit jobs have to do with any of it?
Nature of capitalism aside, my take is that it’s related to the Puritanical foundation of American work culture. That ethos has us buckling down on the very-potent idea that what you do all day long is integral to who you are as a person. Work makes you moral; work makes you matter. And nobody wants to be amorphous, amoral nothing. So if it makes someone more productive to review a video instead of talk to a person, they’re going to do it. That wins out every time, even if your organization speaks to having particular—other—kinds of values.
No, work itself is not the problem. It is the nature of the culture surrounding it. As I’ve heard mentioned by others and have to agree with in spades, it’s the hoop-jumping, the performative aspect, the idea that the work and the title and the status (and the ping-pong tables and the parties? Sure) for their own sake are good enough. Most people have an innate desire to do something during their day that gives them a sense of satisfaction. If this isn’t obvious on an intuitive level, it’s certainly verifiable enough in other ways.
That’s a value. Maybe it’s a new one to add to the mix. Maybe it’s a different way to define freedom. Maybe it’s worth moving towards, instead of dismissed as impossible territory to broach.
After all, if the balance is skewed—if the power in a system only moves in one direction—all you really get is a dead end.
Recommended resources: “Why Do We Work so Damn Much?” from The Ezra Klein Show
“Workism is Making Americans Miserable,” by Derek Thompson (The Atlantic)
+ Stock photo from @fbazanegue via Unsplash