If you want to understand the downside of seeing your work as a “calling,” just look at zookeepers. In his book, The Good Enough Job, Simone Stolzoff writes: “It’s a job where the money is short and the hours are long. The majority of zookeepers have college degrees but the annual salary is less than $40,000 a year.” How has this happened? Researchers have found that “many zookeepers framed their work as a duty,” which “exposed zookeepers to exploitation.” As Stolzoff notes, “Low pay, unfavorable benefits, and poor working conditions are often the sacrifices workers across industries must make for the privilege of following their passion.”
Stolzoff, a refugee from Silicon Valley who has found his way into some amalgam of journalism and self-help, acknowledges that “a job will first and foremost be an economic relationship.” But he does not seem to grasp the finer points of supply and demand. The supply of people who want to be zookeepers—because they like animals or they think the job will be fun or at least more fun than delivering Amazon packages—is large enough that zoos can afford to pay people less than a UPS driver. In other words, being a zookeeper is one of the perks of being a zookeeper, and people will accept less money to do a job they love.
This is not to say that Stolzoff doesn’t have some interesting thoughts about the culture of “workism” in America today and the way that employers are encouraging workers to think about their jobs. Before the folks at Google and Microsoft developed campuses with gourmet cafeterias, pods to nap in, and yoga studios, investment banks figured out that the key to getting employees to work long hours was to offer them dinner and a ride home. If they worked past 7 p.m., they could expense their takeout, and after 9 p.m., the company would give them a car service ride home. Even the BlackBerry, which was initially considered a workplace perk, was really a device to tether people to the office.
Stolzoff warns that it is not only these material benefits that get employees to center more of their lives on work. It is also the creation of a workplace culture. The proliferation of companies that say they are not in it just for the profit—the B corporations whose leaders promise to consider the social or environmental impact of their decisions—seem to have persuaded young people that they are not real companies.
Take Taylor, for instance, who joined Kickstarter as a receptionist in 2012:
“Once a week, Taylor started a happy hour tab with the company credit card at a local bar. He hosted a midnight movie club at the office where employees sipped negronis and watched cult classics. He played in a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game which … two of the company’s founders regularly attended. Kickstarter became the center of Taylor’s social scene. Coworkers weren’t just colleagues; they were friends and bandmates, romantic partners, and political comrades.”
These corporations refer to themselves as a “fampany” or, in the case of AirBNB, as an “Airfam.” But as Stolzoff correctly notes, “families and businesses have fundamentally different goals.” So when Kickstarter started making decisions that Taylor and his colleague disagreed with, they were shocked. And when they decided to form a union to push back against those decisions, the employees also seemed shocked that the leaders were hostile to the idea. “Never before had the divide between workers and management been so apparent.” Things were a lot more clear when workers were mining coal or assembling cars on a factory line and management were the ones whose clothes didn’t get dirty.
Companies want productive workers, and the research suggests that people who are happier at work will want to spend more time at work, and they will be more productive. But that may not be entirely true. Stolzoff cites a number of studies suggesting that reducing hours can boost productivity. A large-scale study in Iceland, for instance, found that when workers’ hours were reduced from 40 to 36 hours a week, they were more productive across a wide number of industries. Other studies have suggested that after 50 hours or so of working, there is limited marginal benefit to working more.
Time at work, in other words, doesn’t equal working more. Indeed, it’s possible that all the distractions of the modern workplace—the meals, the exercise studios, the wellness seminars—may in fact be taking away from actual work. And what about when work is actually at home? The revolution in remote working over the past couple of years has confused people even more—both employees and employers. Neither is really sure when real work is being done. Work goes on at all hours, but productivity may be even more rare.
But this is the tradeoff that many of us are willing to make. As someone who was working from home long before the pandemic, I can say those tradeoffs are clear. Yes, you can go to the supermarket when it’s not busy; you can exercise when there is daylight. You can work after everyone has gone to bed or before everyone has woken up. And you can attend all of your kids’ school events or be home when they are sick. (More about them in a minute.) But you often have a feeling that you’re not where you’re supposed to be. Or that you’re pretending to do something that you’re not actually doing.
Some of Stolzoff’s solutions to the problem of workism feel, well, performative. Yes, of course, we could give people a universal basic income or forgive student loans. But the truth is that if their economic calculus were different, most people wouldn’t end up working less. In fact, they might end up working more. Student loan forgiveness would free up more people to go into the kinds of low-earning public service jobs that Stolzoff tells us we should be wary of because of the way they exploit their workers.
Stolzoff’s advice that we be more “clear-eyed” about work as an “economic contract” is well-taken. But the problem with work is not actually work. It’s the rest of our lives. We do not value time as much as we value money. The young people he interviews who end up taking time off from work don’t know what to do with it. They travel the world, smoke pot, and then end up coming up with ideas for new projects or books. But what most of them have in common is that they don’t have other obligations as strong as their work obligations. They are single or at least childless. Not only does that mean that they are looking for meaning and connection in their jobs that they are not getting elsewhere. It also means that there is no one sitting there demanding their attention instead of their bosses. Nothing boosts efficiency like knowing a babysitter is about to leave.
Though Stolzoff writes enviously about other places and cultures where people seem to choose leisure over money, those people are rarely choosing to lie on a beach alone or take time to cook a meal for themselves. Rather, they are choosing time with family or a religious community over work. These other things pull at them as strongly as work does. Until younger Americans make those same kinds of commitments, they will be stuck playing Dungeons and Dragons with their fampanies.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.