Listen to the story:
I sat by the window sipping my hot chocolate, a second-hand laptop my only companion at the small wobbly table. It had become a daily ritual to sit here and watch the world pass around me. This day was different, though. I was restless.
I remember the smell of steamed milk, hot espresso, and the outside air rushing in with the ring of the bell above the door. I remember my leg shaking up and down, just like my mom’s did when she was anxious. And I remember feeling like I couldn’t enjoy the day without having something productive to show for it.
So, I pulled up an empty tab in my browser, clicked on Udemy from my bookmarks bar, and scrolled through the thousands of free courses available on the platform. It didn’t matter what it was — only that it would mean I was busy.
That day, I chose a 3-hour course titled “How To Identify Common Herbs.”
I spent the summer of my 21st year working on a train. The long days and extreme sleep deprivation didn’t bother me at the time. Young and full of energy, I wore exhaustion as a badge of honour. If I was tired, everyone knew about it. How else would they know how hard I worked?
From May to October through my early twenties, I often worked a hundred hours in a little under a week. But when winter came, so did the layoffs, which meant six months of freedom to do whatever I wanted. That first year I decided to take the money I’d saved and head across the country to Montreal, where I could use my first language and spend the winter with one of my best friends. When work called me in the spring, I would move back to Winnipeg and do it all again.
Suddenly, I went from working every day to not working for six months.
I had days to fill and nothing to do. I sat around coffee shops in different parts of the city watching students study, parents socialize, and friends catch up, wishing so hard I could contribute something more than a shaking leg and an anxious heart. I had been productive for so long that I had forgotten how to just be. To be honest, I didn’t know it was a real option.
I didn’t just want something to do; I needed it.
Whether it was online courses, the nonfiction section of a library, or a free seminar held in a hotel meeting room, filling my schedule was the only way I could think of to feel useful. I was adding to my resume, doing a favour to my future self, making small steps toward the future I wanted — but don’t ask me what that future was.
What if one day I needed to know Excel? What if I absolutely needed to be an expert in identifying herbs? I lost sleep feeling guilty for enjoying myself on weekends, paralyzed in fear that I was wasting precious time.
On the outside, I was a young woman exploring a new city, trying lots of coffee, and bettering myself with online learning. On the inside, however, was someone desperately scared to be useless.
“Hi, I’m Sam. I work on a train.”
Whether I was working as a line cook or barreling through the prairies on what my coworkers and I liked to describe as The Old Tin Can™, my job has always been my most boring personality trait and the first thing anyone knew about me. My job, and the explanation of how I oh-so-dramatically survived the trauma of sleep deprivation, was a token of pride I carried with me into the pandemic and my first year of college. One of the first presentations I was assigned was about a difficult situation in my life. To the surprise of absolutely no one, I chose to present about my time on the rails. Looking back, it was a thinly veiled attempt at bragging about the work I’d done disguised as a warning about not getting enough sleep. Haha, guys, don’t forget that not sleeping for 36 hours is bad for you. Haha.
But how else would they know how hard I work?
I am not that girl.
In case you’re not familiar with it, the trend of being that girl refers to the obsession my generation has with self-improvement. It’s a simple equation, one that’s been plaguing my For-You page on TikTok since I downloaded the app in 2020. To become that girl, all you have to do is:
- Journal 3-5 minutes every morning before 7am,
- work out twice a day (schedule one rest day a week, of course),
- make all your food from scratch (fresh fruits and veggies only),
- drink iced coffee in the morning and tea in the evening,
- read a set number of books per month,
- buy productivity calendars from Amazon, and
- try not to let the steady stream of self-loathing creep into your dreams.
That would be unproductive.
Problematic undertones of fatphobia (why is everyone so skinny), sexism (so it’s just women that have to be perfect?) and classism (who can afford this stuff?) aside, saying this trend is harmful would be an understatement. What gets me the most is how young girls are subjected to content like this every day. I turned out the way I did without watching girls my age have pastel-coloured productivity timers on their desks during my formative years.
It’s not just about what kids are watching, either. It’s women at every age comparing themselves to these goddesses of productivity. Moms need to raise children and keep a home organized. Young women need to strive for a promotion at work and look good doing it. Little girls need to do their chores, have plenty of followers on Instagram, get good grades, be assertive and confident, and dress in a way that won’t distract the boys around them.
It’s like no matter how much we try, we’re still not good enough.
Women are not machines, so why are we expected to be? We are worthy of long and fulfilling lives without having to prove our worth by producing every second of every day. And we sure as hell don’t need to make rest time just another thing to check off our pretty little pastel-coloured lists.
Three end goals, hidden in a trench coat
With the pandemic interrupting work culture, many people are talking about how companies can support workers through what we begrudgingly call “unprecedented times.”
As someone who spends a not-insignificant amount of time online, I’ve read a lot of content about the future of work and employee wellbeing. Over the last few years, though, I’ve noticed a trend that isn’t necessarily good.
It started as a trickle. One white paper on offering better mental health benefits here, one Harvard Business Review piece on the importance of employee socialization to increase productivity there. It wasn’t obvious at first, but as time went on I realized that most employers didn’t come up with the idea of adding so-called perks to jobs from a place of employee wellbeing — it came from the eyes looking up from the bottom line.
Wellsteps.com, a company specializing in employee wellness programs, wrote in a January 2022 article that poor employee health is tied to poor productivity in the workplace. The article says people who suffer from heart disease, high cholesterol, high body mass index (BMI), depression, asthma, chronic muscle conditions, and diabetes have a higher rate of presenteeism — meaning employees show up to work without being productive. The article argues that these people cost a company more in healthcare premiums than “healthy” people. Did someone say ableism? No? Just me?
Wellsteps.com also states that presenteeism costs an organization two or three times the amount of regular healthcare costs due to the loss of profits from people not doing their jobs. This is backed by research from the National Library of Medicine, which says:
“Many chronic illnesses that affect the working population can cause losses in productivity. The extent to which these productivity losses can be reduced by pharmacological treatment is of particular interest to employers, who bear the productivity costs and subsidize the cost of employees’ health care.”
Read that again.
“…who bear the productivity costs….”
Employers have a financial incentive to implement wellness programs for employees because it’s quite literally costing them money not to. Some people might argue that at least they’re doing something, regardless of the motivation.
But genuine employee wellbeing costs money; it doesn’t save it.
If employers cared about the people behind the chronic illnesses, they would do everything in their power to ensure their workers led comfortable and stable lives — like paying them a living wage and treating them better than disposable pawns. But whoa, whoa! That’s radical! Because that would mean cutting into profits and Christmas bonuses, and we can’t have that.
When I read articles like these, I am reminded that employee wellbeing is a business model, a money-maker, and a publicity stunt hidden in a trench coat. Productivity — not wellness — is the end goal.
It’s no wonder my self-esteem is tied to how much work I do in a day. It’s almost like the world is built to convince me of exactly that.
As soon as I stop being productive, I’m not worth keeping around.
“What’s your dream job?”
My first ever day of work was on a Saturday. I remember it so clearly, like it happened this morning and not almost 11 years ago. I remember how hot it was in that kitchen and how friendly my new coworkers were. A French guy named David helped me get situated on the line, and a friendly dishwasher showed me where the big pots go. After that first shift, as I changed out of my grease-covered whites still smelling like omelettes, I remember thinking that this was nothing like the movies.
I grew up watching 13 Going On 30 and The Devil Wears Prada. Pop culture romanticized working so much that I had fallen in love with the idea of getting a job before I even started high school. I became obsessed with the 2010’s version of being that girl. Looking back, it’s what some people called the Girlboss Era, complete with chunky plastic statement necklaces and business casual club attire.
The term girlboss, coined in 2014 by the creator of NastyGal, Sophia Amoruso, went viral back when I was a teenager. It was something women and girls said to empower each other to chase their dreams while looking (of course) their best.
Pretty “Get Shit Done” journals and the coffee mugs screaming “Hustle, Grind, Repeat” became mainstream around this time. I’ll never forget gushing over the American Eagle t-shirts at St.Vital Mall with “My Favourite Position Is CEO” splashed on the front — a classic sexist joke turned into a capitalist’s wet dream.
Both that girl and girlboss are examples of things that end up detrimental to the very women they claim to empower. I wish I could tell young women that they could feel empowered without tying it to what they contribute to the economy.
As much as it’s good to feel accomplished by our achievements and be proud of ourselves, the issues start when we associate our productivity with our inherent worth.
I grew up thinking that work was the most important piece of my identity. Hell, I act like it’s something I used to feel. The reality is I spent most of my winter break curled up on the couch, sick with the virus spreading like wildfire in my city, crying that I couldn’t get started on my essay about productivity. Oof.
No amount of journaling, time-tracking, reflection, and so-called “self-care” fixes the problem that the amount we work gets tied to our worth as human beings. Is this problem within us? Or are we subjected to a system designed to keep us working productively enough to line the pockets of the wealthy?
We have a “chicken or the egg” scenario for the ages. What came first? The capitalist system that can only be sustained by the working class working themselves to near-death, or the working class being convinced by the capitalist system that working is the only value they have as people?
The capitalist need to produce wasn’t always the same it is now — it started as a want and a need to support our communities and further our society.
Capitalist ideas came from a beautiful and powerful place of unity and have been replaced by rugged individualism and a “fuck you, I got mine” mentality.
“Rise and Grind”
Last year, the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization compared health complications to working long hours. They concluded that working 55 hours or more per week is associated with about a 35 per cent higher risk of a stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease.
I know. I had to do a double-take to make sure those numbers were correct, too.
In the study’s summary, Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the World Health Organization, said: “Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard. […] It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death.”
Suddenly, 100-hour work weeks on the train don’t seem worth it.
But that’s exactly it — it’s not worth it. But what are people supposed to do? The problem is exacerbated by the housing crisis and my generation’s inability to be financially stable without family money or working in tech. Housing prices are expected to rise in Canada, having already risen over 17.1 per cent since the pandemic began, and some people are still writing about how millennials and Gen Zs are entitled when we’ve been handed an economy where we’ll be lucky to even get a peek at retirement.
So, what can we do besides working longer hours to sustain ourselves under the crushing weight of the housing crisis, inflation, and wages that are stagnating in the name of profit? If we’re talking about the glorification of hustle culture, we have to talk about where it came from. It came from many of us not having a choice — it’s hustle or die, where the hustle will eventually kill us anyway.
We didn’t invent hustle culture — we were handed it under the guise of self-help and discipline like a pretty picnic basket with a bomb hidden under the checkered napkin.
“Do what you love and never work a day in your life.”
I read a study recently that explored intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in children using puzzles. In case you don’t know, intrinsic means something that comes from within, and extrinsic means something that comes from an outside source. So, intrinsic motivation means you’d feel motivated by your own desire to do well, and extrinsic means you’re motivated by something external, like praise, money, or power.
So, this study had children, who enjoyed doing puzzles, do them for different rewards. In some cases, they had adult supervision while doing the puzzles. In others, they were rewarded with candy or gifts after completing them.
They found that children who are rewarded extrinsically — so those who got candy — stopped wanting to do puzzles without the reward. They also found that children who had to do puzzles under adult supervision — where it became a task instead of a game — were much less likely to continue doing puzzles for fun.
“The knowledge that one’s performance at a task is being observed and evaluated by someone else, even when there is no explicit expectation of any tangible reward for engaging in the activity, appears sufficient to decrease later interest in the task,” said the study.
I was always told I needed to choose a career in a field I was passionate about. I’m starting to wonder if that’s how you get people to work harder for less compensation — by telling them that since it’s their passion, they should just do it for the so-called “joy” it brings them. Think of musicians and photographers being “paid” in exposure.
“Do what you love and never work a day in your life.” As though being told to do something doesn’t kill the joy in doing it.
It’s puzzles and candy all over again.
And so what if the deadline passes?
Last year, a tornado ripped through an Illinois Amazon warehouse and left six people dead. Amazon employees were reportedly advised to stay in the warehouse during the evacuation and not go home.
In November 2021, two Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama died after the e-commerce giant refused to let them go home sick. It takes three seconds to Google “Amazon worker deaths” and see countless instances like these. We’ve grown numb to it. Do whatever you’re told, even if it kills you.
After all, nothing comes between me and my two-day shipping.
Where did we go so wrong as a species to put productivity over a human life?
The amount of economic value the working class brings in 2022 compared to the 1950s is enormous. A study by Statista reports that the productivity-pay gap, the concept of productivity rates measured against wage growth, has been widening since 1970.
Since we’re creating more economic value for corporations, why don’t we see the fruits of our labour in the form of proper compensation? We’re raising the animals, we’re building the furniture, we’re setting the table and making the dinner. Why then, aren’t we invited to sit at the table and reap the benefits of what we work so hard to produce?
You guessed it. Christmas bonuses again.
We’re so used to two-day shipping, same-day delivery, and instant results that we forget to stop and ask ourselves who has to pay for our small conveniences.
But when you think about it, what would really happen if our hours went from 40 to 20 a week? If we put human lives over production of non-essential goods, what would happen?
Ok, so the PowerPoint presentation would take a little longer. Maybe the client would have to wait a few more days to receive their deliverables. But tell me what, aside from money, would be lost by extending deadlines and switching to a five-day shipping model? Would the world stop turning?
Wouldn’t that mean we’re closing the productivity-pay gap?
See, I’m not advocating for the complete dissolution of work as we know it.
I understand that human beings have an inherent need to contribute to their communities. In fact, many sociologists and philosophers describe human beings as needing to work. We are predisposed to want to contribute to our society, so we’ll always find a way to help each other out. The problem now is that most of us aren’t working to create a better community at all, and some of us don’t even know what we’re working for — other than that paycheque, of course.
Which leads to the question, how would you choose to contribute if it didn’t rely on money? How would you choose to live your life if you didn’t get candy at the end of the puzzle?
Suppose all our basic needs were being met. We could choose to contribute to the world without the threat of death or poverty looming over us like a sleep paralysis demon. People always tell me that my ideas are too radical, that I have visions of an unrealistic utopia where everyone is treated fairly.
But I don’t see a downside to fighting for a world where basic human needs are covered and workers get properly compensated for their labour.
If that’s radical, then sign me up.
“Have I hustled hard enough?”
Maybe it’s because of the world I grew up in, or maybe I just struggle to understand balance.
Either way, I don’t know the solution to my paralyzing fear of being useless. Hell, I’m barely making it through another long pandemic winter. The world is teetering on the edge of war, a bag of groceries costs almost half a month’s rent, and I’ve developed stress-induced chest pains that have landed me in the hospital twice in a week. Somehow, I still feel like I’m not getting enough done.
Some days it feels like I’m nothing without my lists. I would surely turn to dust the second I crossed off the last “learn something new” from my productivity app. Maybe I’m no better than that girl just trying to make her way during what I so desperately wish could be precedented times again.
Because even in the startmiddleend of this global crisis, with the weight of my self-worth peering over my laptop screen, the pressure to produce sits at the top of my self-imposed to-do list — right next to learning how to identify herbs.
If my lack of sleep directly correlates to my work ethic, you can rest assured this essay is up for a Pulitzer. And yet here I am, telling you about it.
How else would you know how hard I work?
Another whiny millennial who doesn’t want to work
Did you know my generation killed the mayonnaise industry? And the diamond industry? Oh! And the bar soap industry! I would say “you’re welcome,” but I’m too busy ruining the “make productivity your entire personality” industry.
In all seriousness, millennials and Gen Z have been called a lot of things. We’ve been called narcissistic, lazy, and more frequently, entitled.
We’re used to it.
Here’s the thing, though: why does advocating for ourselves mean we’re entitled? Shouldn’t everyone be entitled to a safe and enjoyable workplace that compensates them fairly for their labour? Is that not the goal?
Some will read this essay and hear just another lazy and entitled millennial crying about how hard life is. They’ll see someone who wishes she didn’t have to work for a living. They’ll brush this piece off in favour of more “educational” reads like this one about making your employees produce more without paying them.
And while there’s not much I can do to change their minds, I would like to take a second and speak directly to them.
Look, I know things look a lot different these days than when you started your career. I want to acknowledge that the system you were subjected to many decades ago was worse in many ways than we have it today. I’m sure vicious bosses and inhumane work hours are not something you’re a stranger to, and I’m sure some of you think that if you went through it, so should we.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “If I could get through it and be fine, so can you!” I want to let you in on a secret:
If you think you need to subject people to the same abuse you suffered through in the name of “fairness,” you did not, in fact, turn out fine.
It’s called the cycle of abuse, and we all have the opportunity to change it.
The seed of productivity was sown long ago, back before capitalists watered it with poison and deprived it of sunlight using guilt and shame as a blind. What should’ve been a flower has been twisted and perverted into a thorny vine ripping through lives like an Amazon warehouse tornado.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We don’t have to accept that this is the reality of the working class. We don’t have to accept the fate handed to us by decades of some sort of twisted intergenerational trauma. We can choose to enact real change and make a better system for ourselves and leave a better system for our kids. And we need to do it together.
Remember: there is no greater force than collective organization.
First, we need to let go of the chains of productivity that tether us to terrible employers. You are not lazy for advocating for yourself and your time. Second, we have to normalize talking about salary and encourage others to do the same. Third, we need to hold employers accountable for their mistreatment of employees.
Finally, we need to distance ourselves from the idea that productivity equals worth.
Humans need a purpose, we need a reason to live. Work allows us to add value to our communities and use our skills to better the world, but we have to keep in mind the consequences of falling deep into toxic capitalist ideas. Ones like the need to be productive all the time.
Work and productivity are not the enemy.
We once used work to better our communities and better the world around us, and we can do that again. We don’t need candy after our puzzles to want to do it, either.
I want my kids (if and when I have them) to grow up and go to coffee shops without the weight of hustle culture swelling in their chest cavities. I want to start my career without having to look over my shoulder every time I start a new job. I want to grow old contributing to a world in a way I can be proud of and not be exploited doing so.
And if I have to destroy the diamond industry to do it, then so be it.