We need to talk about work.
“Work? What is wrong with work?” you may ask. You would be right to do so.
A couple of years back, I might have asked the same thing. From the outside, nothing is wrong with the world of work, nor the workplace. Especially in the tech industry, right? Most of us get pretty good perks and we no longer have to spend 40 years of our life fiddling around for 12 hours a day on a production line like our elders.
Metaphorically speaking, of course…
However, we are way past the honeymoon now and work is not what it used to be even a couple of decades ago. Whoever you are, wherever you are, I am sure you have an acquaintance who has burned themselves out. There is a high probability this person is in your inner circle. It might even be you. We burn ourselves out because we work too much, giving in to the unmutable Slack channel, or because we lack “actionable feedback” in order to do our job properly. We burn ourselves out because our organisations are too big, too small, too agile or not enough, because there are too many layers of management or none at all to protect us from a toxic boss or client. We burn ourselves out because it is harder and harder to maintain a sense of meaning in what we do.
But I believed in it. I gave all my vitality to my work for the last twenty years, along with my hopes for a positive future for myself and the world. The system promised a stable income, pleasant working conditions in a nicely lit office, responsibilities and missions to accomplish, a retirement plan and most importantly, a balance.
I shaped my life around work, because that is what you do, that is what you are told: you can have it all. The joy, the busyness, the relationships, the fulfilment, the personal growth, the purposefulness of it all. Everything else was a distraction, something to help you occupy what is left of your time outside of your precious work.
It has been a decade since we began to talk about burnout. I dived those depths myself on several occasions since then, and I still bear the scars (my hair and nails never recovered from cortisol excess, neither did my ability to hold onto ideas in conversation, leading to awkward silences and hastily stammered requests for what I was saying). It was perhaps David Graeber’s “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” which sparked the fire of widespread conversation in 2013. In this piece he elaborated on the idea that many “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” He theorizes that many jobs were created solely to maintain the illusion of a functioning capitalist system. After reading this article my brain was impregnated with a dark, malicious seed. What if all this, employment, middle management, support functions, was a scam? What about design? I had always had that familiar treadmill sensation, patching up interfaces and putting together brochures thrown at me as if the world would end were they not completed on time.
When it is too much to take, bodies and minds surrender to Karōshi. A Japanese term with no equivalent in English, Karōshi literally refers to death by overwork, be it a sudden and tragic health issue like a stroke or a heart attack, or even suicide. Do not believe those who will say that only the weak do burn out, that overcoming depression is a just matter of willpower. Burning yourself out is not about strength. People die at work or from work, because the machine strips out their hope. The machine lies to them, making them think it is their fault and theirs alone. It is they who are the problem, they are the dysfunction that requires fixing.
Yet employment is still to many the sole path to income, purpose and social inclusion. You cannot rent any kind of flat in Paris these days without a very well paid full-time contract and landlords asking -illegally- for further financial guarantees, forcing people to take their own illegal steps by desperately forging payslips if they wish to live anywhere. Unemployment is still a huge social stigma. Friends and family can turn their back on you quite quickly.
The gig-economy amplifies the toxicity of employment by creating ever more tenuous positions, which count towards official employment figures, to the continuing joy of President Macron and his “Start Up Nation”. A new type of precarious self-employment dominates job markets now, and competition is deadly. A few weeks ago, a French Uber Eats worker was killed after conceding to deliver an order in an area famous for being a cyclist no-go zone in Bordeaux.
If you will not do it, no worries mate, someone will show up and accept a lower pay, a smaller space, a shorter deadline, an illegal assignment, a deadly route.
As networks and communities slowly dislocate under the pressure of continuous individualism induced by capitalism and consumerism, work and employment are the only way left to make an income, to afford a roof over your head, to have a purpose to follow and people to call friends. If your job is harming you, leaving could be social and financial suicide, and staying a slow death. How are you supposed to recover from work exhaustion when the very system in which you operate has been specifically designed so you cannot?
What is it we are chasing at work, and what is the reality we are allowed? The biggest scam lies here: our vitality, our motivation, our values, purpose and energy are utilised to feed a different machine. We rarely see the results of our hard work, be it financially or physically. In a tech worker’s career, how many projects stopped for a whim, lines of code ditched in a breath? How many regulations were dodged, or decisions taken against the protection of basic human rights like privacy? How many of our sleek apps actually work against us or worse, society’s most vulnerable?
As a designer, I cannot help but see my own guilt in all this. There are humans behind harmful tech. There are techbros behind toxic company culture. Billionaire tycoons make the blatant choice to reduce breaks so employees are forced to wear diapers on the job. Alexa did not come from a void: she was engineered byte by byte, a reliable and discreet harvester of data and profit.
“We are making a difference”, the Product Owner of our new Support Chatbot says, “we are building a product that will actually change lives”. Whose lives? Almost always it is their own; rich, white, privileged. In the end, in the very end, no one is making a real difference anywhere but in the realm of venture capitalism and the disgusting accumulation of wealth. That is what tech is all about today; the increasing richesse of the rich. Company culture, manifestos, design thinking trainings… all exist simply to make our pill easier to swallow.
That is the true reason we burn out. That is the final boss of cognitive dissonance. We will never work for anything other than the indecent enrichment of someone else who does not intend to share a single dime.
Do not get me wrong, some people have a purpose. Some jobs are worth the hits. I myself managed to find respectful partners and clients who share the same thirst for meaning I found on the day I decided to be vulnerable enough to discard the bullshit. Money is but a positive side-effect of our deep need to do something together. But consider this: where is tech making a difference? A real, positive, difference? Is it fooling anyone anymore?
The world is going through a very special phase. Big changes are afoot and although we have managed to keep them at a distance, some obvious signs are peeking through the cracks of our certitudes. To me it feels like the direct effect of this intangible, looming dread is that we as a society are trying to get the most of what we have while we can. Profit, bandwidth, stocks and shares, oil, solar panels, autonomous cars… it is like we know, deep inside, that this abundance has always been temporary. Hence the peculiar exodus tech is now facing.
Several people around me, including two close friends, have already taken a leap of faith and left the industry. The first spends all his weekends with his grandfather, a man still tied to something real; the land. This friend is learning from him as best he can, while toying with his hope and fears, wondering when he will eventually feel ready to devote his full time to more earthly things. The other quit his job and is relocating to the South of France to build an eco-neighbourhood and give permaculture a try. He will not stand the idea of software development anymore.
I crossed paths recently with “Foutu pour Foutu”, a duet of two business school graduates who found their learnings useless when looking at the current state of the world. They felt so helpless, so ill-equipped by their nonsensical degree that they decided to turn that despair into the energy to make a documentary, a story about “the lost”, the desperate, who see how the world has changed and do not know what to do so they start by talking about it.
The low-signals are here: the deeper people look, the more they peel the onion and the more they feel that meaning is fading away.
“Ingénieurs Engagés” (Committed Engineers) was born from the same acknowledgment that there is something wrong in the way we envision the world, and thus the way we teach it. Engineers from all across France have rallied to deconstruct what they have been taught in an effort to understand what is required to make the discipline of engineering better.
What myself and my friend Thomas are doing with Common Future(s) is something similar, only for design. We cannot allow ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot let business-as-usual be the only way forward. Whether we leave our industry or remain a part of it in an attempt to reshape it from within, something is definitely happening. We want “business as unusual”.
Over the past five months I have spent countless hours watching Derek Powazek’s Instagram stories, his journey from the Silicon Valley dream to a farm in Portland, Oregon staffed only by friendly goats and turkeys. I have no idea how to get from toxic tech to goats and turkeys, but I know I now want to enter this era of business-as-unusual, of unusual activity that barely bears any business.
Something is wrong with work. It must now shift from the life-sucking, rights-tramping machine it has become and move towards what it has always been: the simple human activity of doing things together while caring for one another.
We burn ourselves out because of one thing and one thing only: there is nothing to expect from work anymore. Among all the rhetorics we hear, all the managerial theories and agile mindsets, the big lie lies in front of us: the only rhetoric behind the human comedy of work is the one of exponential profit. Let us put an end to this charade.
This is a call for minds and arms. We can turn the workplace into something different so it makes employment something that really matters. We could heal each other, we could support our peers through resilience. Just by caring, and also throwing away the idea of exponential growth, seven figure salaries and start-up contests. Let us ward off those billionaires who want to fly to Mars, let them go if they want, let alone can.
Business-as-unusual does not mean that we abandon money and safety. There are brilliant people right now writing about and doing things that are setting the bases of a new way of doing business. A way that respects every living thing and ensures we can all live in dignity. In France, we call some of it “économie sociale et solidaire” (social and solidarity economy). It is one of the new ways of doing business while caring for one another. There are many others, it is up to us to find them.
We are not going anywhere, we are here to set new foundations. Care first. For nature and its limited resources. For ourselves, for our peers, for everybody we have been designing or developing for. Let us care for their lives, their humanity and their freedom. We can abuse our own privileges and refuse to help toxic tech to grow. We must reclaim purpose. You coming?
A few questions to help you dive into introspection:
- What do you really need in life? Who do you really care for? What are your three core values? I want three real words that truly mean something to you.
- How can you turn your own privilege into a weapon against oppressions? How can you care more for people, both known and unknown? Write down a couple of ideas.
- What is your relationship with consumerism, exponential growth and profit? What do you think you can do to break down these concepts, both in your personal and professional life? Take it easy, this is a tough one.
- What do YOU think work is about for you? What does really matter to you in your daily job?
- Last but not least: where do you want to start? Start small: listen to a friend’s burdens, read a piece about surveillance capitalism, write your three core values on sticky notes and put them on the wall in front of you, be vulnerable around someone you love.
I have no worries the next steps will show themselves to you once you are ready. See you there. In the meantime, I will be honoured to read your very own story about how you will do business-as-unusual. Write and reach out!
A few seeds for you to sow:
- Basecamp’s “Signal v Noise” blog & their post about leaving Medium for self-hosting
- Frédéric Laloux’s “Reinventing Organizations”, a must-read also available in illustrated short version.
- The Guardian’s review of David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs”
- Jake Knapp’s “Make time” blog / book
- Elle Luna’s famous essay “The Crossroads of Should and Must”
- Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” theory
- Ind.ie’s Ethical Design Manifesto