What's wrong with work?

“The thing about American labor, after all, is that we’re trained to erase it.”

A few weeks ago I re-read an article by the management thinker Peter Drucker from 2001 called “Will the corporation survive?” In it, he talks about his assumptions about the next phase of business. Since the 1970s, the economy had shifted to depend on “knowledge workers” — workers who make meaning out of information — and Drucker saw this shift putting power back into the hands of workers:

The management of knowledge workers should be based on the assumption that the corporation needs them more than they need the corporation. They know they can leave. They have both mobility and self-confidence.

That was a nice idea. Not sure it’s worked out like that.

There’s an undercurrent of discussion happening right now in several places about the dissatisfaction Americans are feeling about work: the workplace itself, benefits, work-life balance (if there is such a thing), opportunity to advance, etc. It might be best summed up in Anne Helen Petersen’s excellent essay on millennial burnout, which, if internet sharing is any indication, resonated with every millennial I know this week. (The above quote is hers.)

According to Petersen, constant optimization is the millennial condition—the pressure to do everything well, all the time. The dissatisfaction with the always-just-out-of-reach “good” job that both sounds cool and allows one to follow their “passion.”

This inevitably leads to burnout, which she calls a “chronic disease.”

This isn’t hyperbole. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has gone as far as saying, “The workplace is killing people and nobody cares.” David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and author of the new book Bullshit Jobs, believes that dissatisfaction with meaningless work has directly contributed to the rise in populism and polarization that is spreading globally.

We’ve seen some of this tension in the professional development and trainings we’ve been doing at 18 Coffees for our community partners, which have always been colored by the question, “How do I start my own thing?” This entrepreneurial spirit is inevitably preceded by an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with their current work environment: a feeling of being taken advantage of, or of there being a more fitting professional situation just over the horizon.

American work is in crisis. But what can business leaders do about it?

There are macro-economic answers that involve politics and policy, and I have some specific opinions about that that involve doing more to close the historic income inequality, treat workers more equitably, stop the rise in corporate consolidation, etc.

But I think part of the answer to what to do in your organization could lie in something Drucker alludes to about the future of corporations. He says knowledge workers have to be treated more like volunteers than factory workers: “The first thing such people want to know is what the company is trying to do and where it is going.”

We’re building some specific ideas about how to do that based partly on my experience in political organizing that I’ll explore here soon. For now, would love to know if this resonates with anyone. Do you feel the same way about the state of work?