Work Sucks, We Know | Crooked Media
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November 03, 2022
Positively Dreadful
Work Sucks, We Know

In This Episode

American work culture has changed dramatically in recent years. As the fog of the early pandemic lifted, workers had more power, the job market is tighter than it’s been in a generation, and many workers are realizing remote work has big perks. Yet, working from home and hybrid work weren’t the product of a lot of considered thought, it was thrust upon us in a crisis. Less time in office, fewer expectations around clock punching and putting in face time seem to make workers happier. But is that because being at home is inherently preferable? Or is it just that we never had a public emergency that forced us to make workplaces themselves more enjoyable environments? How do we lock in reforms that will make work in the new era better for everyone than it was in the pre-pandemic era? Anne Helen Petersen, who writes the Culture Study newsletter on Substack and hosts Crooked Media’s newest podcast Work Appropriate joins host Brian Beutler to talk about the future of work.






Brian Beutler: Hi everyone. Welcome to Positively Dreadful with me, your host, Brian Beutler. It’s a few days before the midterms. It’s all over, but the shouting. And so since fate is very close to sealed, we thought why not pull back from the election and shine a light on a different kind of all consuming politics, office politics or more generally the work half of the work life balance in America. We’ve been cursed to be living through interesting times for the past several years, but the way American work culture has changed recently is genuinely capital I interesting. So from my lay perspective, the story of the past decade or decade and a half in American work life goes something like this. Millennials started graduating high school and college after the last really strong labor market was ending, and they mostly started their adult work lives in a pretty meh economy or worse, right into the maw of the Great Recession. And then we spent a decade clawing out of that recession in a way where unemployment slowly fell, but not in a way that gave workers themselves a lot of control over the jobs they had or what their workplaces were like. Then there was the pandemic, which had this split level effect of decimating many kinds of jobs, service sector jobs in particular, while thrusting the professional and creative classes into a kind of trial by fire of trying to figure out how to persevere under circumstances that required most people to work from home. And it was not great, but mostly because nothing during the acute phase of the pandemic was great. As the fog cleared, as the fog of the early pandemic has lifted, a lot of those workers realize there’s stuff about remote work that they don’t wanna give up. Less commuting, more time with family, less keeping up appearances, et cetera, et cetera.


Brian Beutler: And by dent of luck and policy and circumstance, that reassessment coincided with something that, for reasons I will never understand, became known as the great resignation. But it’s actually something that’s much better than it sounds. It’s it’s full employment. It’s a tight labor market, which gives people the power they need to make more demands of their employers or if need be quit and take a better job that pays better or offers hybrid work or whatever else. So for now, that’s what we’re doing. Trying not to throw the baby out with the bath water except for a couple things. First, it’s sustainable because of technology and worker leverage and buy-in from bosses, at least some of whom don’t want to give up their new flexibility either. But also because of the people who are usually excluded from these future of work conversations, the service workers who got hit the hardest in 2020, and the essential workers whose ability to continue doing things the old way we take for granted. Remote work probably has much less demand in a world where teachers get to do it too. Or grocery stores and restaurants aren’t running more or less unchanged from pre pandemic days. Or if the great resignation ends in a new recession and suddenly people’s employment situations become more precarious. So that’s one broad question I have. How do we sort of structurally reinforce the things we need to make work in the new era better for everyone than it was in the pre pandemic era? So that’s one broad question I have. How do we sort of structurally reinforce the things we like about the new era so that they work for everyone? The second, though is can we do better or is this as good as it gets? And I wonder that because some of the culture shifts workers are trying to maintain are ones that were thrust upon them by this exigent crisis. It turns out those changes were better when we all got adjusted than what we had before, but they aren’t the product of a lot of considered thought. Less time in office. Fewer expectations around clock punching and putting in FaceTime seem to make workers happier. But is that because being at home is inherently preferable or because we never had a public emergency that forced us to make workplaces themselves more enjoyable environments to spend half our waking lives in? I guess what I mean to ask is what does an achievable best case scenario for people working in America today look like and how do we get there? Crooked Media actually just launched a new podcast dedicated to thinking through questions like these big and small ones about the future of work. It’s called Work Appropriate. It’s host is Anne Helen Petersen, who also writes the successful Culture Study newsletter on Substack. And she’s our guest this week. So Anne, welcome to Positively Dreadful.


Anne Helen Petersen: It is a total pleasure to be here, and that was a great intro. Like, I don’t know if I’ve had a better intro.


Brian Beutler: Oh, awesome.


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs]


Brian Beutler: Well, let’s just end it here. I’ll just stop recording and we’ll put it out.


Anne Helen Petersen: We’re done.


Brian Beutler: Um, so I am so glad to be able to record this conversation with you because I have always felt like a spectator to debates and conversations about work culture, even like until I started preparing for this episode. And, so I was thinking through why, and mostly it, I assume because I entered this line of work, political media, whatever, just as its business model sort of fell out from underneath it and profit margins became thin or non-existent. So it’s been this period of intense churn, um, and an expectation kind of set into my mind that the reward in journalism is getting to be a journalist, and—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Brian Beutler: —the downsides just can’t really be helped. But then thinking back on the first half of my career and about the economic backdrop for most of it, I started wondering if it’s maybe more like a whole generation of workers who feel disempowered from trying to improve their work life because they just didn’t have enough clout or job security to ever give it a shot. And I’m wondering to what extent you’ve noticed. It’s hard to get people invested in this conversation because they can’t think of themselves as being able to make demands that’ll improve their circumstances when it comes to their jobs.


Anne Helen Petersen: I, I love that you’re framing the conversation this way, and I think you are one of the first that is actually thinking through it in this way. Someone was saying to me the other day that my previous book, which is about millennial burnout specifically and really expands to look at the economic conditions and precarity that produced millennial burnout is almost like a prequel to the second book, which is on, what do we do about working remotely in hybrid and how do we figure that out? And the reason why I say that is because I think a lot of workers, specifically millennials, but also in different ways, Gen X and boomers were conditioned to think that you were lucky just to have a job, right? And that because our labor protections have eroded so significantly, we don’t think, oh, there’s a way for me to push back. Right, and this is especially true for people in the sort of work that is oftentimes knowledge work like that is open to flexibility. They’re the least likely to be unionized. And so there is no understanding of like, oh, well, we have these rights as workers and here is how we advocate for better conditions, better working conditions for ourselves. Because part of the reason there’s a long bit of reticence for so-called white collar workers who unionize and even to think of themselves as labor is because it is this like labor of the mind, right? So it’s, there’s a disincentivization to think of the work that people like us do as labor. And so like entering political journalism, you’re like, yes, I’m just so lucky to have a job.


Brian Beutler: Yes.


Anne Helen Petersen: There’s no way I could push back and ask for like, you know, this sort of treatment that would make that job better. Bad jobs became the norm.


Brian Beutler: Yes. I mean, that’s definitely my experience of at least of my psychology, right? Like, don’t be a squeaky wheel, like you got a good thing going.


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally.


Brian Beutler: So many people would kill to be able to write about politics for a living. So don’t get yourself fired or at least put on your boss’s shit list by complaining about the hours or complaining about the salary, or complaining about anything. Really, just like do it. But at the same time, like I, I don’t know that the flip side, because I, it wasn’t the life that I lived was that people felt more free to, to do that because their jobs didn’t feel so lucky, like they didn’t feel like, like they were in some sort of rare line of knowledge work. Did that make them more likely to go press their case with their bosses for better conditions? Or was it just that for basically all the 2010s, nobody in our generation or near our generation felt like they had any power over what their working conditions were like?


Anne Helen Petersen: I think most people felt like they had no power over what their conditions looked like unless they were, they had a good and powerful union. I think that the last time that we as a country had like that middle class jobs were still good jobs, was our grandparents’ generation. Right. So I, I have a very classic story of like, my granddad graduated from college, got a job as an accountant at 3M in the suburbs of Minnesota, and then worked there from when he graduated, essentially, until he retired.


Brian Beutler: And, and, and the college education was like five bucks or something like that. Right? [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: And yeah right, definitely did not have any debt. Um, and because he was, he served in the military, you know, he was able to buy out a home using the GI bill and that sort of thing. And then, um, you know, retired with a full pension at age 55. Didn’t ever draw on his retirement because his, he was living off of his pension and for so long I told that story with just incredible derision, like, must be nice. Retiring at 55 must be nice. Not being indebted, like totally paralyzed by the thought of the fact that you have to work until you die. Like, but there are different ways [laugh] of organizing our work and our lives and we know that, because companies, arranged worker lives in that fashion not that long ago, like it is still in recent memory. A different way of thinking about, um, worker benefits, the way that we structure like worker compensation as opposed to company profits like, all of those things have changed so dramatically, but we have normalized it, which I think is an incredibly American skill, whether it’s with the pandemic, shooting deaths, all of these different things we’re like, it’s just classic, like the water is boiling and we’re like, this is totally fine, right? This is, this is how it is. And if you push back against it, and again, this is something that I think millennials particularly feel if you push back against it, which millennials did when they first entered the job market. They said like, this is kinda shitty. Right. And maybe they did it in part because millennials were often told by their parents and by all the other adults in their lives that they were special and they deserved greatness. They enter the job work, and they’re like, uh, I don’t, I don’t know about this. And they’re like, you are selfish. You are entitled. Put your head down and work. And so that’s where we are, is I think people waking up and being like, huh, what if I do have power to actually quit my job and find a new job where maybe that’s where my power stems from.


Brian Beutler: Maybe I didn’t need to hang out in that boiling water for all of the 2010s, but, okay, so I guess we did. And now, so then the pandemic happens, uh, and many millions of people have to work from home abruptly. Um, and now that seems like the main question in the future of work, tug of war. There’s a lot that goes into what makes up a workplace culture. But in this moment of disruption, that’s the thing that workers and their employers are having a tug of war about right now. More or less.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, 100%. I think it’s, um, you know, that term disruption is so hack made from like the tech world, just thinking—


Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: —about different industries and like we’re disrupting this, blah, blah, blah. But I do think it’s like the most appropriate word to use to think about what happened with work like it. Absolutely. Through what would’ve been the more natural course of development. Cuz I think we were gradually headed to a more hybrid and remote situation. It just would’ve taken 20 years instead of one. I mean, there are industries. That were so firm, you cannot do our work outside of an office that we’re forced to come to terms with like, oh, I guess we can do it out an office. And I guess we can still at least, you know, two days a week people can still do that work out of an office. And that’s a dramatic change. It’s huge.


Brian Beutler: So we did that and we did it because there was really no other choice. And I’m wondering, what do you think made such a radical change like that permanent?


Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm.


Brian Beutler: Is it that the pandemic created a new status quo bias, like people would rearrange their lives around working from home and, and employers realized that if they said, all right, like, snap our fingers, you’re back into the office and, uh, you have to make new arrangements all over again because we’re, we’re no longer doing the work remote thing that people would flip out, or is it that we’re living through one of these sort of sadly rare periods where workers actually have some economic leverage and they’re saying to bosses, we’re keeping this and you don’t really have a choice in the matter.


Anne Helen Petersen: Uh, well, I think it’s all of those things. Also, it’s the fact that the coronavirus itself continued to change and that meant that, and just vaccine evasion and that sort of thing made it so that what were projected to be office return to work, you know, post vaccine. It just got delayed again and again and again and again. And yes, there are some companies where people have been back to work for, for a fair amount of time, but I know a lot of companies, especially in places that were a little bit more COVID conservative, that really their, their big back to the office push didn’t start until this school year.


Brian Beutler: So is it a coincidence that the thing at the center of future of work debates is something that was thrust on us by the pandemic? And what I mean by that is if you were to, to be able to go back to before the pandemic and ask people if you could change one thing about work culture at your workplace or in general, what would it be? Do you think they’d say, We should be allowed to work from home? Or do you think it’s like, oh, we got work from home. We’re gonna keep that, but it’s not really the thing that they wanted in the first place.


Anne Helen Petersen: No. And again, this is a really, I think, provocative and interesting way to frame this. I don’t think that work from home is what people necessarily wanted. I think that it makes sense to change some of like the textures of work to to understand which parts of the status quo were unnecessary and arbitrary. But I think that just like remote or hybrid work can’t fix any workplace that is indicative of the fact that it is not the primary thing. Right? It’s just a mode. It’s not necessarily the, the, the actual way that a company does business. It’s just changing the when and where to some extent. So what, like whenever I talk to companies about the future of work, a lot of them are trying to like figure out like, okay, what is, what’s the magic bullet that’s gonna fix all of these things? And I’m like, the, the actual problem with your company has very little to do with how you’re dealing with Zoom meetings. And it has whatever your problem was before the pandemic, that’s still almost certainly your problem now, it’s just that the pandemic made it impossible to ignore whatever that problem was. So in a lot of companies, it’s understaffing, right? Or in nonprofits, it’s like burning people out with. Like not enough compensation and not enough safety net. Like every company has, an organization, has different problems, but the root is not remote work itself. Does that make sense?


Brian Beutler: Right, yeah, I mean, I guess if you have a company whose workers are unhappy because of the content of the work, you could alleviate that with casual Fridays. Right. Take it a step further. You could alleviate it by saying two or three days a week you get to work from home.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: But you’re still left with the core problems that make the workers unhappy.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Brian Beutler: And conversely, if you’re the worker being able to do the work from home, it doesn’t necessarily make you happier with the vocation, but it at least alleviates some of the surrounding stresses, like commuting and whatever else, right?


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.


Brian Beutler: Okay. So I’ve been working from home since the pandemic, and a lot of what you just said resonates with me because I mean, there are obvious benefits to it, and I think most of the bad things about it, at least in my experience, are pretty obvious too. Like specific to journalism I miss having coworkers to bat—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: —around ideas with, and just as a human, I, I dislike sitting alone at home for hours on end every day. [laughter] But, but, but then on, on top of that, like, I, I think about it sometimes. I’m like, it’s probably unhealthier, like just irrespective of what I would prefer because I’m not walking around as much.


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.


Brian Beutler: I’m, I’m definitely raiding the fridge more. [laugh] Um, uh, I’ve probably lost whatever social graces I gained when I had an office to go to. Um, and so I wanted you to, to talk through the trade offs between remote and in office work.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: Particularly these second order things that people might not think about. Where like, you like, oh, this is great. I don’t have to commute, or I don’t. Sit in these endless meetings anymore, whatever else, but like you’re not thinking, oh I don’t know. I’m also paying extra to heat my house and I’m also, you know, my—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Brian Beutler: —back is bad cuz I work on the couch now.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Well first of all, and I don’t think you’re suggesting this, I think that the oftentimes people get caught in this dichotomy of like, I am either fully remote or I’m fully in the office and that like aren’t thinking about the hybrid—


Brian Beutler: Right.


Anne Helen Petersen: —options. And a lot of people, I think right now, like, and you see this in the survey data and all sorts of stuff, like most people want hybrid. They wanna have an office to escape to an office to make it so that they can kind of, you know, give texture to their weeks. But they also do not by no means wanna be in the office five days a week.


Brian Beutler: Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think that’s where we see this interesting tension where people are like, It’s not that I don’t wanna ever be in an office space or ever, like I wanna be around my colleagues. And I understand that there is value and presence and co-presence, but at the same time, I also think that it like the understanding of doing work as butt in seat, like how do we untangle that a little bit more? Right? And so that means that managers have to re-envision their understanding of like what it means to do good work. And I don’t think this necessarily applies to, to work like yours because a lot of writers, like we have long done work outside of places where people can observe us [laugh] in any way. But that’s where like I think the tension is, I think that there’s a great stat from the most recent. Future Forum from Slack, which basically like surveys 10,000 people every quarter over the course of the pandemic about their attitudes about work and that sort of thing, and all the way up and down the, the company kind of chain of command. And they saw that like bosses right now are incredibly miserable because they are still fighting that fight of we want everyone back in the office right now. Right? Why won’t everyone see what we see about why the office is so great and they are feeling like, huh? Why won’t anyone come and join my team? Like if it’s kind of like a losing prospect, right? If you’re like, we tried all this stuff and people still aren’t coming in, and employees are like, yeah, my productivity’s doing okay. Like I feel pretty good about this. They feel good. They feel pretty steady. And the other step that’s really interesting to think about, and this goes to your question of like what are the interesting trade offs, is that the stats about sense of belonging for people of color have gone up since they’ve gone remote. White people’s sense of belonging has gone like slightly down. But what does that tell you? I think that it, it underlines the ways in which most offices are pretty white spaces, right? And they’re also pretty masculine spaces. And it doesn’t have to be overtly, like, it doesn’t have to be a bro office to feel that way. Right. There are different things. There’s different energy and labor that goes into being like one of a couple of people of color in an office and doing that labor of code switching. And, um, even for, for women and for um, people of color, there’s oftentimes presentational time taxes. So the amount of time it takes to make yourself look “professional” in the office, to be taken seriously enough, like that’s all stuff that I think that you know, if you aren’t thinking directly about how much time it takes you or if that isn’t personally your experience, you might not necessarily think about it. Like, I love not going into office because offices are really cold for women, right?


Brian Beutler: Yeah. Mm-hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: In particular. And so I hated always being like, ugh, gosh, I have to like wear a blanket all day when I go into the office. So I love being able to control my, my space. I think also people, you know, people tell me all sorts of things, but people who, um, have like IBS or any sort of thing going on with their body where they would really like to have private bathrooms, that’s big. Anyone who’s a nursing mother also huge, um, people with disabilities or with chronic fatigue, things that make it more difficult to sit in one place in an office and be seen all day. They, they love having the flexibility of working from home. So those are some of the things that I think you have there. But then, you know, there are parts about being in an office that are great. People say, I kind of miss my commute. And I think that what they really miss, they don’t miss like riding the F train packed or they don’t miss like, going over 520 in Seattle, just agonizing just, you know, two hours, whatever it is, like wherever you are, they do not miss the agony of the commute. They miss in some way that bumper, that on and off ramp. And I think identifying, okay, what are the things that we miss about the office, about the routine of the office and figuring out what should be in the office. Like what? What cultivation of culture, what brainstorming, all that stuff, what do we need each other for? How can we not waste time by going into the office to send. And then how do we create that bumper space that on and off ramp into the workday, even if you’re not actually going into an office. And that’s something that like I walk the dog and then I exercise. Like those are my on and off ramps off the day. And you, it’s hard if you’re not forced to do it. You have to force yourself. And sometimes that takes a lot of discipline.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I’ve, I mean, I’ve, I’ve built all kinds of routines for myself to like just avoid, I don’t know, like spending too much time playing with my dog or whatever to distract myself. And I admit like didn’t fully appreciate, you know, how many benefits there were, particularly to people unlike myself from being able to, A, like sort of abstract yourself from your colleagues. Like if you become an occasional face in a Zoom meeting and also you’re a Slack icon, but meanwhile you’re at home and you’re not wasting two hours getting ready in the morning or whatever else that, that’s like a win for you on both sides, because if you were in the office, you’d be under forms of duress that people like myself maybe never noticed.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: And also you’re able to be your own individual, you know, deal with, uh, health concerns or whatever else. At the same time, like, I don’t know if I, I’m asking this to be generous to the bosses or because like, I have like a nanny state bug in my head, but like our, you know, kids spend a lot more time these days on screens and playing video games than they do like out doing drugs and having sex and whatever else like kids did when we were kids in the nineties.


Anne Helen Petersen: You mean like when I was a kid in the nineties watching Star Trek, The Next Generation like that sort of thing? [laughter] Is that what you’re referring to?


Brian Beutler: Well, I, I get the impression—


Anne Helen Petersen: No, I know what you’re saying.


Brian Beutler: —and I know this hasn’t been proven yet, but like kids are, are choosing. Different modes of rest and relaxation of, of doing homework of, of whatever else. And it’s also coincided with a period where they’re like miserable.


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.


Brian Beutler: And I wonder if, you know, there’s a hidden danger that work from home offers people, workers, um, a chance to do their jobs in a way that superficially feels like easy and the right. To do it and the way they prefer to do it. But in the, in the long haul of things, that’s a lot of time in front of a screen and maybe people’s happiness with it or just with life in general is gonna suffer as a result.


Anne Helen Petersen: See, I think part of what my co-author Charlie Warzel and I argue in our book Out of Office, is that flexible and hybrid work actually allows you to make space in your life for things that aren’t work. In a way that for a lot of people is really novel because if you are commuting in, you leave at 8:00 AM you drop your kid off at daycare, you get them at 5:00 PM you come home, you do like the, the manic like get stuff ready for your kid. Or even if you don’t have a kid, you know, when I lived in New York, like my day, if I had a chance to run before I went into the office and then commuted in, went home at six, got home at seven, like God forbid I got a drink. And like got home at nine, like there’s nothing else. There’s no room for any volunteer work. There’s no room for hobbies. Like when I lived in New York, my hobby was like running. It’s not really a hobby unless you like really make it one, right? There was no, there was just work and like maybe like diffuse, like try to blow off steam on the weekends. A lot of people just don’t have a self outside of work in parenting. A lot of people can do their job more efficiently and effectively if they decide when and where they do it, and some of that might include office hours. But what it means is that you can try, like the catchphrase is like instead of you arranging your life entirely around work, you can arrange your work around your life. You can have a life as the core, or at least as the general third. You know, as the old labor rallying cry went like eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will. So trying to recuperate that what you will from the space that has been lost. Again, that takes discipline because I think most of us who were broken by workism, by this dedication to work, working all the time is the only way that you keep afloat.


Anne Helen Petersen: We are broken in various ways and don’t know how to stop working, so you have to be very like conscious of like, okay, more work isn’t always better work. Which again, is another revelation too. [music break]



Brian Beutler: I’d be curious where you think the culture aspect of this ends and the financial aspect begins.


Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm.


Brian Beutler: Because I mean, some of the problems you described are very clearly inherent to the jobs themselves and the national culture of workism. But like do they also seem affected by questions like whether the jobs pay enough to allow people to live close to where they work?


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Brian Beutler: Right. Or is, does housing policy near where jobs are force people to move further and further away.


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.


Brian Beutler: And , and so then it’s sort of like, are we, are we celebrating the end of commuting and, and like the office centered life rather than the dawn of work from home.


Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm. I mean, both. Right? Can we, can we celebrate both? [laugh] I I do think that like, you know, oftentimes this discussion arrives at a point where people say, well, this is a privileged discussion. We are only talking about office workers. Like no frontline workers can have flexibility, which is very false, right? If you think about nurses, many of the nurses I know part of the reason they became nurses is because they wanted the specific flexibility that nursing schedule allows. Right? Where especially after the first few years, they can have control over, I work four days four on, four off. Right. Like whatever their different scheduling is, they have more control over it. And it is flexible, right? It is a hybrid scenario. Same thing with a lot of restaurant workers. I know, right? Who part of the reason they like restaurant work is because it’s not a nine to five.


Anne Helen Petersen: It’s a very different sort of schedule. Now this disappears when you have exploitative employers who do like last minute scheduling, right? The sort of things that really rest, all sort of flexibility away from people. But it reminds me of like a conversation I was had recently about why a teen would ever babysit if they can get more money working at Target. And it’s because teens don’t necessarily, unless they really need the money, want to work at a prescriptive time every single day, like four days a week, right? They wanna be able to be like, I need some cash. I wanna work then. Right. It’s the same argument that I think like a lot of freelance stuff does in a, in a kind of gross way. Like Uber’s always like, do you wanna have flexible job drive Uber? But that is part of the draw is how do you get flexibility in a job that isn’t necessarily in an office? And so I think like we’re having these conversations in all different types of work right now, trying to think about how to make work better, and sometimes focusing uniquely on like how many days in the office or how do we improve Zoom technology instead of well, the problem is, is that like the minimum wage is not a working wage and or a living wage in most places in the country, right? Or the problem is we have no social safety net, or the problem is we have job block because people are scared to lose their jobs or leave their jobs and lose their health insurance, right? So all these other mitigating factors as well.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I wanted to actually ask you a question like, is the job paying you enough, or is housing affordable near where you work? It’s like, to what extent is the conversation driven by the money side of the labor management bargaining unit having been frozen for so long, like dealing with this or that aspect of work that I don’t like, would be easier to bear with a nice raise. But since I’m not gonna get one, maybe we can build a new process around this or rules, uh, to make the time I spend working less of a tax on my state of being.


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.


Brian Beutler: And if, if the money spigot were to open, would the conversation, dry up?


Anne Helen Petersen: Well, I think looking at nonprofits is actually an interesting example of this because nonprofits, even before the pandemic, have offered a lot of interesting benefits and flexibility for workers because they don’t pay very much, right?


Brian Beutler: Mm-hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: So it’s like we’re gonna pay you very little and maybe you actually need to have someone working at a much better, well paying job, uh, in order to even work this job. But we will offer a really great maternity leave. Um, we have sabbaticals paid and unpaid. We, uh, have unlimited PTO. We, uh, allow you to work from home even before the pandemic for this many days a week. Like just much more flexible in those capacities. But I think at some point you have workers in these nonprofits who are also kind of burnt out, right? Because they are oftentimes oversubscribed to the amount of things that they, that are on their plates, like there’s just too much that they’re supposed to be doing. Who are saying, well, what if we had all those things and also you paid us a little bit more, right? Like, what if it wasn’t a trade off? What if part of our mission, what if we rearrange some of our funding apparatus to say like, we want to pay people enough so that people can have this job and not have to have a spouse. Right? We wanna open this up so it’s not just people at a point in their life when they want this sort of flexible three quarters time work. What, how do we make this into a different sort of job? And in so doing also attract different sorts of candidates and specifically outside of the, the most common pool for non-profit jobs, which is white women. And so I think that’s like, you know, an interesting place to, to think about what’s happening now is these companies who are like, well, we gave you all the, we gave you all the good stuff. Why isn’t that enough? Because I think it’s not, It’s not enough, and also salary is not enough either.


Brian Beutler: Right. I mean, I’ve, I’ve seen, I’ve seen those sort of grasses always greener thing from people in the private sector—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Brian Beutler: —and the non-profit sector. And they sometimes like revolving door with each other because they’re like, I need to make more money, or I need to, I need to do something that I care about or I need to, uh, have just. You know, less demands on my time, but my sense is that if you, you ask median office worker, how much money would you sacrifice for a year of just being happier at your job?


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.


Brian Beutler: They’re not gonna say a whole lot of money. Right, like— [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, well, that’s, that’s an interesting proposition. You know, the other day someone was talking about how their therapist told them that part of their, their unhappiness at work was that they were trying to be amazing at their job instead of just happy at their job. And that is a particular, uh, affliction of a certain type of worker, right? That like, okay, I’m just trying to be like, you know, A plus. Like absolutely. The teacher’s pat, like doing everything all the time at work and I don’t know any other mode. Instead of thinking about like, what would it take for me to be content at work instead of the best at work? What would that mean?


Brian Beutler: You know, asking, asking somebody like, alright, we’ll make your, we’ll make the work culture here better, but we’re gonna take $5,000 off of your raise or whatever.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Brian Beutler: No, I’ll take the money. Right. On the flip side, on the flip side, it’s like if somebody asked me like, how much money would you insist on being paid before you agreed to take a job at at Initech from Office Space and work for Bill Lumber?


[clip from Office Space]: Yeah, did you see the memo about this?


Brian Beutler: I personally would say like, no amount of money, I will not do that. But I think that like I’m weird and most people would say, yeah, you know what? Pay me a normal amount of money and I will go disappear into a job and be fine with it.


Anne Helen Petersen: But the proposition I think changes when you don’t make it directly. Like, okay, at your current job, let’s take money away from you to make it good culture. If you make it more into, and I have seen this many times, people who are like, the work culture at my employer sucks. It’s never going to get better. I am willing to take a pay cut. Which is again, take away five, $10,000 in order to work at this company that is committed to essentially like sustainable work life. And that might be that they are successfully working with a four day work week. Right. Or that in tech, I know a lot of companies who are like, okay, we are not, we are not hockey stick model. Right. We do not have the like rapid growth kill everyone in the process model.


Brian Beutler: We’re, we’re fine with just succeeding.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Which again, most companies in like the, the golden age of American capitalism, which is usually understood as like maybe like kind of 1950 to like 1965, 1970, like that’s, that was kind of at the heart of the way of their growth patterns. It was not rapid growth, accelerated growth, capitalism the way that we have now. So it’s like, okay, would I work at that company? Maybe it’s kind of boring right. Because sometimes I think people are addicted to drama in their jobs. [laughter]


Brian Beutler: Yeah, for sure.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right? And they’re, they’re martyrs, right? They’re like, It is so bad and I am not quitting.


Brian Beutler: And they’re competitive and they, they, they want to outshine their colleagues and get the raise and the promotion and things like that. I mean, I have a, I have a friend who, um, who coined the term “medium-chill” to describe like how he, how he’s tried to find a mode that’s sort of like the one that your friend, um, that you were just mentioning was. Just like you don’t, you don’t need to, um, prove that you’re a striver or even strive super hard, just like find a way to, uh, to, to coast without, like, I like branding yourself as some sort of undependable—


Anne Helen Petersen: The medium-chill is the like now version of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit who was a guy like an archetype of the 1950s. Also the name of a successful book and movie that was like just a company man. Right, Just kind of blended in there. You didn’t necessarily distinguish yourself. You were just a guy, right, who is doing their job and there’s enemy in that too, right? Like there can also be great sadness and depression and like feeling like you’re just a cog in this larger office machine. So there’s—


Brian Beutler: Yes. Where I was sort of going is that like, I mean, he ended up having to go work for himself because [laughter], I think in a work environment where you try to find that, but but the, your coworkers and your bosses aren’t on that mode.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: Then yes, you end up miserable. I was, I was thinking of quiet, quitting when you were talking about like, you don’t have to be like the best at your job. That maybe, maybe what like the, the future of work would benefit most from is like more of an ethic of like, let’s all, let’s all aim for a solid B plus instead of an A plus all the time. But like then you need, you need everyone else to want to do that too.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Well, this is why the entire like rhetoric of quiet quitting is so frustrating because it frames it as like slacking instead of I’m doing my job as described.


Brian Beutler: Yeah. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Right?


Brian Beutler: Exactly.


Anne Helen Petersen: Like that is what quiet quitting was, was like doing your job. And I think that, you know, the way that we think about work is that you always have to be distinguishing yourself through overwork. You always have to be breaking boundaries of like, what is set up for you in terms of this is what a normal person should do in terms of how many hours, like whatever HR says in terms of like, this is how we, how much we expect you to work. You evidence your excellence by ignoring that advice. That is how you excel in contemporary business culture. It’s how you excel in academia. It’s how you excel in the nonprofit space too, is like not listening to what your body or your friends or anyone tells you about working too much and, quiet quitting, if we could reframe that as just like a healthy work, a healthy relationship to work like unbreaking your relationship with work, that would be very different. But I don’t know if we’re there.


Brian Beutler: I think that you should know like it, you should lean into it because it’s sort of like evidence for the thesis underlying burnout right? Is, is we have reframed, um, like doing the job that we were hired to do as slacking [laughter] and the norm has become where the expectation has become, that we do all this extra shit. Um, and anything less than that is, is now conceived of as the culture as slacking off in some way.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: Well, like if, if you put everyone on that mode, you know, the majority of people are gonna end up burnt out.


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 100% [laughter] when I think like Gen Z is resisting this, some parts of Gen Z is resisting this, right? This, this general like workism and some parts, the disheartening parts to me are like, why do millennials whine all the time? Like all you talk about is how you have student loans and like can’t afford a house. And it’s the people that I recognize this posture because I think I used to have a little bit of it that are like, well, you guys just clearly didn’t work hard enough. No wonder you’re like stuck in this job. No wonder you have so much student debt, like you didn’t take, I’m gonna work harder and I’m gonna show you. And it takes, I think, advancing a little bit over your work career to realize that you know, meritocracy doesn’t exist and you can’t always work your way into stability.


Brian Beutler: Okay. So I mentioned in my intro that essential workers get sort of short shrift in all this.


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.


Brian Beutler: And you said something that made me think that maybe I’m wrong about that. So I’m wondering what are some ideas you’ve come across that could deal them into this conversation about workplace culture? Or were you suggesting that they really kind of are dealt into it and it just doesn’t seem that way to people like me who, who don’t work in essential— [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, no—


Brian Beutler: —in an essential employment line of work?


Anne Helen Petersen: Well I think that we can, we can acknowledge that there are flexible elements to lots of different frontline jobs. While also saying we need labor protections in place that make it so that those jobs are better jobs than they are right now. Right. So whether that’s like expanding the, the regulations that are in place in some places that prevent short term scheduling. So changing the scheduling right before in ways that are really disruptive, not just to personal lives, but like to finding childcare, any sort of thing. But then also, I mean this is where I think a UBI, a universal basic income could solve a whole lot of problems. This is also where universal healthcares, it could solve a lot of problems. Like what are the ways. As a country, but also on the more local and and institutional level, how can we make those jobs into better jobs? And so for me, like that’s a more interesting question than thinking about like, how can the person working at the CVS counter do their job remotely? I’m more interested in how can we make that job at CVS a better job?


Brian Beutler: I mean, I don’t even know if conceptually it would hold up, but like to unionize across frontline jobs as opposed to sector like service sector union and separate union over here some way, and I don’t even know if unionization is the right like concept for it, but um, like it seems to me like we, either the workers or society, Congress, I don’t know, should like think through this specific question because it’s not hard to imagine the kinds of disruption to like the teaching profession or the service industry that could make the rest of the working population less free to explore the kinds of workplace reforms that we’ve just been describing.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep, yep.


Brian Beutler: Right because, you know, if teachers get driven out of the profession because they’re being harassed constantly or because there’s another pandemic. Like none. None of the stuff we talk about is gonna be relevant anymore because everyone’s gonna be working from home with their kids in miserable— [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, no, 100%. 100%. And I think that’s true in other professions too, especially in the growing. Freelancification, outsourcing contract work sector like labor laws have just failed to grapple in any meaningful way with the percentage of the employed population that is now working in that capacity and how it evades a lot of existing labor laws. So how do we, how do we update our understanding of labor protections to address. The incredible ways that the work, the workforce has shifted so many different ways, and I still feel like the last, like signif— like we just, there is no, um, there’s no nimbleness, there is no adaptability. Like I, there hasn’t been significant change to the way that we think about how labor is organized or how freelancing labor is organized in so long. And you look at the EU, I think people oftentimes are like, oh my gosh. They’re just like legislating all over the place. And my friend who lives over there was like, no, you Americans are just like so used to such a sclerotic legislative apparatus that never does anything, that never updates anything that you can’t even conceive of a legislative body that would be reactive to changes that happened in the last six months or the changes that were happening over the last two years.


Brian Beutler: Right. So like Congress is probably not gonna be the solution to this, at least not in time. [laugh] Like maybe after, after it’s too late, or like when we’re in the midst of some future disruption that, uh, that throws our work life balance into disarray again. But have you seen anything on that front, maybe outside of the political realm or the legislative realm that makes you think that there’s like progress being made so that like we don’t have to worry about it. This all being kinda like a house of cards conversation?


Anne Helen Petersen: No, because I do think that some of the reforms have to happen on the national level, right? Like this is when I look even at how different municipalities and states are trying to address the childcare shortage. You can only patch so much. If you have an, it’s like an incredible shortage in state of Texas, right? You have it in all of these other countries, like they, they rely on each other in all of these different ways. And when you fund teachers and very antiquated and I think regressive ways that make it so that teachers will cross state lines to work for different districts, all that sort of thing. Like, it just, it’s so piecemeal. And I also think that we are, I mean this kind of, I think this is true of all of our politics right now. We are at the bottom [laugh] right? Maybe it could go further, but we are like, it has to get worse, [both speaking] it has to get worse. Like I think all of these. Frontline organizations, whether it’s people who are looking for retail workers or people who are looking for nurses or people who are looking for teachers, they are in triage mode right now because they’re losing workers so fast that you can’t even start to think about like, oh, how do we rearrange this to make it better? They’re so, it’s so panicked that they’re not thinking about systemic solutions, and I don’t blame them. Like I understand why that that is the case, but this is also the true of, I think, true of the way, like the City of New York is handling the fact that no one hangs out in Midtown anymore.


Brian Beutler: Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: They’re like, oh my gosh, let’s force people back into the office instead of thinking about what can we do with Midtown. That’s different.


Brian Beutler: Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: So there’s not a, there’s a paucity of imagination. I think right now.


Brian Beutler: I, I used to sort of wonder if maybe like the. The ravaging of like the wine industry or the golf industry, you know, things that rich people do.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: Would make like the rich strata of society care more about climate change. It’s like, oh, it’s affecting my, my luxury things. And so now like, we’ll, we’ll take it seriously. And I actually kind of think that it had some, like something like that did kind of happen, but not quick enough and not, yeah, like substantially enough.


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.


Brian Beutler: And maybe the challenge is to make people, not just in the rich strata, but like in the, in the upper middle class and the middle class strata, realized that the things that they are now settling into or, um, trying to like solidify in their lives as like better ways of, of doing their job than they did before, um, requires like a kind of solidarity that they—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.


Brian Beutler: Because if, because it’s, very fragile and will go away if, if there’s another pandemic, for instance. Um, and you know, last one, we kind of like had to build a safety net from scratch. And we had to, it was all very ad-libbed and um, like we could clearly do better, but like, it, it, it will come at the cost of some of the gains we’ve made um, if like the kinds of people who are listening to this show don’t suggest it, or legislate leaders like, hey, maybe do something to make their lives better so that—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Brian Beutler: —my life doesn’t come undone.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Brian Beutler: When the bottom falls out from underneath them.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. No, and that’s something that I think both Charlie and I talk about a lot is that if you advocate for like, personal, better work life balance and everything else is in flames around you. Who cares, right? Like all we are so connected with one another, like our civilization on the micro and macro level is just so interdependent. And I think people very much understand that from the pandemic. And you know, the old, I’ve heard it many times in progressive circles that like you should vote as if in the interest of the most vulnerable person in your community, right? I think that your policy and your attitudes towards work should be in the interest of the person with the worst job in your community. Like how do we, how do we create a better work environment all the way up and down?


Brian Beutler: That’s a good note to end on, and it brings us sort of full circle to the midterms, which we didn’t even discuss at all.


Anne Helen Petersen: Not at all. [laughter]


Brian Beutler: Anne Helen Petersen. Thank you for spending an hour of your time with us when you could have been enjoying New York. And, uh, everybody subscribe to her newsletter Culture Study and her new podcast Work Appropriate.


Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you so much. We have so many really good episodes in the can, so I can’t wait for them to come out.


Brian Beutler: I, I have only heard the ones that have like come out publicly. I didn’t get special access to ’em, so I’m very excited.


Anne Helen Petersen: Awesome. Thank you again. [music break]


Brian Beutler: You know, whenever there’s some new discourse about the future of work or work culture or whatever you wanna call it, it becomes vulnerable to a kind of knee jerk reaction. The kind Anne was talking about from critics who insist it’s just lazy whining from entitled brats and their view is sort of atmospherically bolstered by the fact that people who drive, quote unquote “discourses” are by and large, fairly elite people. Lucky people in many ways. I have to confess, I remember thinking this myself several years ago when I read Anne’s big piece on millennial burnout. Actually remember reading it and being of two minds like, yes, this describes me. I’m familiar with this, and also who am. Who are we to complain when we got the golden tickets? But if you listen to this conversation with an open mind, you should come away realizing that the critique isn’t limited to elite millennials, and it isn’t about competing work ethics. It’s a big capacious structural critique of how generally unforgiving labor is. And has been to the last couple generations of workers, and it’s about buying some of us lucky duckies into a feeling of solidarity with people who have it worse, so that we’ll feel invested in making not just our own work lives better, but theirs as well, both for the selfish reason. We need the whole system to be stable if we wanna thrive in it. And for the selfless one, we all deserve to live rewarding dignified lives. [music break] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez. Our producer is Olivia Martinez, and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.