4 November 2021. Work | Ancestors
Millennials seem to quitting work faster than others; probably because it’s good for their health. How to take better care of the future.
Welcome to Just Two Things, which I try to publish daily, five days a week. (For the next few weeks this might be four days a week while I do a course: we’ll see how it goes). Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. Links to the main articles are in cross-heads as well as the story.
Welcome to issue 200 of Just Two Things; not a number I really thought I’d get to when I started out…
It turns out the latest moral panic about work —at least, abut our contemporary idea of work—is being fuelled by ‘The Great Resignation’ in the US, which I wrote about here recently. (‘The four Rs of post-pandemic America.’)
One of the elements of this is that it is Millennials who are disproportionately more likely to quit. One might say, ‘what are these young peole thinking of?’, were it not for the fact that the oldest Millennials are 41 this year; half a lifetime in, in other words.;
The writer Erin Lowry, who has written multiple books on Millennials, and is a Millennial herself, is having none of it. In a (partly gated) short column in Bloomberg, she suggests instead that the games’s up for the version of work that has been normalised in the last two decades.
Rather than laziness, it seems like part of what we’re seeing is a fundamental change in how people value work.
After 18 months of pandemic uncertainty altering how we work, it makes sense we’d return to the questions of why we work, and how our jobs affect our quality of life. Is there perhaps another way to earn an income that better aligns with our overall goals? Couldn’t we create a future of no longer using a career as the primary or sole basis of our identity and self-satisfaction? Shouldn’t this be a moment to consider how to work to live instead of live to work?
I was intrigued that Americans have a term for quitting to opt out of work for a while-“lying flat”—and that you see similar unflattering terms in some Asian cultures for younger people opting out of highly pressurised work. (‘Involution’ in China; ‘grass eaters’ in Japan. It turns out that the term ‘lying flat’ may have been borrowed from China.)
Lowry thinks that maybe they are just burnt out. In 2018 Gallup found that seven in ten Millennials reported signs if burnout, and almost three in ten reporting it as frequent or constant:
We can theorize that this burnout comes from the increasingly blurred boundaries between being on and off the clock. From being conditioned to believe that appearing “always available” is the hallmark of a promotable employee. From jobs that once required a high school diploma suddenly demanding a bachelor’s degree, forcing young people to get mired in never-before-seen levels of student loan debt.
We might add to this that emotional labour—always more present in service-heavy economies—makes it harder to keep a distance between one’s presence at work and one’s non-work self. John Urry and Scott Lash identified this as a possible issue in such economies as long ago as the 1990s, but lived experience takes time to catch up with sociology sometimes.
Lowry also notes that the psychological health of American millennials is worse than other generations, and that the data we have suggests that it has worsened over the last few years:
Quitting a job will never be a cure-all for underlying mental health issues, but taking a short-term hiatus from a large stressor and focusing on getting better can be helpful... Reducing future earnings potential to focus on mental health may sound ridiculous to some, but figuring out how to live a stable, balanced and healthy life at a young age could reap enormous rewards for the next generation — and for our workplaces.
Even in the alternate history where the pandemic didn’t happen it was possible that as the Millennials and their successor generations became the largest group in the workforce, we’d see a seachange in attitudes to work. I think we can file this as one of those transitions that the pandemic has accelerated.
I was prompted to think of the work of the philosopher Roman Krznaric on being a good ancestor by an email referencing an interview with him in MIT Review. Sadly, that was for subscribers only, but the 200-year perspective that he recommends seems appropriate both in the week of COP26 and on the day of my 200th edition.
So I have sourced an article about his work from the end of last year, in Grist magazine, instead.
The writer, Kate Yoder, characterises the idea that we can save the Earth for future generations as “a broad loose movement” that has emerged over the last decade. Krznaric describes this in his book, The Good Ancestor, as being a “time rebellion”.
Deep time is an antidote to the shortsightedness that has made governments so reluctant to act boldly to address the climate crisis... In his book, Krznaric looks to indigenous traditions, artistic projects, and new philosophies that seek to overcome this empathy barrier and fold the future into present concerns.
Yoder picks up three themes from the book that help is think better about deep time:
Think about the seventh generation
Imagine if every time a politician made a decision, they considered what it would mean for the well-being of people who will live 200 years from now, rather than worrying about what it’ll take to win the next election... In the last couple of decades, “seventh-generation thinking” has been adopted in sustainability circles. One of the goals of the global youth organization Earth Guardians is to “protect our planet and its people for the next seven generations.” In a 2008 speech, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom raised the question of how to preserve resources for the future, saying, “I think we should all reinstate in our mind the seven-generation rule.”
Pretend you’re living in 2060
From small towns like Yahaba to major cities like Kyoto, Japanese cities have instituted an unusual type of city-planning meeting. One group of citizens at the meeting advocates for current residents, while another group dons special ceremonial robes and conceives itself as “future residents” from 2060. Studies have shown that these future residents advocate for more transformative changes in urban planning, especially around health and environmental action.
(Photo: the forest outside Oslo that will grow the paper for the Future Library edition. Source: The Future Library)
Give a gift to future generations
Six years ago (in 2014), Scottish artist Katie Paterson created the Future Library, a century-long art project. Each year, a famous writer (the first two were Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell) donates a new work to the project — one that no one else has ever read. At the end of the project, in 2114, the 100 books will be printed on paper from a forest outside Oslo that’s been planted for this express purpose, to be enjoyed by the readers of the 22nd century.
Krznaric says that an “intergenerational Golden Rule” drives these kinds of projects: a “basic empathic principle” that we should treat others as we’d want to be treated, including people who might be distant from us in space and time.
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