In last week’s briefing we brought you recent pieces chronicling the social effects of the shift toward “flexible capitalism.” As the interview with Ryan Avent showed, one likely implication of developments in machine learning is an overabundance of labor—given, of course, that we come to see human workers and machine “workers” as roughly equivalent in kind. For his part, Jon Malesic argued that if we are going to develop a theology of work capable of adequately addressing these new realities, the standard conceptions of vocation on offer won’t do, and should be supplemented with or replaced by a Benedictine model of work that limits, constrains, and situates work appropriately.
This week we continue this vein of thought, bringing you two pieces that, in their own ways, discuss the ways our work commitments both reflect and shape our expectations for work, life, and everything in between.
The first is an extended piece for New Republic by Miya Tokumitsu and Joeri Mol. Titled “Life at the Nowhere Office,” Mol and Tokumitsu turn their attention to the rise of the “inspired workspace,” which is marked by two basic and unquestioned design principles: “openness and a banishment of personal clutter.” The “new office,” as they put it, “presents itself as the interior design equivalent of everyone’s friend. It is comfortable and always available, a temporary platform onto which workers alight for meetings and some deskwork before fluttering off to another meeting, the home office, another job. But importantly, leave no trace behind. Remember: You have never been here.”
This new workplace aesthetic represents a commitment to the ideals of dynamism and mobility. The mechanics, built environment, and habits of body have long been topics of discussion for intellectuals, as Tokumitsu and Mol show well. (For two of my favorite examples, read just about any Paris Review interview, which is likely to include juicy anecdotes on a writer’s daily habits, or google any combination of the words “writing,” “shed,” and “design” and see what comes up.) What is unique about the new workplace aesthetic, however, is the degree to which it effaces any trace of personal or idiosyncratic pizzazz. Gone is Dylan Thomas’s messy “word-splashed hut,” replaced by the spareness and seeming of austerity of white conference tables intended to embody “materially luxuriant minimalism.”
And yet, as Tokumitsu and Mol argue, “when we scratch the surface of this new minimalism, there is, of course, plenty of junk.” It is, however, “concealed and out of sight,” displaced to another place or another time. As they put it, “office minimalism and tech minimalism are deceptively maximalist.” “Most work is dirty,” they argue, and “we often make it dirtier by trying to make it look clean.”
Our second piece, another by Ryan Avent on the topic of work, focuses on the ways our commitments to our work (particularly for elites within the knowledge economy) can not only influence but actually determine a whole host of decisions about other features of our lives, including the cities in which we choose to live.
Avent’s piece starts with a personal narrative about the rhythms of work in the “flexible economy”:
I live in a terraced house in Wandsworth, a moderately smart and wildly expensive part of south-west London, and a short train ride from the headquarters of The Economist, where I write about economics. I get up at 5.30am and spend an hour or two at my desk at home. Once the children are up I join them for breakfast, then go to work as they head off to school. I can usually leave the office in time to join the family for dinner and put the children to bed. Then I can get a bit more done at home: writing, if there is a deadline looming, or reading, which is also part of the job. I work hard, doggedly, almost relentlessly. The joke, which I only now get, is that work is fun.
Avent contrasts these working patterns with those of previous generations throughout the piece. His father, he tells us, worked hard, but the basic purpose of his labor was to provide the resources required for multiple other pursuits—family, hobbies, friendships, and the like. As Avent characterizes it, for his father (and, by extension, many in the post-war generation), “work was a means to an end; it was something you did to earn the money to pay for the important things in life.”
The allure of this kind of life haunts Avent, so much so that “in moments of exhaustion we imagine simpler lives in smaller towns with more hours free for family and hobbies and ourselves.” “Perhaps,” he continues, “we just live in a nightmarish arms race: if we were all to disarm, collectively, then we could all live a calmer, happier, more equal life.” In an ironic twist (at least to those of us who call Charlottesville home) Avent illustrates the allure of this calm and happy life by describing friends of his who escaped the work-obsessed culture of Washington, DC for the “idyllic little place” of Charlottesville, Virginia—surrounded, as it is, “by horse farms and vineyards” and full of “cheap, charming homes.” Intrigued by the courage of their friends, Avent and his wife considered the same. “We would be able to enjoy the fresh air, and the peace and quiet,” he surmises. “Perhaps at some point we would open our own shop on the main street or try our hand at winemaking, if we could save a little money.”
And yet, upon reflection, Avent came to his senses. As he puts it, “the more seriously we thought about it, the less I liked the idea.” Why, you ask?
I would miss, desperately, being in an office and arguing about ideas. More than that, I could anticipate with perfect clarity how the rhythm of life would slow as we left the city, how the external pressure to keep moving would diminish. I didn’t want more time to myself; I wanted to feel pushed to be better and achieve more. It wasn’t the stress of being on the fast track that caused my chest to tighten and my heart rate to rise, but the thought of being left behind by those still on it.
This sentiment highlights the basic ambivalence at the center of modern work: as the struggle for meaningful work becomes all the more real at the bottom, threatened as many workers are by the very real prospect of replacement, workers at the top of the knowledge economy are happily overworked. According to Avent, “The problem is not that overworked professionals are all miserable. The problem is that they are not.”