Once again, I’m inspired to respond to Roxane Gay’s Work Friend column from the New York Times. I’ve responded to her columns in the past, the most recent one where she lambasted CEOs who call their employees a “family.”
This past weekend, she summarized and responded to many of the questions and comments she’s received over the past year. “People are trying to figure out how to navigate ever-evolving workplace norms,” she writes. And, from what I’ve seen, I agree whole heartedly.
In life, change is the only constant, and our circumstances and experiences regarding work have changed dramatically in the past few years, exacerbated by the pandemic. But I don’t quite end up in the same place she does. Here are my takes on what she wrote.
1. “We all have different circumstances, but most of us contend with the same stark reality – we don’t have as much control over our professional lives as we want and need and deserve.”
This is true: as workers, we don’t have much control. But workers haven’t had control over their work lives since the industrial revolution (in the late 1800’s); it’s been the curse of the modern world since we stopped farming independently.
That said, I can tell you that this was one of the reasons I stopped working for others (twice). I formed my own company in 1999, then left it when I was offered an exciting opportunity to execute a “turn around,” and I did it again, in 2016, when I started my current consulting business. And, to her point, one of the big reasons I went out on my own was to have greater control over my professional life.
But, as I mentioned above, very few people have control over their work lives. This phenomenon, wanting (or feeling we “deserve” control) was brought to the forefront during the pandemic. How we lived and worked became the biggest struggle of our lives as we had to “reinvent” work and home life. (Please note: the ones who didn’t confront this were essential workers, who found themselves in the exact same work lives they had before, only with greater risk to their personal health.)
And, to get back to my point about going off on my own, very few people can toss in the towel and become their own boss. Or have the desire to do so. No, the vast majority of the workforce is comprised of people working for organizations, reporting to a manager. Not much has changed there.
But the expectation that we have more control has changed, as she notes above. It’s prompted by the fact that, “we are stuck …with a terrible job or a terrible boss…” And now, thanks to social media, we can talk about it, share with one another, and see how many others are subjected to toxic workplace situations.
2. “What we should do (quit our job/go back to school, etc.) and what we can do are two different things.”
All of us, including Roxane herself, have obligations – financial and personal – as well as fears when it comes to making a change. She reveals some of her own circumstances, thoughts, and fears, as well as her workaholic tendencies, drawing us closer to her through her sharing and vulnerability.
What we’d like to do is often diametrically opposed to what we feel or believe we have to do. But our relationship with work itself is an even larger issue, which brings us to her third point, which is the “obsession of work as a virtue” in the United States.
3. “… the harder we work, the closer we are to God. It’s a toxic cultural myth… “
Roxane harkens back to our Puritanical roots in the U.S., where “good works” revealed a divine spirit within us. And for me, this gets at the crux of where the issues between the different generations begins. This is why the term ‘quiet quitting’ gained such relevance (doing only what is necessary, not going over-and-above) with younger workers. This explains why there’s such a disconnect between younger workers and their managers and senior leaders.
For many older workers, it’s been an important internal value to do well at work. And yes, it can be traced back to our Puritan roots. The Boomer generation, and Gen X, were brought up to strive to be our best and do their best, at work and in life. One of the signs that their work was recognized were raises and promotions, as well as other rewards. But that’s the older generations – not Gen Z or younger Millennials.
It’s important to take a pause here to remember that Roxane only hears from people who are unhappy, or have big questions. As the Work Friend columnist, she’s not hearing from those who are happy. Her universe consists of those not succeeding, or not buying into the dominant culture or themes.
And, with that in mind, she’s responding to these requests and pleas for help. She has her ear to the ground and has diagnosed the issue. What has she heard?
For too many, “the expectations that we should go above and beyond for employers who feel no reciprocal responsibility is a grand, incredibly destructive lie.” Many younger workers grew up watching their parents work very hard all their lives, only to be brushed aside when the economy went bad or they got to a certain age. They witnessed bad actions by employers and realized that, as Roxane notes, employers usually act selfishly and not in the best interest of their workers.
It’s in the face of this reality: that working hard doesn’t pay off in the end. No, it just means you worked hard and you were not appreciated for it, and were cast aside when you were deemed expendable.
4. Roxane ends on the note: “we should all take some time to reflect on who we are and what gives us meaning beyond what we do.”
I believe this is great advice for the year for everyone, of all ages. We all get to recalibrate and think about who is important to us and how we want to spend our lives, outside of work.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t also find some joy and meaning as we work. While I agree with Roxane that we wouldn’t want the epitaph on our tombstone to read, “This is someone who worked really hard,” shouldn’t we also strive to try to find joy in what we do for so many hours, every day?
There’s something to be said for learning how to bring our gifts and talents to what we do for a living. There will always be work that is hard or boring; that’s why it’s called “work” to begin with! But we can also be on the move internally, navigating towards what we do well and what we enjoy doing (at the same time), whether it’s within the realm of our job, pursuing a different role, or finding an entirely new job or company.
I appreciate hearing what Roxane is learning and remain hopeful that younger generations will be able to tap into what they’re good at, naturally. No matter what your age, if you’re reading this and want to learn more about how to engage be engaged yourself, or to engage younger and older works, let’s talk!