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Tech Layoffs Reveal America’s Unhealthy Obsession With Work

It’s so nice that everything’s back to normal at the office now, isn’t it? If “normal” means mass layoffs, empty office buildings, confusing return-to-office policies, AI panic, and the whiplash-y feeling that just when employees were starting to redraw some boundaries between work and home, an economic downturn has forced society to fret even more about work. Managers are channeling this too by emphasizing “efficiency”—at least if they’re not among the many managers Mark Zuckerberg has laid off in his quest for, well, efficiency.

In this sense, Simone Stolzoff’s new book couldn’t be better-timed. The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work posits that we—and Americans, especially—have fetishized work to the point that we’ve lost our identities to it. “For white-collar professionals, jobs have become akin to a religious identity: In addition to a paycheck, they provide meaning, community, and a sense of purpose,” says Stolzoff, a designer who has worked at IDEO and written for The Atlantic, Quartz, and WIRED.

The book kicks off with a parable about an MBA type urging a fisherman to scale his business into a global operation. The fisherman replies that he already has what the MBA is promising he could achieve in the long term: enough success to feed himself and his family, as well as plenty of time for leisure. The MBA is, of course, befuddled. It’s a tiny but meaningful story that goes down as easy as an oyster; the book makes a tasty meal of snackable tales and anecdotes. 

The Good Enough Job, which I’ve been reading this week, also includes reporting on the decline of organized religion, the rise of always-online work culture, and our willingness to use work as a means of self-actualization. It all adds up to a stark portrait of a society truly obsessed with work. That’s risky, Stolzoff says, especially in light of the recent layoffs in the tech sector. I talked with him about our relationship to work and whether it’s possible to achieve any kind of work-life equilibrium in the modern era. The book comes out in the US on May 23. 

WIRED: Why is office work so weird right now? Assuming you agree that it is, in fact, weird. 

Simone Stolzoff: Yeah. I’m reminded of when I worked as a summer camp counselor growing up and during our training the camp’s director always said, “Kids’ biggest fear is that no one is in control.” And I think that is happening for office workers right now, without a clear mandate or a clear vision of what the future of the workplace looks like. It feels like everything is in flux. Managers are dealing with their own uncertainty around the reevaluation of the role of work in their lives while they’re also trying to be leaders and speak with confidence about a future that no one can really predict.

Just yesterday someone told me, “I am a manager and my employees are coming to me and being forthright about the fact that they’re updating their LinkedIn profiles and their resumes.” She has been telling them that she’s doing the same. Increased uncertainty has led to much more open communication about the fact that even jobs that felt stable, are not necessarily such. But this also speaks to the fact that no one really knows what the future of work holds and people are making it up as they go along.

It sounds like a continuation of the pandemic, in the sense that this has all led to some people being their most vulnerable and transparent at the workplace. 

It’s a combination of both the pandemic and the economic climate. An employee at YouTube was telling me about how Alphabet is making workers come into the office three days a week. And she said that on the one hand she thinks it’s bullshit and that the company is just trying to justify the capital expenditures that they’ve made on offices. But she also admitted it makes sense because morale is low and employee workplace culture is nonexistent and coming back to the office is really one of the better ways managers have found to facilitate a more collectivist identity.