Note: Jason Theodore presented this at FITC earlier this year; we are thrilled to re-run his incredible post on ARCOMPANY’s blog. This is Part I of a two-part series of the Working Dead.
Go to Google and type these three words: “work makes me…” Take a look at the auto-completed phrases. We have become the working dead.
For over a decade (as a creative director in digital advertising) I’ve been keeping notes on work — recording noticeable flaws and dreaming up new structures. I thought they might come in handy if I every decided to start my own company. They have become a loose manifesto called 8 Steps to Jobvana. I’ve never shared it with anyone because I always thought them fragile and somewhat naive.
But I’ve started to notice a trend. #TheFutureOfWork has become a recurring topic. Technology is replacing and transforming jobs and job habits. Millennials (the generation after X) are becoming the majority in the workplace. Work is changing. But what can we do about it?
*Warning: There are some minor plot spoilers below for The Walking Deadtelevision show.
We all complain about work. That’s the most insidious part of the culture: the fact that none of us enjoy it. And yet off we go every day doing nothing about it.
This is a path fueled by cynicism, politicking, and self-interest/loathing. Only, it’s not a path, but a ladder; where the only view worth seeing is from the top — and it’s getting top-heavy. It’s a model inspired by the Industrial Age to worship efficiency and limitless growth. The lower you are down the ladder, the harder you have to work for the least amount of pay. It was created for a world just getting used to mass production, transitioning out of slavery and feudalism into the world of jobs and then careers. At one point, you could be loyal to a company, work very hard, and retire with dignity. Those days are very long gone.
The truth is, the death of the career happened a generation ago. Yet many companies have an undying belief in the legacy systems and structures they have in place. Or perhaps they have no belief at all, but simply lack imagination. Who came up with 9-to-5, the five-day work week, or sitting in a cubical to get things done? These remnants don’t reflect the changing technology or the shifting culture that are upon us today. There is a gap between the rising Millennial workforce, the GenX managers, and the Boomer owners.
Welcome to the Workpocalypse.
In 1991, Douglas Coupland popularized the term McJob in his seminal masterpiece Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. He defined a McJob as “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.”
Fast-forward almost a quarter century and the McJob is replaced by theiJob: a no-pay, no-prestige, no-dignity, no-benefit, anti-job in the service sector run by data analysis and software algorithms, not humans.
“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.” (Tom Goodwin forTechcrunch, March 3, 2015)
Eliminating the middleman also eliminates the middle-jobs. Companies like 99designs, Homejoy, and Uber are “now employing armies of human workers, optimizing their output, productivity and quality while driving prices down — all without managers to direct those who are performing the jobs. ‘Management’ is almost completely done by machines and algorithms.” (Reuven Gorsht, SAP for Forbes)
What’s left? McGigs. These aren’t even jobs, but one-offs from services like TaskRabbit, Postmates, and Fiverr. And they usually come with a lot of legwork, rejection, time, effort, and very little monetary reward. (Read Sarah Kessler’s Fast Company article Pixel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In The Gig Economy for an intimate perspective on this.) The cynicism of the working dead is powered by a devastating reality.
In its most bitter and vitriolic form, here are the 8 traits sucking the lifeforce out of the workforce, and perpetuating the Workpocalypse.
The foundation of many companies, their main goal, is to make MONEY. It doesn’t matter how you do it, or what the consequences are as long as more than enough money is flowing in. This single-minded focus brings industries to the conclusion that money is the sole motivator for both talent and leadership. But while money is the carrot, it also becomes the stick. Once a contract is signed, employees are electronically tethered to their jobs 24/7. We pay you, now you have to do what we say.
And you only get your MONEY if you follow the RULES. These rules are designed to keep everyone in line, to keep everyone from taking advantage of the company. These rules are imposed without consultation. Consequently, the RULES become a challenge for what workers can get away with. How can they be gamed? Employees add up all their sick days, personal days, and bereavement days and tack them on to their vacations and weekend.
When people are gaming the RULES, there is crisis after crisis. And management is in perpetual REACTION mode. Someone is sick (again), someone isn’t quite finished, someone thought someone-else was supposed to do that. Managers are scrambling to enforce the rules and motivate staff by intimidation. But in a company without inspiration, you get minimal effort and have to scramble every day. You are always treating the symptoms and not the cause.
FEAR quashes innovation. Effort is wasted putting out fires and trying to enforce the rules. Everyone has their heads down, and no one speaks up. As Richard Sheridan, author of Joy Inc. points out, “Fear doesn’t make bad news go away, fear makes bad news go into hiding. If mistakes are hidden they grow until they metastasize and kill the organization… Fear-based management systems make good people lie.”
Now that you’ve got good people doing bad things, you need to police them more, exhibit more CONTROL. Control what programs they use for communication. Control the devices they use to do their work. Control when they eat and when they sleep, when they can talk and to whom. Make sure they have limited access to decision makers. Employees will double-down and hide more secrets.
All of this CONTROL breeds PARANOIA. Who’s got your back? (Hint: no one!) Who’s spreading rumours about you? (Hint: Everyone!) Someone’s reading your mail, they must be! So-and-so saw you come in half-an-hour late today! What’s-his-name noticed you were watching a cat video instead of working, and now you want an extension? Everyone’s playing politics and everyone’s out to get you.
If MONEY and CONTROL motivate you enough, and you align yourself with the right people, you might claw your way up the ladder to management yourself. At every rung, there’s a new clique of protectionist, PARANOID leadership, enforcing the RULES and REACTING to dissent by instilling FEAR. If you sacrifice everything else in your life, you might reach the final CLIQUE, the inner-circle of executive management.
It’s not lonely at the top. It’s crowded! There is a monumental gap in earnings between the serfs (the workers) and the kingsmen in the C-Suite. Now it’s time to protect your fiefdom. Because the company has built their foundation on a desired result instead of a vision, all your effort must go into promoting and perpetuating the dysfunctional work culture in order to PRESERVE your status. You are now Emperor of The Working Dead.
Change is dictated from the C-suite. The current business elite have not evolved with the times. They are resistant to change because of the risk to business performance. They are also reticent to disclose their ignorance of this emerging space and therefore unable to make informed decisions. From this perspective, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The old-dog new trick syndrome comes at a cost, especially in an environment that is constantly evolving. — Hessie Jones, The #FutureOfBusiness is Social: Adapt or Die
Part II of this series will outline The 8 Steps to Jobvana. Stay tuned.
Jason Theodor is an accomplished writer and speaker, with online presentations that have attracted over 600,000 views and speaking appearances at conferences worldwide including FITC, NxNEi, iab MIXX, and CodeMotion. He is an award-winning digital creative director for top-tier ad agencies, combining his love for technology, strategy, and creativity.