Review: It’s not just where we’ll work. It’s also how & how much (review of Out of Office)

Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

That’s great advice to give if you’re a divorce lawyer or cardiologist looking for future clients and patients.

But it’s lousy advice for the rest of us, according to the authors of Out of Office.

“A lot of us find something that we’re good at and like and then try to make a career out of it in some way,” say journalists Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen. “Those who’ve followed this pernicious advice to ‘do what you love’ know this endgame: it’s a burnout trap, and a fantastic way to evacuate all pleasure and passion from an activity. Do what you love and you’ll work every day for the rest of your life.”

Here’s an alternative. Take what you love and make it your hobby.

“The restoration we find in hobbies can make us better partners, better friends, better listeners and collaborators, just overall better people to be around,” says Warzel and Petersen. “Hobbies help us cultivate essential parts of us that have been suffocated by productivity obsessions and proliferating obligations. The hobby in itself ultimately matters far less than what its existence provides: a means of tilting your identity away from a person who is good at doing a lot of work.”

Warzel and Petersen have a few hobby ground rules.

No turning your hobby into a money-making side hustle. Your hobby is not a productivity hack or a professional development opportunity. Don’t perform your hobby on social media in a bid to win likes and shares. And if you’re a mom or dad, don’t make your hobby a family affair.

“Sublimating your desire for activities that don’t involve your children does not make you a more impressive parent; it just makes you a more exhausted and resentful one.”

Not sure what to do for a hobby that isn’t tied to making money, advancing your career or building your personal brand?  “Think back on a time in your life before you regularly worked for pay,” say Warzel and Petersen “Recall, if you can, an expanse of unscheduled time that was, in whatever way, yours. What did you actually like to do?”

Petersen and Warzel prescribe hobbies as one way to course correct after a pandemic that’s thrown work-life balance out of whack for many of us.

While we’ve spent a lot of time mulling over where we’ll work post-pandemic, how we’ll work is the bigger question.

Warzel and Petersen say we need to “think through how we can liberate ourselves from the most toxic, alienating, and frustrating aspects of office work. Not just by shifting the location where the work is completed, but also by rethinking the work we do and the time we allot to it.

“Reconceptualization means having honest conversations about how much people are working and how they think they could work better. Not longer. It means acknowledging that better work is, in fact, oftentimes, less work over fewer hours which makes people happier, more creative, more invested in the work they do and the people they do it for.”

Petersen and Warzel admit there’s no easy endgame. You won’t find checklists or six easy steps in their book.

“The process is difficult and, if we’re being honest, never ending. But we are at a societal inflection point. Parts of our lives that were one quietly annoying have become intolerable; social institutions that have long felt broken are now actively breaking us. So many things we’ve accepted as norms have the potential to change.”

So as we figure out where we’ll work when the pandemic ends, it’s also worth having a hard and overdue conversation about how we’ll work and how we can free up more time family, friends, community and our hobbies.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Millennials were burning out long before COVID hit (review of Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even)

Good on bosses who end Zoom calls by reminding us not to sacrifice our health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

But our millennial colleagues could use more than reminders. They’ve been wrestling with burnout long before COVID-19 knocked the world off its axis.

And while our leaders’ intentions are good, what ails millennials can’t be fixed by shortening hour-long Zoom calls to 50 minutes, keeping Fridays free of meetings, going for midday walks and not hitting send on emails written in the dead of night after their kids have finally gone to bed.

“The fallout from the next few years won’t change millennials’ relationship to burnout or the precarity that fuels it,” says Anne Helen Petersen, former senior culture writer for Buzzfeed News and author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. “If anything, it will become even more ingrained in our generational identify.”

This is the generation that graduated in and around the Great Recession buried in record amounts of student debt. Good jobs disappeared as fast as housing costs soared. They took unpaid internships for the experience and strung together contract, temp and freelance gigs that paid barely living wages. If they landed full-time jobs with benefits and pensions, they were terrified of losing their golden ticket at any moment. To make themselves indispensable, they adopted an unsustainable ethic of overwork.

Yet no matter how many hours they logged and how little they slept, the traditional milestones of adulthood – marriage, home ownership and kids – were priced beyond their reach. These markers were delayed or dropped. And just as millennials reached their peak earning years, the pandemic hit.

Overwork plus chronic anxiety mixed with student debts, childcare bills and mortgages that no honest woman or man can pay add up to burnout.

Petersen calls burnout a contemporary condition and not a temporary affliction for millennials. She defines burnout as “the sensation of dull exhaustion that, even with sleep and vacation, never really leaves. It’s the knowledge that you’re just barely keeping your head above water, and even the slightest shift – a sickness, a busted car, a broker water heater – could sink you and your family. It’s the flattening of your life into one never-ending to-do list, and the feeling that you’ve optimized yourself into a work robot that happens to have bodily functions, which you do your very best to ignore. It’s the feeling that your mind has turned to ash.”

Burnout is a condition that can’t be cured with life hacks, side hustles, productivity apps, positive thoughts or gentle reminders.

“This isn’t a personal problem. It’s a societal one.  We gravitate toward those personal cures because they seem tenable, and promise that our lives can be recentered and regrounded, with just a bit more discipline, a new app, a better email organization strategy or a new approach to meal planning. But these are merely Band-Aids on an open wound. No amount of hustle or sleeplessness can permanently bend a broken system to your benefit.”

Petersen doesn’t offer quick fixes. She wrote her book to show what’s broken rather than to tell millennials how to save themselves from burning out. There’s value in letting millennials know burnout isn’t a personal moral failure and they’re not alone in their juggling and struggling with work and family commitments. It’s equally important to let us Gen Xers and Baby Boomers know just how close our 30-something colleagues are to collapse and how ready they are for sweeping, substantive changes.  The pandemic’s put the spotlight on a problem that we’ve ignored or downplayed for too long.

“Millennials have been denigrated and mischaracterized, blamed for struggling in situations that set us up to fail,” says Petersen.

“But if we have the endurance and aptitude and wherewithal to work ourselves this deeply into the ground, we also have the strength to fight. We have little savings and less stability. Our anger is barely contained. We’re a pile of ashes smoldering, a bad memory of our best selves. Underestimate us at your peril. We have so little left to lose.”

Jay Robb is a Gen Xer who serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.