Plague, death, the supply chain, long queues at the post office, the collapse of many aspects of civil society could all play a part in this statistic. But in his classic 1951 study of middle-class office workers, sociologist C. Wright Mills observed that “although the modern white-collar worker has no articulated work philosophy, his feelings about it and his experiences influence their satisfactions and experiences. frustrations, the whole tone of his life. I remember a friend who once told me that even though her husband was not depressed, he hated his job and it was like living with a depressed person.

After the latest jobs report, economist and Times columnist Paul Krugman estimated that people’s confidence in the economy was about 12 points lower than it should have been, given that wages were on the rise. As the pandemic drags on, either numbers are unable to quantify how bad things have gotten Where people seem to have convinced themselves that things are worse than they really are.

It’s not in just the data where the words “job satisfaction” seem to have become a paradox. It is also present in the cultural atmosphere of the work. Not so long ago, a young writer I follow on Instagram posted an answer to a question someone asked her: What’s your dream job? Her response, a quick comeback on the internet, was that she “didn’t dream of a job.” I suspect she is ambitious. I know she is excellent at understanding the spirit of the times.

It’s in the air, this anti-ambition. It’s easy to go viral these days by appealing to a commonly assumed lethargy, especially if you can come up with the kind of languid, tongue-in-cheek aphorisms that have become this generation’s response to the “Office Space” computing scene. (The film was released in 1999, amid another booming job market, when unemployment was at a 30-year low.) “Sex is good, but have you ever quit a job that ruined your sanity?” went a tweet, which has over 300,000 likes. Or: “I hope this email doesn’t find you. Hope you got away, you’re free. (168,000 likes.) If the tight labor market gives low-wage workers a a taste of upward mobility, many office workers (or “desks”, these days) seem to think of our jobs more like a lot of work-class people have forever. Like just a job, a paycheck. to pay the bills Not the sum total of us, not an identity.

Even elite lawyers seem to be losing their taste for guns in the workplace. Last year, Reuters reported an unusual wave of attrition at major New York companies – noting that many lawyers had decided to take pay cuts to work fewer hours or move to a cheaper neighborhood or work in tech. It’s also happening in finance: at Citi, according to New York magazine, an analyst typed “I hate this job, I hate this bank, I want to jump out the window” in a chat, prompting human resources to check his mental state. health. “It’s a consensus opinion,” he told HR. “That’s how everyone feels.”

Things get weird when employers try to address this discontent. Amazon warehouse workers have for a year been asked to participate in a wellness program aimed at reducing workplace injuries. The company recently came under fire for reporting that some of its drivers are pushed so hard to perform that they have started urinating in bottles, and warehouse workers, for whom every move is tracked, live in fear of being fired for working too slowly. But now, for those warehouse workers, Amazon has introduced a program called AmaZen: “Employees can visit AmaZen stations and watch short videos featuring easy-to-follow wellness activities, including guided meditations. [and] positive affirmations. It’s about self-care with a dystopian bent, in which the solution to blue-collar burnout is… screen time.

The cultural vibe toward the office even shows up in the television shows that knowledge workers obsess over. Consider “Mad Men,” a show set during the economic peak of the late 1960s. It was a show that found work romantically. I’m not talking about office stuff. I mean the characters were in love with their work (or angrily sometimes out of love, but that’s a passion in itself). More than that, their careers and the petty dramas of their day-to-day jobs — client presentations, office politics — have given their lives meaning. (At the end of the show, Don Draper traveled to a resort town that looks a lot like Esalen to find out the meaning of life, and whacked his way into a transformative Coke ad campaign.)