Ah, work. It is both a means to an end for living your life, and a bane on our existence. Work pays the bills and provides us with meaningful income. Work also sucks the life from your soul and leaves many hollow, dried out husks of human beings. But we do what we must because having a roof over our heads and food in our bellies require it. Life is everything outside of the office, the factory, the school, the hospital.

Don’t tell the corporatists that you want a life outside of work, though.

Since at least the early 80’s, our culture has been one of “work is life.” A misguided, misplaced sense of “we are falling behind” other nations where greater emphasis was placed on work as your primary identity led to the type of corporate culture that valued overwork, overtime, and burnout over a more balanced equation. Given that we were already the number one richest nation in the world, shifting gears on work/life balance had no real purpose. It was one of those “sounds right” sound bites that gave corporations more dedicated work forces willing to kill themselves to make the wealthy a few more points on their quarterly dividend statements.

Over the last few years, the trend towards 60, 70, even 80 hour work weeks has begun to fade. People grasped that life was everything OUTSIDE of work. You’ve seen me post several times now about this shifting dichotomy and how its impacting us positively as a society. Yet the burn out promoters have not yet finished telling us that, if we don’t willingly sell our souls and all waking hours of our day to our jobs, we are in danger of (gasp!) not having a career. Which, I suppose, is their very gentle way of telling us “you gonna be poor!” And lord FORBID we live within our means and enjoy a simple life without trying to enrich ourselves. That’s something they cannot grasp.

I preface the remainder of this post by noting the author of this thoughtless piece genuinely seems to try and draw a balance between work and life. Tries. Ultimately fails of course because, like so many, she fails to grasp many things about work and life that I’m going to try and point out. She thinks we’ve gone too far the other way. I don’t think we’ve gone nearly far enough.

The piece in question, written by Gabrielle Peterson, appeared recently in Fortune magazine, and right off the bat that’s a mark against it. Who reads Fortune? Those who want to get rich, those who are rich, and those whose companies seek to become too big to fail. Median income Americans aren’t reading Fortune other than at the dentists office while waiting to get a tooth filled because there’s nothing better on the table. And even then, they’ll probably ignore it and play with their phones. Nothing says “as boring as watching paint dry” as magazines like Fortune. Feel free to look up the link if you want to read the full thing. I intend only to highlight and refute the points there within, because that’s just how I roll.

I recently fired my first-ever direct report. Although he was low-energy, uninspired, and an awful speller, what ultimately led him to the ax was his insistence on boundaries. 

From the start, our author feels the need to point out that a worker she had to fire was a terrible worker. Clearly she feels defensive, and that’s a terrible sign for the rest of what she wants to write. You see, his being a terribly worker at the tasks he was assigned is NOT THE REASON for the post. It’s incidental, merely… well I suppose she wants us to assume his behavior at work was a reflection of the rest of what she’s about to say, despite that not being true at all. You can be bad at your work while hustling those 60 or more hours Gabrielle thinks you should to show you really care about your job. The two are not dependent on each other.
No, what she’s pissed about is that word at the end. Boundaries. Rather than pray to the corporate lords that ruled over him, he actually treated work as work, separate from his personal life, and refused to give in to the culture of “work is your existence, and you must work long beyond your normal hours to prove your worth.” THAT is what angered her enough to fire him. Which is pretty pathetic.

He would come into the office at nine every morning, leave at five, and be inaccessible anytime before and after. Regardless of deadlines or passion projects, his workday was determined not by his work, but by his hours. 

So, the meat of the story. The worker was axed NOT because he was a bad worker. No, no, he was axed because he… and here I feel its important to paraphrase so that we all understand clearly what is being said:  “worked the hours expected of an employee in that position.”

Okay, so I don’t work 9 to 5. I work from 7 or 7:30 to 4:00. Sometimes 5:00 if I have a late meeting scheduled. On rare occasions, I’ve worked weekends, like a recent weekend, in support of a project deadline. Though I’m no longer hourly and haven’t been for decades, I believe in the importance of taking breaks during the day, so it’s not like I work exactly 8 hours and quit. But I’m also a highly salaried professional and I don’t mind my work, so I’m fine with this. It’s a choice.

The problem here is that her attitude is one of “overtime is expected.” Not that “overtime should be rare and we’re sorry about that and we’ll make sure to compensate you accordingly when it happens.” No, she expects you to work beyond normal office hours. No matter how good or bad a worker you are, she will fire you if you’re not available to her at any and all hours (remember, she said THIS was the reason she fired him, not his otherwise poor performance).

The concept of “work/life balance” is so ubiquitous nowadays that businesses erect culture committees to make sure the idea is enforced; HR departments are instructed to add the phrase to the end of job postings in an effort to communicate a culture not only of hard work but of good life. It’s become emblematic of a woke work environment—one that acknowledges that an employee base is composed of actual humans, often with spouses, children, and outside interests.

Note the unsubtle dig there at the end. “Woke” work environment. Man, I’m so tired of people thinking that being “woke” – being aware that there are better ways of living life, organizing your society, creating justice, etc. – is somehow a BAD thing. It’s not. It’s a great thing and emblematic of the notion that life is all about change. She may be trying to treat woke as “good” here, but she choose that word carefully for the punch it gave and its deeper, negative meanings. This is another one of those middle management types who just despises change. How much do you want to bet she’s been railing against employees working from home. She’s likely the type to be demanding them all be in the office at all working hours, plus the overtime, PLUS be on call at home.

She diverts to a brief discussion of work/life balance. Like super brief. Like it’s beneath her to even spend time on the concept. Then:

Careers in industries like law, medicine, and architecture established reputations early on as high-powered and rigorous, their demanding hours and high-stakes deadlines epitomizing corporate success and creating associations between time spent working and professional satisfaction. Having to work late or pull an all-nighter demonstrated employees’ value and implied their commitment to their careers.

Ah, yes, let’s hold up the most abusive work environments in existence and laud them as paragons of work virtue. Never mind that these are considered toxic ways to live and work, that study after study shows that medical careers predicated on the notion of extremely, insanely long hours lead to higher incidents of stress and mistakes. No, that’s not really important. What’s important is that they work long hours and it’s a valued way of judging ones employees.

Next up, she takes on “hustle culture.” She ignores the root cause of it of course. She places the blame on the employees, not the abuse of companies who demanded long hours with little compensation. The lack of federal and state oversight, which had been on the decline for decades under conservative views that the market must be “free” led to a rise in abusive employee/employer relationships. With no union to back you up, and no government oversight, there were few options for employees. Thus, the balance swung hard to the employer, and they took advantage. Employees weren’t “hungry” for “work for work’s sake.” They were hungry for food, a home, a life. Working endless hours was their only option.

I mean, as gratuitous pieces go, it’s pretty fucking stunning to watch her blame employees for all the excesses of corporations. People worked endless hours because it was demanded of them. Companies worked hard to switch as many jobs as they could from hourly to salary because it allowed them to abuse labor laws around over time. When you’re an “assistant manager” getting 30k a year salary while working 60 hour weeks and your “management” is to train the guy who changes the shake mix out of the machine, that’s pretty fucking ridiculous.

Enterprises like Google and Amazon fed off this frenetic energy and based their entire corporate model around it, spending billions of dollars renovating their offices to create a distinctly homelike environment, blurring the lines further between home and work.

Ah, no. They did not “feed off this frenetic energy.” They DEMANDED it. And yes, in trade they offered some perks for working there you didn’t get elsewhere. No one had an option, though. If you wanted that good career, you put up with it. People did not take jobs at Google because they wanted to work endless hours. They weren’t given the choice regarding how much would be demanded of them. That’s why burn out has been so high in the tech industry. And why the tech industry is considered a toxic place to work by and large (always exceptions of course).

She then wants to show us how things switched… by talking about CEO’s leaving jobs. Which has zippity fucking doo dah to do with employment, employees, and her dissertation on why you should work long hours. CEO’s are NOT the same as other employees. Her examples are millionaires and billionaires. They are not exemplary of the work force of the United States. But she claims that is why the pendulum swung back towards work/life balance instead of over working.

For many, this simply meant not doing work during nights or weekends. For others, it became an excuse to end the day mid-assignment, to leave coworkers hanging, to sit idly until the clock struck 5:00. In essence, it emboldened an ugly mediocrity.

Ah yes. Because if you can’t get your work done before 5:00, the answer is not “maybe I’m overworking this person and should hire more staff.” No, it’s that the employee is mediocre and a terrible worker and fuck you, you lazy shit. I’ve seen this so fucking often in my career it’s literally a trope at this point. Companies always make do with less staff than they actually need, all to increase their margins and shave another point off their costs. Pad out that quarterly dividend payment. And they routinely blame employees when shit falls through the cracks and doesn’t get done.

A work/life balance that truly divides the work and life components of a person’s experience may be okay for a job. But for a career? It simply won’t fly. There’s no disputing it—sometimes emails need to be sent at night. Sometimes calls need to be taken early in the morning. Sometimes a Monday deadline necessitates a few hours of work on a Saturday.

None of that is true. Those calls, emails, and deadlines are management’s problem. There is no employee who it should be demanded work beyond their forty hours. Because yeah, you hit the nail on the head. It’s a job. A job can also be a career, but a career should never hinge on the need to demand 60 or 80 hour work weeks because YOU think overwork is fine and expected. It’s literally against the law to demand it.

Those CEO’s you mentioned above? Those are the ones who should work 80 hour weeks and solve the problem of deadlines and off hour emails. That’s WHY you get paid $50 fucking MILLION a year. If you think your far lower paid staff should deal with that stuff? Get fucked, that’s insane, you are literally being paid to be the figure head of the company and run the whole show all the time forever. So do it. Don’t expect your underpaid staff to work themselves to the bone for you.

It also bases one’s day around an arbitrary time frame that measures productivity by hours spent behind a desk as opposed to the actual work product put out.

Yes. That’s why we set work schedules. Demanding folks work longer hours than the 40 we all agreed was the maximum that you can get out of someone before productivity declines and problems creep into the work is silly. A work day SHOULD be based around clear, defined hours. It helps one schedule one’s life, which is everything outside of work. If I can’t know what time I’ll be home, I can’t tell my sitter when I’ll be picking up the kids. And unlike those CEO’s, we don’t have millions to pay a nanny to go get them from school and care for them when we’re not there. So, assuming it’s easy peasy for us to handle our lives when you demand so much of our time for work is ludicrous.

Honestly, her comments are all tied to a belief by corporations that productivity must endlessly rise… but employee count does not. The idea that profits and productivity go up, while employment stays steady, is the root foundation of our stock market and financial systems, and is a plague on society. You cannot keep increasing productivity without expecting to break the people who work for you at some point. And when they break? Well ding dong here blames them. “You should have worked more hours,” she says, rather than “that’s too big a workload, I’ll get more help.” Penny wise, pound foolish.

Millennials took the hint that overworking was the way to go (likely influenced by the Great Recession); while Gen Z (which is graduating with record-high employment) is picking up on the work/life divide, and, in my direct report’s case, getting fired for their rigidity.

Reminder: “I fire people for not working outside their office hours, not because their work sucks donkey balls. Life lesson for you kiddies.”

Also, millennials assumed nothing about working long hours. It was demanded of them by the companies who hired them. Once again, she blames employees for what companies choose to do.

Our careers are a part of our lives.

No, our careers SUPPORT our lives. Life is everything outside of work. Work is an artificial environment with specialized structures and rules and is sometimes quite a toxic place to be. It’s only need is to give us the money to live our lives. Employees rarely get to share the profits, and certainly don’t get the millions CEO’s do. Other than people who have the luxury of working a job in a career they love, most of us work to live, we don’t live to work. Having a reasonable career allows us to live reasonable lives. There’s nothing reasonable about her desire to make her employees work endless hours for her if they’re not willing.

Work/life balance is reasonable to ask of an employer, but we must understand that balance does not equate to separation. Unwilling to work the occasional Saturday or take a call at 7 p.m.? Then good luck building a career.

Well fuck you, too, Gabrielle. If you can’t handle the fact my life is outside of the office, you don’t deserve me as an employee, and you don’t get to define my career. And that’s what’s really eating at her subconsciously. Employees are taking back the reigns and leaving toxic work places in droves. The pandemic showed us that work/life balance can be more than 60 hours at the office and endless, bullshit commutes, with almost no time left with the family in the evenings. Just short weekends that this asshole wants to interrupt you during because “it’s your career.”

Yes, it’s MY career. Not YOUR career. You do you. If you don’t like me doing me, you can go take a flying leap. The LAW is on MY side, not yours, even if conservatives have tried hard to water it down.

People should be able to make a good living working 40 hours a week with NO expectation they work more. Yes, those who run the company SHOULD be expected to work more. That’s why they get paid the millions they do (overpaid if you ask me). But assuming your rank and file employees should work the same hours as you is a sick remnant of the 80’s greed culture, and a reflection of how far we’ve declined as a society.

We need to reaffirm the 40 hour work week (though I believe we should be reviewing that and reducing full-time to 32 hours, and boy wouldn’t that make her head spin in indignation). We should review all jobs that are salaried and set new, strict rules for who can be designated as such. Only a fraction of the work force should be salaried, and it certainly shouldn’t be people who make less than 80k a year, adjusted for inflation going forward. And we should absolutely strengthen the penalties for employers who fail to pay over time and who try to skirt the laws. Wage theft should be a criminal offense with jail time for those who break it.

We have spent 40 years in free fall. Unions have weakened and been destroyed. Enforcement of labor laws has grown lax. Employees have been treated not as valued workers, but as cogs to be used up and discarded at will. I find it easy to understand why employees have given up the view that toxic work places and endless hours are necessary to their careers. Poor fools like this writer are in for a rough time ahead, because we’ve seen a better way, and we’re taking it. Come along, or watch your company lose its best workers to places that understand work is work.

Life is everything else. And life ALWAYS finds a way.

Leave a Reply