I‘ve spent 26 years working in a sea of beige. Early dreams of becoming the next Henry Miller have long been drowned by a rote life within the confines of a 4 x 6 colorless cell, under the glare of harsh fluorescent lights and stale, recycled air, on the 9-5 corporate clock.
Wake by alarm.
Find something appropriate to wear.
Mindlessly weave through traffic.
Feign respect for unearned authority.
Commandeer a computer chip.
Spending 2,080 hours every year in this cycle has taken its toll. This work hasn’t contributed to the common good; it has merely pushed goods.
Before entering the corporate world full time, I did everything I possibly could to avoid it. I went to college and picked a major with no real job potential, but one that actually interested me. I spent 7 years taking more electives than I needed and taking time off “to just live.” I considered changing majors and almost switched schools — twice. I pulled as many tricks as I could to avoid being confined to three modular walls every day.
To be clear, I am not lazy. I’ve labored for wages since I was 10. What filled me with dread was the idea of spending the bulk of my time doing meaningless work in an environment that demanded conformity through domination. That, to me, would deliver a death knell straight to my soul.
But reality told me there weren’t many options, especially for people with creative tendencies.
I rationalized that a corporate job would give me the financial security I craved, with enough time to pursue my passion. I thought I could find a balance between laboring at an office during the day and living a writer’s life at night.
Internally, I resisted the social norm that ties a person’s identity to his or her job. Work wouldn’t define me, I told myself; I would define me.
Twenty-six years later, I find myself in a “privileged” corporate position. I have a full-time job and work from home, finally free from the shackles of a cubicle. I earn far more money than the U.S. average. I have good benefits, and my boss is kind and decent. I am fortunate in many ways, and I know it.
Yet, at 45, I now struggle to do the kind of writing I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve lost my true creative voice – the one thing that had always given me a sense of pride.
I finish every workday tired, drained and vulnerable to distractions that help me forget the emptiness I feel as a wage laborer. I’ve racked up credit card debt buying into the illusion of a “good life.” I eat food that I know is unhealthy because of a deep urge to find comfort. I worry that selling my skill for pay is my personal pact with the “devil,” and that I’ve forever lost the inner fire to write something I’m truly proud of.
I’ve also woken up to the fact that the “security” of white-collar work is a sham.
The Beginning of the End
The economic crisis of 2008 hit home about four years ago, when the relatively small, privately owned company I worked for was sold to one of the largest venture capitalist firms in the U.S. A team of Ivy League “cleaners” claimed the helm, promising to inject new growth into the company, which had been flatlining for years.
Prior to the acquisition, the company had done a good job at creating the illusion of a “good place to work.” Wages were decent. Health insurance was free for longtime employees. Vacation time was generous. In the summer, we left early on Fridays.
Under the hoodwink, though, was a profligate amount of money, time and effort being pumped into projects designed to bolster executive egos. Corporate graft was prolific, replete with high-paid positions for unqualified besties and family, promotions for the loudest company cheerleaders, and contractual favors for unethical friends.
The acquisition may have been the hammer that drove the stake, but the graft and greed of the executive team made the ground fertile for takeover.
None of that changed under the cleaners. It just got worse. “Stimulate growth,” “streamline efficiencies” and “trim the fat” became the new company mantras. Human gristle was cut, week after week. Many of my friends were cut. Employees with 10, 15, 20 years were cut. Single mothers were cut. People with health conditions were cut.
Those of us left were in a mixed state of shock, sadness and anxiety. We had seen far too many people lose their livelihood … we were worried about their ability to recover financially and to get healthcare … we hated the indignity of escorting workers out of the office, as though being laid off was a crime.
But the corporate clock doesn’t allow time to grieve and gather your bearings. It’s back to work as usual, or else.
In the coming months, I grappled with holding onto a job I no longer wanted but being terrified of not being able to find another, especially given the high unemployment rate in California. To make matters worse, I often had to work directly with the cleaners, whose sociopathy was off the rails.
This breed of corporate patriarchs brimmed with Machiavellian cunning and condescension. Everything that came before them was “stupid,” including people. Everything they brought to the company was brilliant, especially people.
They pushed us “to do more with less” by dangling the proverbial promise of more money. To get the gold, however, the company needed more – more volume and faster. Quality was a non-factor.
“Grow, grow, grow!”
To “help” us transition to high-performing automatons, the execs gave the office a proper makeover. The once colorful walls were painted beige. The tacky, yet human, employee recognition placards were stripped and tossed.
“It looks like all these people died!” they scoffed.
Then came the benefits. The year-end vacation was gone. We earned less paid time off per pay period. Long-term employees with free health benefits now had to pay for it. When I got my annual review, I received the lowest raise I had ever gotten in my six years there.
Eventually, it became clear that the cleaners’ plan was to prep the company to be sold into pieces, as different “products.” They would spend 2-3 years doing this, and then they’d get out. This was their “specialty.”
I never felt more alienated or more disconnected than I did during that time. I was furious and full of hate. I felt violent and desperate.
“Winning” the Layoff Lotto
I survived under the new regime for about a year and a half. I’ll never forget the day my number was called.
It was about 10 a.m. when my new boss — a high-paid babysitter for the Creative department — called me into her office. A second after I sat down, the HR manager walked in.
“Oh, great. It’s the Face of Death,” I smirked.
Then came the blow.
“Unfortunately, the company has decided to eliminate your position.”
“The executives, you mean,” I challenged.
“It was a company decision.”
My chest tightened. My face burned from resentment and humiliation. I walked out and went directly over to the cleaner’s offices. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do, but I was going to say or do something.
The offices were empty — conveniently at a meeting, of course.
Back at my cubicle I found my computer turned off, and I couldn’t turn it back on. I knew this was the layoff drill, but when you actually go through it, it’s shocking to lose access to your work limb.
The HR manager hovered over me, waiting for me to pack up and go.
“You really don’t have to stand there. I’m not going to steal anything,” I said.
“I have to. It’s company policy,” she muttered.
I wanted to wring her neck.
Just as I thought I was going to completely lose my cool, my husband, who worked at the same company at the time, came over to make sure I walked out of that hellhole with dignity. I mustered up every ounce of strength I had to fight back tears.
I packed up and said goodbye to people I cared about. But before leaving, I had to say one last thing, which I hoped would get back to the cleaners.
“You fucking cowards,” I yelled.
The Precarious & the Possible
My story is not unique. Some version of it is happening everywhere.
I know that many of you can relate. I know you feel disconnected from the work you do. I know that you are tired. I know that there’s a dream unfulfilled that causes you pain. I know that you have debt because you have been lured in by advertising and the culture of consumption it promotes. I know that you are worried about the future. And I know that you want better.
But is better possible?
As long as the beast of capitalism is allowed to feed its need for growth, workers will continue to be its feast. Mergers and acquisitions will lead to more layoffs. “Growth” will lure companies to new shores, leaving graveyards of workers behind. Technology will continue its takeover. Employment, under today’s conditions, is precarious no matter the color of your collar.
In fact, Kevin Doogan, author of New Capitalism?, says that precarity describes perfectly the current state of employment. The meteoric rise of neoliberalism, combined with the sinking welfare state, has made full-time work elusive, and the consequences of unemployment harsher today than during the postwar period.
And because capitalism unchallenged knows no bounds, what was once the stuff of sci-fi flicks is now a reality: In the next 20 years, the rise of robots is predicted to automate and eliminate 47 percent of jobs in the U.S.
To explain what was happening during his time, Karl Marx developed a theory to describe the estrangement that workers feel from aspects of their human nature. This alienation from the self, he theorized, was a direct result of the worker’s inability to determine his or her own life and destiny because the life of a worker, an economic entity, is directed by goals and activities that are dictated by those with capital, the bourgeoisie. This and much of what Marx said well over a century ago still rings true for workers today.
In The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks examines the private sphere of work and how the very act of working for wages “authorizes” a relationship of dominance by the owners of capital and production and submission by those who sell their labor. She challenges us to imagine a life that is not subordinate to work.
As I reflect upon my own life as a worker, as a person of color, and as a woman who has endured hardship and oppression, I realize that the loss of one voice has given birth to a new voice: the voice of resistance.
This voice talks about the very real possibility of a new society, one in which the very notion of “work” is re-envisioned — not eliminated — and the people who actually do the labor have the power to make decisions that affect every aspect of our lives, both individually and collectively.
This voice speaks the language of socialism, of equality and human dignity. This voice calls for consciousness.
Better is only possible if our collective voices start to redefine who we are and reclaim our power to bring about radical transformations to the systems, the norms, the beliefs and the behaviors that strip us of our humanity.
Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Changing the world, workers, is our real work.