We’ll Exit The Pandemic With a More Realistic Relationship With Work

With community in decline, we counted on work for meaning. But a year in isolation is clarifying.

Alex Kantrowitz


Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

The World Health Organization released a study this week concluding what would’ve been shocking if it weren’t so obvious: We’re working ourselves to death.

Working long hours — 55 or more per week — gives us an approximately 35% higher chance of stroke and a 17% higher chance of heart disease, the study found. In 2016, overwork led to 745,000 deaths, up 26% from 2000.

We’re giving our lives to work for reasons both physical and spiritual. In our winners and losers society, where poverty seems to be perpetually looming, we overwork simply to survive. But we’re also pouring ourselves into work seeking meaning and connection that’s missing now that civic groups and religious institutions are in decline. As loneliness increased, companies turned into families. CEOs became deities. And “busy” became a lifestyle.

We may go on like this forever, but there’s reason to believe we’ll exit the pandemic with a more realistic relationship with work. Sequestered at home for months on end, the isolation has been clarifying for many. A job can be fulfilling, but counting on it as a main source of satisfaction, political expression, or identity is often a losing proposition. It’s a lesson you learn quickly when stuck at home with nothing but a job, family, perhaps some roommates, and Netflix.

Though we’ve yet to digest the full effects of the pandemic on work, we’re seeing some people’s reevaluations play out in fascinating ways. Enough workers have left good, full-time jobs for passion projects or career resets that The New York Times gave the phenomenon its own name: The YOLO Economy. Now, employers are expecting a “great resignation” when the pandemic subsides, perhaps as early as this summer.

A messier reckoning is taking place inside companies, where employees have pushed their employers harder than ever to reflect their social and political values (with the latest at Apple this week). Companies are indeed political actors, but this groundswell of activism can be traced, in part, to the outsized expectations people put on their jobs. When you look to work for meaning — and put so much of yourself into it that you risk your health — you want a workplace that embodies your morals. Some companies have delivered in this regard. But others, like Shopify, are desperately trying to opt-out.

Work is a legitimate source of meaning. But it shouldn’t — and can’t — be our only one.

“Shopify, like any other for-profit company, is not a family,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke wrote in a memo last August (echoing Netflix’s Reed Hastings’ mantra). Lütke commanded his managers to stop referring to Shopify as “Shopifam” and demanded they not give employees an impression that they’re in anything more than a job. “We cannot solve every societal problem here,” Lütke wrote. “We also can’t take care of all your needs.”

It’s ironic that companies once positioned themselves as family-like and societally good and are backing away only now, as the politics get complicated (See: Basecamp). But messaging like Lütke’s will give even the most starry-eyed employee a more realistic view of what work is about, which will help them.

Work is a legitimate source of meaning. But it shouldn’t — and can’t — be our only one. We’ll see this more clearly as we exit the pandemic, and perhaps it will lead to renewed interest in the community institutions that provide balance in a healthy society. At the very least, it may help us live longer.

Further Reading:

How to Quit Your Job in the Great Post-Pandemic Resignation Boom (Bloomberg)

Long working hours are leading to a rise in premature deaths, the W.H.O. says. (New York Times)

How Plutocrats Hijack Campus Idealism (BuzzFeed News)

News Briefs

Censorship, Surveillance and Profits: A Hard Bargain for Apple in China (New York Times)

Tim Cook prefers that Apple ‘play the game’ in China vs. sit on the sidelines. But his company’s participation comes at a cost. Apple’s Chinese customers’ data sits in data centers all but owned by the Chinese government. The encryption keys are stored in China as well, a privacy risk. These revelations appear in a bombshell report in the Times this week, one that’s worth reading from start to finish. Though Apple’s built a sterling reputation due to its dedication to privacy, it’s time to start wondering how long that mythology will hold up.

Grift is Good (Margins)

Steve Bannon is selling vitamins. Elon Musk is playing with Dogecoin. NFTs are selling like wild. In this great piece in Margins, Can Duruk writes that grift is replacing greed as the north star of our modern economy.

Burry of ‘Big Short’ Fame Places Big Bet Against Musk, Tesla (Bloomberg)

Speaking of Elon, Michael Burry of Big Short notoriety made a sizable bet against Tesla, according to a regulatory filing this week. Now, just because he called the last economic crash doesn’t mean he’ll be right about every subsequent prediction. But it’s an interesting data point nonetheless. Tesla stock is down 35% from its peak in January.

Sorry, Bella Poarch, this IS ‘Build a B*tch’ (The Kids Aren’t Alright)

Human tastemakers once picked our stars. Today, algorithms do. This smart piece from Insider’s Kat Tenbarge (writing on her own Substack) attempts to ask what the TikTok algorithm wants by working backward from its biggest stars. “Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good,” Tenbarge writes.

Podcast Recommendation: The Line

After listening to The Line, the first Apple Original podcast, I’m tossing it in here as a recommendation. The Line tells the story of Eddie Gallagher, a former Navy Seal accused of killing an ISIS captive while on deployment in Mosul. The show is everything a narrative podcast should be: balanced, compelling, nuanced, and revealing. I dipped into it wondering whether Apple could make a good podcast and was hooked instantly. I finished the thing in less than a day.

You can find The Line on your podcast app of choice.

This week on Big Technology Podcast: Professor Scott Galloway On Whether Our Economy Is Rigged (And What To Do About It)

Professor Scott Galloway swings by to discuss how our economy can at once feel rigged yet loaded with opportunity. Galloway describes a “tilted” system that makes life difficult for young people and wage workers while lifting assets and helping older generations. We talk not only about the problems but the solutions for the system and the individuals within it. As usual, Galloway is a tour de force who comes loaded with insights and keen observations.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts

Tips, Comments, Ideas?

Send them my way by leaving a comment or emailing bigtechnology@substack.com. I read every response.

Thanks again for reading. See you next Thursday!



Alex Kantrowitz

Veteran journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.