We Are Working Ourselves to Death, and for What?
Welcome to late-stage capitalism hell
A year ago, somewhere in October, I found myself sobbing in a cab for the first time ever. It was 7 AM, and I was on my way to a work meeting. I probably didn't sleep much the night before, and I was instead working late to prepare whatever needed to be ready for the meeting.
I cried because I was exhausted.
For four years of my London corporate rat phase, I worked on average 12 hours per day. Every working day. Sometimes weekends, too. And on top of that, I traveled to other cities and countries every other week or so until the pandemic hit us.
I was constantly tired, overworked, and stressed. After work, I rarely had enough mental energy to do anything else other than drink alcohol and watch mediocre TV shows. All of my hobbies and passions were slowly becoming a thing of the past.
Every year I was desperately looking forward to that two weeks of holidays. But I can't even remember a single vacation that wasn't somehow interrupted by work. Because there was always an emergency. Or a new big client. Or the new intern fucked something up.
'Keep up the good work, and it will get easier in a few years,' my senior colleagues would say.
So I worked hard. Put in the extra work. Stayed long hours. Just like everyone else. And then, on the day I was promoted, I quit.
Our brains aren't wired for the pace of today's world
I didn't quit because I had a better job offer. I quit because I was burnt out. And unhappy. Not only was I not doing something I enjoyed, but my job was slowly sucking the life out of me. It took me months after my resignation to return to the old me - the person I was before I got swooped up in the madness of the corporate world. Luckily, I was able to do that and start working on things I actually wanted to work on.
But the sad thing is that burn-out is becoming more and more common - particularly among younger generations.
And the shift to remote work during the pandemic didn't exactly help. If anything, it exacerbated this issue. Our home turned into our place of work. Our bosses assumed we were always available because we had no other choice than to stay home. And the line between work and life was getting increasingly blurred.
But human beings aren't meant to work so many hours every single day. We aren't meant to work ourselves to death like this.
While technology's godlike powers increased dramatically over the last century accelerating the way we work, our brains have remained largely the same. In the words of Glenn Geher, professor of evolutionary psychology,: 'Our brains are wired for certain conditions, but our surroundings no longer match those conditions; we have stone-age brains in modern environments.'
Anthropological evidence shows that for the vast majority of human history, we were actually living pretty leisurely lives. Hunter-gatherers only needed to work about 15–20 hours a week to survive, the rest of their time being devoted to leisure.
Our obsession with hard work arose in the early days of agriculture, and then it got progressively worse in the late 18th century with the industrial revolution. Work ceased to be seasonal and limited by daylight hours, and most companies kept their factories running 23/7 to maximize the output. 10–16 hour workdays were the norm. Although it quickly became evident longer hours didn't translate in higher worker productivity, and that's how the idea for an 8-hour workday was born.
But today, the average employee in a developed nation works more than 8 hours per day. Many people work significantly more than that, my past self included. And then we go home, do food shopping, cook meals, clean, work on the house repairs, mow the lawn, weed the garden, take care of our kids or pets if we have any - well, need I say more?
In reality, there is very little time in our lives to… live. And the money we earn sometimes isn't even enough to pay rent, let alone put away any savings.
What kind of living hell is this?
Late-stage capitalism is tearing us apart
Many smart people try to weigh in on the issue of rising overwork. Some argue it comes down to status signalizing - everyone being so busy all the time is a way to prove how important they are. Some say it's avarice. And some blame it on toxic work environments.
But I feel like most discussions on this topic avoid the elephant in the room - capitalism. And more specifically, what is now described as late-stage or late capitalism.
Because the thing is, capitalism hasn't always worked the way it does today – particularly in the West. And it has indeed made human life relatively better. It lifted people out of poverty, increased living standards, and brought up innovations that have radically improved human well-being.
However, the gradual shift towards greater individual liberty in the last century dramatically changed the social contract. And somewhere around Reagan and Thatcher years, late-stage capitalism started kicking in.
Today, the gap between the richest and poorest people is growing ever-wider. In many countries, the poorest individuals have seen no real income growth since the 1980s, while the ultra-rich are only getting richer. The middle class is becoming smaller and smaller. There is a consistent trend towards more corporate lobbying. And global corporations are becoming even more powerful than some countries.
Everything, everywhere, became commodified and consumable.
If we're not busy working, we're busy consuming. Or finding new side hustles. To make more money. To consume more. To be happy. But we aren't. Deaths of despair from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism have risen dramatically, and now claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year.
Late-stage capitalism is a $19,000 Martini with a one-carat diamond at the bottom of the glass. It's a single mother working three jobs to make ends meet. It's spending thousands of dollars yearly on goods that used to last decades. It's mass consumerism. It's gaslighting of 'lifehacking' and wellness movements. It's an epidemic of homelessness in the world's wealthiest cities. It's the rise in political polarisation. It's Trump. It's Brexit. It's France's yellow vest protests.
Late-stage capitalism is absurdity, inequality, and greed. It's hell.
And the sad part is, we think we still have a choice. Because we can choose between dozens of brands of toothpaste or breakfast cereals. Because we can change our jobs. Or move to another city.
But ultimately, we don't have a choice. It's an illusion. We can't opt out of this system. It's near impossible. And the illusion of choice in a survival situation isn't exactly free will.
The world isn't doomed, yet
According to the rich - and some Boomers - you can become wealthy if you work hard, have gumption, and a can-do attitude. But in reality, most rich people are rich because of the birth lottery and merciless exploitation of the working class that capitalism relies on.
Luckily, more and more people realize this. In a recent survey, 56% of respondents worldwide said that 'capitalism, as it exists today, does more harm than good in the world.' And I'm guessing that figure will only go up from there in the following years.
Because we're working hard, putting in the extra hours, and starting fuck knows how many side hustles, often at the expense of our mental and physical well-being. We are trading our youth and time - the most precious thing we have - to climb the imaginary ladder of success.
And what exactly do we get from that?
We can pay rent. Barely. And maybe we'll live long enough to 'enjoy' a few years when we're close to death. Ironically, the harder we work, the less likely that is to be the case. Because it's literally this 'work hard' attitude that's killing us. Our brains and bodies aren't built to be exploited to this extent.
The good news is, we have enough resources to change the status quo. And it isn't too late to rethink Western economic systems.
Various ideas and proposals have already emerged in recent years that aim to rewrite capitalism's social contract. They have in common the idea that businesses need more varied measures of success than simply profit and growth. Some countries are also experimenting with shifting towards a less work-intensive model and are introducing a four-day workweek and universal basic income.
At least that's a start.
Because none of the issues caused by late-stage capitalism can be solved on an individual level. We can't fix the system by being mindful, signing up for a pilates class, or reading another self-help book written by some privileged white dude who went to private schools.
But we can, and should, advocate for a change on a systemic level. Not all is lost. Yet.
This story was originally published on Medium.
About the Creator
Sometimes serious, sometimes funny, always stirring the pot. Social sciences nerd based in London. Check out my other social media: www.linktr.ee/katiejgln
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