By now many of us have read The New York Times’s insider account of the brutal workplace culture at Amazon’s corporate offices. We already knew about what it’s like to work in Amazon’s warehouse centers: boiling heat, impossible production demands, and frequent firings of the temporary workforce. For the white-collar workers, demands are also high, if of a different nature: staff regularly cry at their desks, are shamed for taking time off for cancer treatments, and so often work during weekends and vacations that they develop ulcers. Failure to respond to a late-night e-mail comes with a reprimand. One employee recounts that her fiancee had to come to headquarters every night at 10 pm and call her repeatedly to get her to leave.
The Times article also includes stories from employees who profess to simply love working at that grueling pace. They are motivated by “thinking big and knowing we haven’t scratched the surface on what’s out there to invent,” as one retail executive put it. “This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” the company’s top recruiter said.
Our culture of work has so infiltrated our collective psyche that we like to think that we’re putting in long hours and responding to e-mails on the weekends because we’re devoted and ambitious. This is what journalist Miya Tokumitsu has skewered repeatedly in her writing: the “do what you love” ethos—the idea that we should all seek work that we’re emotionally devoted to, not sticking with just for a paycheck—that demands unending passion and therefore unending work, even if those long hours don’t actually mean we’re getting more done.
But while some employees call it a choice to put in long hours, it’s hard to see how that can really be true—for anyone. It would be one thing if Amazon were simply selecting for a small slice of the American workforce that truly wants to put in 60-hour or more weeks and neglect personal lives (and health). Yet a follow up Times piece pointed out that extreme work cultures aren’t limited to Amazon’s headquarters, but also show up at places like Netflix and Goldman Sachs. That’s because, the author writes, the financial reward for landing a job at those companies is so huge that each one attracts many more people to each slot than could possibly get it, “leading to the brutal competition that plays out at companies where only the best are destined for partnerships or senior management positions.”
But Amazon, Netflix, and Goldman Sachs are just the extreme end of the way all of our workplaces are heading: toward longer hours, higher demands, data to track it all in real time, and no extra pay to reward for all the stress. And we got here in large part because ours is an era marked by a low point in workers’ power.