Meaningless?

The other day, a reader called my attention to what might be called a relatively polite rant, i.e., an op-ed in The New York Times by someone called Tim Krieder, whom I’d never heard of. According to the op-ed, he defines himself as a Millennial who’s disgusted with the entire structure of work and sickened and angry with the excessive greed of the corporate moguls, who work at underpaying their employees and squeezing every last dollar from them. And what’s worse, so much worse, according to Kreider, is that so much work is meaningless.

Kreider begins by saying, “A new generation has grown to adulthood that’s never known capitalism as a functioning economic system.” That’s somewhere between hyperbole and utter bullshit. American capitalism works. In fact, that’s the problem. It works far too well at making money for the capitalists and not nearly well enough for those they employ – except for a handful of those at the very top.

Kreider goes on to excoriate the cults of “busyness” and “hard work is necessary for success,” then declares that people are enervated not just by pointlessness of their individual labors but also by the fact that they’re working in and for a society in which they have neither faith nor investment. This isn’t exactly new.

What Krieder – and apparently much of the millennial generation – doesn’t seem to get is that jobs are work, often work that seems meaningless to many workers who aren’t involved in manual tasks or those where the results can’t be immediately perceived. The Millennials want “meaning,” and what they mean is work that they feel is meaningful. Anything else apparently doesn’t count.

I can guarantee that all those jobs and busywork that Kreider deplores are “meaningful” to someone, or those greedy capitalists at the top of the pyramid wouldn’t be paying for them. The capitalists certainly have been more and more effective at reducing staff and while maintaining output, and they aren’t going to pay for work they think is “meaningless.”

While I certainly agree with his points about mind-numbing and exhausting work that seems meaningless, that’s been true for a good century, if not longer.

My first job after I left the Navy was as a statistical analyst for a manufacturer of compressed air filters, lubricators, and valves, trying to determine sales patterns and project future trends, using a series of formulae developed by the former head of market research. Being somewhat of an iconoclast, I kept two sets of projections, those predicted by the various formulae and those I wrote down based on my gut feel. After a year, two things became clear. My gut figures [which I kept private] were more accurate, and that I wasn’t suited to that kind of mental drudgery. Today, of course, all that would be done by computers, but this was at a time when desk-top electronic calculators had just become available. After my departure, my position was filled by someone much more enamored of that sort of work. I also noted, about ten years ago, the retirement of my immediate superior at that company, who clearly had spent fifty years dealing with marginally meaningful numbers.

From the compressed air position, I then went on to other pursuits, some where I failed miserably, before getting into politics as essentially a combination of analyst, researcher, and composer of all sorts of political analyses, correspondence, testimony, and speeches, none of which survives except in long-filed archives, if there. And all of that would be meaningless, by Mr. Kreider’s standards, but it did enable me to survive mostly comfortably, to raise a family, and to write F&SF on the side until I was successful enough to become a full-time writer.

I’m far from being that much different from millions of others over the past five decades who struggled between trying to find meaning and supporting themselves and others.

What Mr. Kreider says is, for all his protests that the current American “work culture” is meaningless and carries that meaninglessness to extremes, is nothing that hasn’t been said before, and said with far less self-pity and self-righteousness.

And the answer doesn’t lie in protesting the lack of meaning, in dropping out of the workforce, or in working as little as possible, as Mr. Kreider seems to advocate, but in political and legal action to change the corporate culture from one that continues to over-reward the capitalists to one that grants economically a greater share to those who create the goods, services, and products.

9 thoughts on “Meaningless?”

  1. Sandie says:

    Not every job that needs doing in this world is “meaningful” in and of itself… sometimes meaning has to be found elsewhere.. in family life, hobbies… I always told my kids that it is a great thing if you can find a job that is meaningful to you, but if you can’t find one, then find one that pays the bills, and find your “meaning” elsewhere.. and at the same time, do it well and cheerfully and you may make someone else smile.. thus providing some goodness to another.

  2. Mayhem says:

    One thing that sticks out to me about American corporate culture – there was traditionally a great amount of emphasis placed on being seen to be at work for a long period of time, and not a lot placed on productivity while there. I remember being lambasted for being a few minutes late to an arbitrary start time, while also being expected to remain substantially after the finish because you couldn’t leave before a particular manager did. It’ll be interesting to see if the rise in remote working thanks to the pandemic has finally broken some of that.

    Certainly a number of organisations I work with have shifted from not trusting their staff to work remotely at all to having some staff permanently work from home – turned out they didn’t need to be babysat after all, and are individually much more productive with more control over their working hours.

    1. It’s like everything. One size or methodology doesn’t fit every individual or situation.

  3. Tom says:

    Of interest perhaps?

    Tim Kreider is a cartoonist and the author of two essay collections, “We Learn Nothing” and, most recently, “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.” He writes the newsletter The Loaf. Tim was born and educated in Baltimore, Maryland. He lives in New York City and an Undisclosed Location on the Chesapeake Bay. His cat died in 2013. From his website.

    July 7, 2022 NY Times ‘It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam ‘ he stated “…My generation, X, was the first postwar cohort to be downwardly mobile, but millennials were the first to know it going in. …”

    Makes me wonder about “A picture is worth a thousand words” – to those who look at details as well as the gestalt.

  4. Bill says:

    It seems ironic that he would promote his books which is work by advocating for not working. He seems to have learned the greatest lesson of this current situation is that you can say anything as long as it gets you want you want.
    He is using one of the better tricks of manipulation which is a reframe. The classic example is of a steak sauce who’s commercial would say you know that the sauce is good on steak, it should be good on hamburger because hamburger is just ground steak.
    The listener/viewer accepts the statement that the sauce is good on steak without thinking about it. It is much more powerful than making an argument that the sauce is good on steak.
    Most of the political commercials today do this. They don’t argue that a politician is going to solve the problem, instead they say the other candidate isn’t going to do anything and stating they caused the problem. They have implied that the person in that position can do something about the problem and that their candidate has a solution without making the claim and focusing their ire on the other candidate. It is a neat trick.

  5. Ryan Jackson says:

    Generally people who claim what Millenials are unhappy about don’t actually understand what Millenials are unhappy about.

    I’ll also point out that “Millenial” starts somewhere between 1980 and 1982. So Millenials are in their late 30’s, not young people rebelling.

    People who are quitting jobs aren’t doing it because it feels meaningless. It’s because doing well in them or persevering at them feels meaningless. The Classic “If I bust my rump and move 100 extra units I don’t see an extra dime.” And the idea that you should abide by a schedule and put your job before your own needs. THAT is what people are feeling is meaningless.

    What I do may or may not feel Meaningful to me. But I feel meaningful to the company I work for because they pay well, they treat their employees well, they understand that they don’t get to claim priority in all cases and they go out of their way to make sure their people are taken care of.

    That makes me feel like being part of this company is meaningful, even if my individual tasks might sometimes feel less so.

    1. Elena says:

      I might also add the feeling that no matter how hard you work at the job(s), it seems that there’s no way to get ahead or to plan for a future because you’re barely making ends meet for the “now”.

      1. Ryan Jackson says:

        AND, upward mobility is often gatekept behind college degrees that may or may not be useful to the position.

        Example. I left a job at a bank after 15 years. Over those 15 years I had extensive work as a fraud investigator, I understand law, I understand regulation, I have contacts in the Secret Service and police departments in more than a few cities.. I have all the experience expected for such a position.

        I have been turned down for jobs based purely on the lack of a college degree. Now note, I don’t mean a Degree in Criminal Justice, or Law, or anything relevant. I mean they cared that I didn’t have a generic degree. Those jobs went to people who had degrees in a spectrum of things that had nothing to do with the actual job. But they put that piece of paper higher on the totem pole than actual experience.

        A conspiracy mindset might point out that corporations want to perpetuate people being stuck under crippling debt from student loans. I don’t know that that’s the case, but the idea that no matter how hard you work or how much experience you have, you are worth less than the inexperienced college grad because…. reasons?

        1. Mayhem says:

          That’s also caused by people not knowing how to do their jobs properly and basically inventing ways to cover their backs.
          Just as you used to say “You’ll never go wrong buying IBM”, an ignorant HR person will always hire someone with a qualification over someone with experience, because that experience isn’t easily quantified, and the qualification protects the HR person if it turns out the hire was a mistake.
          It’s credentialism over talent, because as companies grow larger, their appetite for potential risk shrinks rapidly. In the biggest companies everything is formalised and the only way in is by meeting very specific criteria … or by having the connections to skip the process.

          And that’s ignoring the whole issue of degree inflation, where due to an excess of people attending university and a dearth of positions actually requiring said skills, even entry level jobs start asking for degrees or equivalents, and jobs worthy of them now require postgraduate study. In many cases to even be considered for management you must have a masters degree in something – it’s not relevant to the job, it’s another way of gatekeeping.

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