The way we work and earn a living is increasingly up for debate in a post-vaccination world.
As the country moves toward normalcy and some employers enforce the return to in-person work, millions are rethinking aspects of their employment. For millennial women, the question of work — and how to organize your life to make a living and retain control over your own working conditions — is urgent, as the pandemic has forced issues such as housework, child rearing and work-life balance to the fore.
The topic is the stuff of headlines and viral TikToks. It is also the basis of two recent books by millennial women: “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” by Anne Helen Petersen and “Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism” by Amelia Horgan.
These two books are just part of a broadening landscape of literature looking at how women are rethinking the traditional corporate world. From “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone” by Sarah Jaffe, to “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell, more female authors are interrogating our fast-paced working culture. And many female readers, it seems, are similarly looking for answers.
The state of how we earn a living, both Petersen and Horgan argue, is up for being re-examined and reformed. And workers, particularly women, should question how to change things for the better.
“I think that many millennial women are at a point in their careers or jobs — and this includes people who work in all sorts of fields, and at different salary points — and wondering if their current situations, both in terms of pay, treatment at their jobs and their current work culture is worth it,” Petersen says.
Petersen and Horgan say these problems aren’t something that you can really fix by having a conversation with your manager — instead, they advocate for changing the workplace in ways that haven’t necessarily been charted before in the United States. So we asked them both which questions are going to be most pertinent as some workers return to office life — as well as advice on how to think through and navigate these issues.
From working conditions to pay, the pandemic has created cracks in traditional modes of thinking about work.
Companies accommodating pandemic work has made clear that workplace changes are easier than employers previously led workers to believe, according to Horgan. And having this taste of autonomy during working hours will be hard to shake, she says.
The pandemic also made pay discrepancy between junior and senior staff more obvious in some cases, she says: “You’d have some people zooming in from home offices with proper office chairs and then you’d have others perched somewhere uncomfortable, like in their bedroom in a house share.”
To fix this kind of workplace disparity, Horgan says political organizing in the workplace, most importantly joining a union, is crucial.
For Petersen, the pandemic has allowed workers to see that the rules aren’t exactly set in stone. In “Can’t Even,” she lays out how the idea of meritocracy has shaped millennials’ idea of work and tied it to identity. Today, the pandemic has allowed everyone to question this and think of other ways to live.
“I just think there was a lot of time to look at the status quo — in so many corners of our lives — and see how strange and arbitrary it is,” she says.
In “Can’t Even,” Petersen examines her own experience with burnout as well as culls from hundreds of pre-pandemic interviews with working millennials. That has led her to advocate for an approach to work that gives workers more freedom over their lives. (Her upcoming book, “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home,” co-authored with Charlie Warzel, will expand on this argument.)
Many millennial women she spoke with, she says, reached a breaking point balancing caretaking and job responsibilities, which has become an even more pressing issue in the pandemic. But for them, rethinking their jobs often comes from desperation — not mindful career changes. “Their ‘choice’ isn’t actually one,” according to Petersen.
For Petersen, flexibility will only work if workers are able to come together and advocate for each other on all levels. Challenging the way workplaces are set up means having each others’ backs and demanding a completely re-imagined society.
“[We need to be] cultivating cross-industry worker solidarity, advocating for labor laws that actually address and protect workers laboring in the 2020s, and remaining vigilant to ways that shifts to remote work are affecting your community,” she wrote in her popular Substack newsletter “Culture Study.” “That means creating networks of care and support, and helping to weave and reinforce a social safety net so strong that it can support all of us. That means de-coupling health care from work, re-imagining childcare, and re-embracing collectivism, just generally.”
Horgan’s book discusses the history of the women’s movement in the 1970s and ’80s, when feminist activists reframed housework as unpaid, isolating work and the liberal feminist movement demanded the entrance of women into the workforce as a solution. Another solution proposed then was communalizing housework and care work so it was fairly distributed.
However, decades later, the issue of what many feminists call “the double shift” — in which women work for their boss and to keep their homes in order — has not been addressed by many employers. Horgan says changes to the workplace that center the needs of working parents, including parental leave and subsidized child care, would significantly improve working conditions.
For Petersen, the way we work has to change because society is still organized around the supposition that one adult will care for the home and the caregiving. “As a result of this, heterosexual women and single mothers — whew, talk about burnout — pick up the slack,” Petersen says.
Flexibility, meanwhile, can give female workers more time to care for their families and home. It also might mean that our lives aren’t completely centered around paid work. “The point of flexibility isn’t so that you can free up more time so that you can take on a side hustle or sign your kid up for her fifth sports league or just fill it with more work,” she wrote in her newsletter. “The point is that you will have more time to 1) figure out who you are when work is no longer the axis of your life and 2) to actually use that time to care about and for other people.”
As more people return to the office, there are larger questions looming about whether work life will resemble a pre-pandemic normal. Petersen encourages employers to figure out better workplaces along with their workers.
Employers should view the return to work “as a process, as something you can figure out with your workers — but only if you trust them, and don’t think of employees as somehow desperate to figure out how to do no work when at home,” she says. “It’s a radical idea, that if you decrease the amount that workers do busy work — say, by implementing a four-day work week — that they actually do better work. But the data is there.”
If companies don’t explore the possibility of radically shifting corporate work, she says, they’re “just scared of change.”
And although flexibility in working from home might be key for some workers, Horgan says that’s not true for everyone. “In terms of how people work, some have enjoyed the lack of surveillance, whereas for others the blurring of home and work has been a more negative experience,” she says.
In “Lost in Work,” Horgan suggests workers steal moments to themselves during the workday as a form of rebellion if they’re unhappy with their working conditions: “These minor acts of time theft can be thrilling or just a tool for getting through the workday,” she writes. She also recommends workers build power by forming or joining unions to demand a better workplace.
As both Petersen and Horgan argue in their books, it is obvious that workplaces need to urgently change as workers have started to quit en masse when their needs are not considered important by management. For both millennial female authors, political organizing at work is the most effective way to demand better and more autonomous working conditions.
“In the longer term, we’ve got to be thinking about things like workplace democracy, demanding shorter working time, with the latter giving us more time to organize politically as well as being a good in itself,” Horgan says.