Chasing success: Is being productive killing our identities?

By Abubakar Shabbir

Placing productivity above all else is the roboticization of humanity.

As a kid I played a videogame called Toontown. It was set in the world of Mickey Mouse. You would play as a ‘toon’ and the antagonists were called ‘Cogs’. They were (literally) corporate robots that wished to turn the colourful towns of Toontown into business district dystopias, with grey and characterless multi-storey buildings. Cogs had names like ‘Mingler’, ‘Mover and Shaker’ and ‘Yes Man’; they had no personality and their sole purpose in life was the extension and perpetuation of big business.

Work, work, work

David Graeber’s 2013 ‘Bullshit Jobs’ essay in Strike magazine broke the internet. It questioned whether all jobs needed to exist. Graeber asked people to consider: if their job disappeared tomorrow, would it matter? He theorised that many people would agree in the pointless meaninglessness of their jobs. In fact, a YouGov poll found that 37% of British workers feel their job does not contribute anything meaningful to the world. The point was not to job shame or diminish a person’s effort, Graeber acknowledged that work was a necessity, but the essay aimed to highlight that the capitalist model engenders work for work’s sake.

Capitalism places profit above all else, this means producing as much as possible for as little as possible – including having as few employees as possible. Thus, individuals must produce until they are physically and mentally unable to do so. Capitalists work hard to ennoble work. This means that when we fail, we fail because we deserve to – our effort was just not enough. The poor become deserving of the situation. This drives us to work harder, to place productivity above all else even if we do not need to. The only moral good is success and success is productivity.

Graeber argued that capitalism deliberately creates bullshit jobs to keep people busy and fill the possible free time we may have otherwise enjoyed; he quotes Keynes’ prediction that we would not need to work more than 15 hours a week by the end of the 20th century. Capitalism is reliant on constant economic growth, therefore, the individual must work at all costs. In his book ‘Bullshit Jobs’, which was the development of its namesake essay, Graeber argues that bullshit jobs are created to maintain comparative social and economic status which he labels ‘managerial feudalism’. Capitalism, he says, is supposed to root out inefficiencies. Instead, it creates jobs for jobs’ sake.

The productivity problem

When we consider our jobs as an indicator of societal standing, we make comparisons based on our job titles and salaries. This social hierarchy matters because that is how we decide our worth. We saw this in recent months, during the free school meals debate. Those parents who could not afford to feed their kids, for whatever reason, were dehumanised by many; they were ridiculed and humiliated for being victim to poverty in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. They were labelled lazy, unemployed, drug addicts- truth be damned- because they are poor. Ergo, they must be unproductive and therefore they are deserving failures.

We are socialised to consider productivity an appropriate measure of success and worth from a young age. We are asked as children, constantly, what job we want to do when we are older. Those whose answers receive pleased reactions say they want to be extraordinary; they want fame and money. A quiet, ordinary life is seen as the life of someone who has given up. Success must be economically productive, metropolitan, and highbrow.

We are developed as humans aiming only to earn a stable- hopefully high- income and a stable future. Consequently, we spend much of our school time trying to fight childish urges and optimise ourselves. Even extra-curriculars fall victim to this mode of thinking: ‘it will look good on your CV!’ is something that we have all heard when apprehensive about signing up to a new sport, volunteering, and even taking up new hobbies. This obsessive drive to buff out one’s CV leaves little room for development of interests outside of our careers.

‘Laboro, ergo sum’ (‘I work therefore I am’) is the philosophy that drives the rational economic agent. We are left measuring success by productivity. Work takes over our lives. It blurs the line between leisure and labour. Working from home threatens this line even further. This creates a deep sense of hopelessness in those who are unable to optimise their lives to be constantly productive.

It is this that has created and is maintaining the culture of ‘hustle’, which was on show as the UK went into its first lockdown in March 2020. There was a barrage of posts on social media telling people that they had to come out of lockdown with a second- or third, fourth and fifth- stream of income. It is this culture that has left people desperate to jump into the investment bubble, be it forex, cryptocurrencies, or stocks. We feel a need to make as much money as possible; free time, mental health, relationships, and anything else that does not provide productive value becomes irrelevant. We work ourselves to death and tell ourselves it is honourable.

So, what matters?

Money does not make people happy. It does make life easier and more comfortable – this is not up for debate. Yet, studies show that, once a certain threshold of income is reached, life satisfaction does not increase with a higher income. There is nothing inherently wrong with earning good money and living a life of comfort, but money should not equate to a good life, it should complement it. People disparage filmmakers, writers, artists, and other creatives as not having real jobs, but it is these cultural products that help people enjoy life and make being alive more than labour.

In turning us into rational economic agents, who act only in our material self-interest, we allow capitalism to remove our individualities, our humanity and turn us, and our worth, into the product of our labour. Capitalism instils us with a desire to achieve a good market position, even if we will never be ridiculously wealthy, we are reassured that at least there will be someone below us. Perhaps this contributes to the cruel way we talk about those who are poor in a society defined by one-upmanship.

Indeed, we oft pine for the ‘good old days’ where we would leave doors open, know our neighbours and help each other. However, we ignore the divisive nature of the capitalist neo-liberal machine. As Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘there’s no such thing as society’. We have all become the individual, and yet, we all vie for the same thing- market superiority. In the process, we become a monolith of productivity chasing robots.

Job shaming is not the aim, there is no dishonour in working hard or doing a ‘bullshit’ job. Work is necessary and we all want to live well. However, to work for the sake of work; to suffer, to forget to live and lose ourselves to productivity is a troubling reality. Productivity in and of itself is not a bad thing but, like all things, moderation is key. Most of us work because we must. Working has always been about purchasing free-time; however, for many of us it is becoming an all-consuming obsession, where no financial success or recognition will sate our thirst for work. After all, what are we without the job?

When we work endlessly, climbing the hierarchy and chasing the elusive blissful success- drunk on the admiration of other workaholics, we risk causing a deep moral and spiritual harm to ourselves. We become a Toontown Cog. Jobs are being automated and so, too, are we.

Graphic courtesy of Bersun Kılınç