The scions of tech launched a revolt against the relentless conformity of cubicle life, a movement to overcome the sense of alienation and discontent plaguing so many offices across the country. Jobs were boring, hours were long, life was short, and a critical mass of young computer geeks thought there was a better way. Offices — once full of lofty hopes about a more sociable future of work, the refuge of those spared the indignity of factory labor — had become partitioned wastelands of broken promises and dreams deferred. Indeed, by the late 1970s, they had begun to feel much like factories themselves.
Central to that pushback was Silicon Valley, where the sixties counterculture went to cash in. The valley’s new businesses were built by couriers of this new Zeitgeist, who proselytized that hard work and long hours were their own reward.
Douglas Coupland captured that consummate passion for tech world work in his prophetic 1995 novel Microserfs, in which a group of nerdy engineers who hate their jobs at a fictional buttoned-down IBM move from Redmond, Washington to Silicon Valley in search of more self-actualizing work. Their new home is literally the light of their life, constructed with just the right illumination streaming through plate-glass facades and spatial harmony to create beauty and intimacy.
As they grow tired of chasing venture capital, which always seems just out of reach, one programmer has a startling revelation: “I would have come here for nothing. I never had to get paid. . . . It’s never been the money. It rarely ever is. It wasn’t with any of us — was it?”
For a while, it seemed these complaints about meaningless work reflected not only the exploitative nature of work, but also the prophetic demands of the New Left. Campus activists, feminists, and even young technologists sought to rescue work from its alienating quality — or to abolish it altogether.
This seductive possibility calls to mind Marx’s remark about human nature, which he explains by noting the difference between the worst of architects and the best of bees: the former erects the structure first in the mind, the latter builds on instinct. The creative imagination at work is, in other words, the most fundamental hallmark of our humanity.
But history is cunning. What has become known as the “new spirit of capitalism” meant that the demands for more creative and fulfilling work dovetailed with the needs of a business class to regain their power and profitability during the crises of the late seventies.
An expanding class of managers, supervisors, business leaders, advertisers, writers, gurus, and others intercepted these new demands for meaningful jobs and repackaged them as a new ideology of work. The result was the popular discourse on meaningful work we have today, which encourages finding personal worth and fulfillment in one’s job as a part of the job itself. This managerial revolution was successful because it seemed to deliver something we already desired.
Nonetheless, maybe those for whom jobs seem the least meaningful hold the key to reforming our working lives. The phenomenon of meaningless work illuminates the contradiction at the heart of capitalism itself. Long hours at tedious jobs could have been avoided if we had prioritized policies that continued to reduce the workday and if workers were allowed greater control over their employment and schedules. Yet here we are.
Lane Kirkland, former president of the AFL-CIO, captured this resentment in one simple quip in 1979. “If hard work was so important,” he told a reporter when asked about laziness on the job, “the rich would keep it all for themselves.”