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What does Gen Z really think about work?
storytelling, mythologies, and Fox News
mythology and storytelling
I have had a lot of nightmares recently. Nightmares that shake me awake as I reach in the air to try and ground myself, grabbing for anything real, anything that isn’t the fragments of fear hammering against my skull. The nightmares are any combination of things (death, stabbings, death again) but it’s always me, helpless and still, in the middle of it all. It’s made it hard to sleep!
Somewhat relatedly, I was in a yoga class the other day. I overheard a 23-year old software engineer talking to the yoga instructor about their work. “I hate my job” the software engineer said “and I will not be doing this for the rest of my life.” They then talked about how hard it was to work for survival (making money to live) - and how it made the work much less enjoyable.
There were numerous things about that eavesdropped conversation that shocked me, but their disillusionment with their work was a big one. I thought about it while moving through the various poses - “that person hates their job. that person wants to work with children and animals (which they said!) and instead is presumably building some eyeball monetization app.”
They had been told a story about work, building some set of expectations, and was grappling with their own nightmare that this story was not reality.1
The Art of Storytelling
There is something called “ritual banality avoidance” in storytelling. It’s the idea that when you’re writing story, you don’t allow yourself to take the easy route - you don’t kill off a character without purpose or make two random people fall in love. As George Saunders writes
“If we deny ourselves the crappo version of our story, a better version will (we aspirationally assume) present itself.”
Storytelling is the art of creating expectations, and then honoring those expectations created. It’s valuing the reader, giving them space to ask questions, and then following a pattern - a set of evolving expectations. So going back to nightmares and unhappy software engineers - both of these are functions of storytelling. Mismatched expectations.
My brain makes up a story about what life is not like, but it thinks it is - expectations - and crafts a reality during my sleep.
The software engineer’s brain made up a story about what software engineering would be like - expectations - and now, the brain is reckoning with reality.
Both boil down into a lack of pattern - for me, when you go to sleep, you don’t expect to be haunted by the stories you subconsciously tell yourself during the day. For the software engineer, they didn’t expect the stories that they consciously heard about how great it was to be an engineer to haunt them during their day.
Work has No Meaning
A lot2 of people my age (early to late twenties, even beyond) seem to have this sort of reckoning with work, haunted by the story not going as they wish.
Erik Baker wrote the incredible piece “The Age of Crisis in Work” exploring this pattern mismatch that workers are experiencing en-masse right now. He writes
[Within work there is] an inchoate sense of disillusionment. Tendrils of dissatisfaction are solidifying. Talk of a crisis of work suggests that many people today understand work itself, I think accurately, as a governing institution in its own right, analogous in some ways to the state… work functions as a nation within a nation—an imagined community, in Benedict Anderson’s famous definition. Its moral health is of obscure but paramount significance.
He compares work to benign tumors - something that exists, but isn’t a crisis within itself. Work has evolved around unnecessary provisions - the age of surplus created the jobs of excess. The only way to stay ahead is to produce, produce, produce, but that’s been increasingly weird. When people sat back after the 2016 election and during the pandemic, too many truths began to break the pattern of the story we had told ourselves in this age of Industrial Maturity about the work we do.
Once the mascot of American entrepreneurship, the entire tech industry is now in disgrace. The outright frauds (Theranos, Juicero, etc.) occasionally seem preferable to the many companies that are actually disrupting things. Elon Musk’s exploding self-driving cars battle with the “metaverse” for the status of punchline du jour. Hopes that it might break down social barriers and topple repressive regimes having evaporated, the online content factory serves primarily as a vehicle for people to post screenshots of TV shows that increasingly appear to be written for exactly that purpose
The stories of the industries that we used to revere are breaking apart. Things that were Good are kind of evil (Facebook, social media, etc). Heroes have become villains.
And in that process, many came to a weird realization (especially in rather work-focused USA) that their work might not be the key to self-actualization. And for some people it is - but for the vast majority of people, it might not be. And that’s where things get sort of weird - the pattern gets messed up in our work story. The work isn’t what we thought it would be.
This isn’t a moral call on how people think of work - Erik makes a point in the piece that some work is just “drudgery for money”3. I was speaking to another friend and he said that he doesn’t think of work as having any meaning at all - not net-anything, it just is what it is.
Mythology and Meaning
This idea that nothing matters and is structurally whatever is essentialism. Roland Barthes spent a lot of time on this idea, particularly in media. His whole idea was that the stories that we tell ourselves across all aspects - every single thing that we consume - is a larger mythology that weaves the fabric of society and keeps us hanging on by a thread. Stories matter.
Barthes wrote the essay “The World of Wrestling” where he explores how thinks about the spectacles like WWE, which functions more as theater than wrestling. But the wrestling has a meaning, a storyline about morality and the good guy vs the bad guy. Law and order and justice are still here, WWE tells us. The bad guy loses in the end.
But here again, only the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not wish for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle.
It’s a story. The expectation is that the bad guy gets it, and in the end they do. It’s a mythology, one that pervades all aspects of our lives. But it’s not always true.
Fox News and Dominion
Fox and Dominion is a good example of storytelling. Dominion sued Fox News for spreading lies about their voting machines worked, the two settled for $787.5 million, and Fox said “whoops, sorry, we did air some falsehoods out there.”
The question now is whether or not Fox will need to admit to spreading lies on air. But as David Graham writes in The Atlantic
Fox has constructed a massive, nearly addicted viewership and persuaded it to adopt a particular political worldview… The viewers hold the real power, and Fox is at their mercy. If even upstarts like OANN and Newsmax, with low production values, amateurish personalities, and shoddy content, could threaten Fox’s hold on its audience, then the channel remains vulnerable to challenges from further to the right. That scares executives far more than any cadre of fancy defamation lawyers ever can—and the lengths that they might go to avoid losing their viewers should scare everyone else.
Fox told viewers a story, a mythology, and viewers are now following the logical pattern of wherever that story leads them. Defamation suits are nothing, as Derek Thompson highlights. It’s a slap on the wrist - how could you ever price out shaping the ideology of an enraged public?
Everything is a story.
This revelation is not really that new or exciting - it’s no secret that humans like stories! We’ve been telling the same sort of fairy tales for 6,000 years.
But there is a mismatch in our storytelling right now. The mythology is getting weird, to say the least.
There are three things that I am going to try to tie together here.
The debt ceiling is a useless story and a political football that gets punted at the expense of the American public - terrible storytelling. I get budget priorities and managing spending, but hanging the entire government in a delicate balance as most Americans *want* a clean debt ceiling increase shows that there is not much governing going on.
The climate is important to tell good stories about. Bill McKibben wrote a great piece on what we need to get done to make sure our Earth is okay4. We need mythology around climate (something many are working on!) -
“Some NIMBY passion will need to be replaced by some YIMBY enthusiasm - or at least some acquiescence”
Finally, we need to make room for our mythologies to change. This is a kinda interesting thing to watch with how we talk about inflation - a lot of people are like “wow maybe companies have been ripping prices…” Isabella Weber has done tremendous work around this - as Bloomberg writes “Companies should be challenged to justify hikes and consumers shouldn’t be afraid to complain when not satisfied.” Shifting the blame of inflation to companies rather than workers getting wage increases is a GOOD pattern for the story to follow.
So going back to nightmares and yoga classes - it’s all about aligning expectations to reality, but in the meantime, telling stories that are inspiring.
For me and my nightmares, it’s about redefining fears.
For our software engineer, it’s about realigning expectations.
Martin Gurri wrote about this - finding inspiration and meaning and integrity and adventure in our lives, beyond work. It’s about being mindful of the mythology placed before us (Fox News for example) and leaving space to define our own (a software engineer who works on an app for children and animals, maybe).
Stories are what make us human, and we have the opportunity to rewrite them.
Some Other Links
Gamemaking as a set of skills | Ripping Off the Invisible Straitjacket | CRISK: Measuring the Climate Risk Exposure of the Financial System | Time Is a Violent Stream | “WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?” FOR AND AGAINST STORYTELLING VIA THE NOVELS OF KIRAN NAGARKAR | ChatGPT is an Ideology Machine | Everything, tonight | The Complete Beginners Guide To Autonomous Agents | We’ve All Been Way Too Accepting of Inflation
Disclaimer: This is not financial advice or recommendation for any investment. The Content is for informational purposes only, you should not construe any such information or other material as legal, tax, investment, or financial advice.
There is a lot to say about having a software engineer job, but I am just going to focus on my perception of this person’s perception of work
Like a LOT. I’ve talked to perhaps 20 people over the past two weeks in casual conversation about worker disillusionment, and one of them liked their job. One!
Whole conversation to be had about the lack of money in many jobs, as well as the lack. of benefits