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Your work is not your god: welcome to the age of the burnout epidemic

0 3 years ago

The rich are irrational when it comes to work. Out of everyone in our society, they have the least need to earn more money, but they work the most.

Billionaire tech-industry titans brag about their hundred-hour work weeks, even though their labor isn’t what boosts their companies’ stock prices and enriches them further. Americans with advanced degrees have the highest average earning power, but typically work more and spend less time on leisure than people with less formal education. The children of rich parents are twice as likely to have summer jobs as poor kids are. And many older American professionals with plenty saved for retirement keep showing up at the office.

I am irrational too. I earned a middle-class salary as a tenured college professor but became increasingly exhausted by and frustrated with the work. Eventually, I quit. Even though teaching played a leading role in my burnout, I felt so aimless without it that, less than two years later, I became a part-time adjunct instructor making just a few thousand dollars a course, a fraction of what I had made before. I needed structure in my days. I needed to exercise my hard-won pedagogical skills. Above all, I needed someone to count on me to show up and do a decent job.

All of this is evidence that we don’t only work for the money. Many people – volunteers, parents and starving artists among them – don’t get paid at all for their labor. Even workers who aren’t rich, who really do need every cent of their paycheck, often say there’s more than money at stake. They’re doing their jobs for love, or service or to contribute to a collective effort.

Worsening labor conditions, including more emotional intensity and less security than mid-20th-century work, only tell half the story of why burnout is so prevalent in our society. Burnout is characteristic of our age because the gap between our shared ideals about work and the reality of our jobs is greater now than it was in the past.


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