Young people like me give the bulk of our waking lives to work, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at popular culture. Movies and television shows tend to cast us in the mold of Hannah Horvath, the central character on HBO’s TV series Girls (2012-). Horvath didn’t need to say ‘I may be the voice of my generation’ to make it so. As a millennial young person living in New York — in other words, as the prototype of her kind, on a show that aims at verisimilitude — that happened automatically. She is on television; she is one of those inescapable examples your mind is drawn to when you’re thinking about ‘kids these days’. And that’s why she’s so dangerous.
The very word ‘millennial’ is a pejorative, and Hannah is fuel on the fire. The first thing she does in the whole of her fictional existence is ask her parents for money. She has been out of college for two years, and still she doesn’t have a paying job. She wants $1,100 a month so that she can continue writing her memoirs. ‘Do you know how crazy the economy is right now?’ she says. ‘All my friends get help from their parents.’
You could write a whole column about her in the style of the New York Times commentator David Brooks. ‘Horvath has a liberal arts education, she is bright and well spoken, but she takes no stake in anything larger than herself. She’s undisciplined. She maintains a social media presence but doesn’t know how to break down a box. She lies instead of admitting she’s wrong. She expects much from other people but offers them little in return. She makes reckless decisions about sex. She lives in the third person, with an eye toward stories she’ll tell about herself. She makes her rules up as she goes along, without reference to fixed principles or values. New research suggests that children born in suburban…’
Every morning, I commute from Manhattan’s financial district to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where they shoot scenes from Girls, and it feels almost like an act of defiance. There’s a wall I walk past where, in one episode, Hannah makes up with her boyfriend while wearing onesie pyjamas; she looks ridiculous, like an overgrown baby. That image I have of her as I go into the office does an ugly thing to me: it makes me feel bigger than her, and more adult, as if it were exceptional to be young and on your way to a desk.
In the essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’ (1993), David Foster Wallace wrote that: ‘Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.’ It is not incumbent on Girls to show the whole rich picture of youth — including, say, the nine hours some of us spend working each day — just the stuff that’s going to resonate with everyone. Girls can hardly be considered unique in this regard: no US TV shows, including ones with titles such as The Office (2005-13) or Men at Work (2012‑), depict actual work. The best they do is depict workplaces — the office culture, not the mental life of the job itself.
The reason for this is simple: most work looks dull. You can’t fill screen time with people typing, reading, hammering, standing, thinking; in fact, the more intensely focused someone is, the less visually interesting they’re going to be.
But this has a pernicious effect on anyone who learns about life from TV, which happens to be everyone who watches. The effect is to make work, especially other people’s, seem too boring to be worth thinking about. To make us believe that work is supposed to be boring. To make work seem unimportant to the lives of the young, good-looking and often likeable people who populate the televisual world.
It is a hole too large. It’s frustrating to me that what it means to be in your 20s today is represented in the culture by people talking about sex and other people, when my experience is that mostly what we’re doing is working. The corrective is not to boast about our ethic — ‘hard work’ is already fetishised among the professional young, and it’s annoying; it’s one of the reasons you’d want to leave the east coast. The point is to acknowledge that we all sit down and sometimes thrill each other, sometimes bore each other, with the stuff we’ve filled our heads with. That so much of our energy goes into filling our heads in the first place.
And to admit that real people are intensely curious about what the hell it is that everyone else is doing.
I remember hearing from someone who worked in a library that you don’t want to get assigned to the children’s section, that all the bending you have to do to reach the low shelves can ruin your back. That is a fact about the world that I would not have come to on my own. I would have gone to libraries and looked down at the colourful kids’ shelves and never imagined a person making them full.
Facts like these are occasionally of instrumental value — for instance, it’s good to know that plumbing runs vertically through a building, because it helps you find the bathroom — but mostly you want to know them because of what the physicist Richard Feynman charmingly described in 1981 as ‘the pleasure of finding things out’. I’ve always found that my favourite parts of science fiction or fantasy novels, such as Harry Potter, are where the new world’s rules are revealed, where you find out, say, how money is withdrawn from Gringotts.
We, too, live in an enchanted land, where all the inanimate surfaces, such as the shelves in our libraries, have motion and action behind them. They were not just placed there finished, they came to be because of an arcane ritual, because of someone doing a job.
I learnt from a friend who works in advertising that in the hundred milliseconds it takes for you to load most web pages, information about you is looked up, vetted, and classified; a real-time second-price auction among advertisers is held on your behalf; one of the winner’s ads, of many slight variations, is selected; and that ad is placed on the page.
‘There’s treasure everywhere,’ as Calvin, the comic-strip character, put it to his buddy, Hobbes, the stuffed tiger. That’s one of the reasons we get up in the morning, I think — to dig deep at our particular spot marked X. Isn’t that what a career is? And isn’t that why we start so many conversations in this country with: ‘What do you do?’ There’s only so much treasure you can find on your own part of the island; what other way is there to get your hands on the rest than by talking to other people about their work?
I know I am not alone in feeling this way. I know it because I read a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974). Not only did it become a national best-seller, it was one of those century books, a book people still read and care about 40 years after it was published. It’s 2.4lbs and 640 pages worth of conversations with ordinary Americans about their work, recorded and edited in the early 1970s by Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian and radio host. ‘It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor,’ Terkel writes in his introductory essay. ‘In short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.’
I salivate at the thought of my work, I have projects that I go after with a violent energy and I feel slowed down or crippled if I can’t
Terkel’s conversations have a pleasing concreteness about them. You learn what someone’s day looks like, the way they stand, what they do with their hands. You learn, for instance, that the parking-lot attendant never adjusts anyone’s seat, and that he brings his cars to their mark with one big swing.
It’s people talking about the details of the thing they love, or the thing they’ve mastered anyway. ‘You have to figure out reasons to keep from going crazy, games to try to beat yourself,’ the truck driver says. ‘After a number of years, you begin to be a better loader. They come with a 30,000lb coil. If you set it down on the truck three inches forward or backward of where it’s supposed to be, you’re misloaded. So there’s a challenge every time you load. Everybody’s proud of that. At the truck shop they’ll flash a weight ticket: “Take a look at that.” They’ve loaded a balanced load.’
There are so many voices in Working — ‘an incredible abundance of marvellous beings’, said The New York Times in its review — so many examples of what’s inspiring and grating and boring and vitalising about this basic trade we make of our time and energy, that it’s hard not to find yourself in there. In that sense, it is the most democratic book you could imagine: it celebrates all kinds, it welcomes you in to the happy mess.
There is, unfortunately, one exception. ‘Lately there has been a questioning of this “work ethic”, especially by the young,’ Terkel writes in his introduction. ‘Strangely enough, it has touched off profound grievances in others, hitherto devout, silent, and anonymous.’ Terkel is among those who grieve. His Working has a minimal structure, where people with similar jobs are grouped together into chapters: those who work on their feet; those who work the land; bureaucrats; those who count; those who work with cars; athletes; and so on. There are only three chapters that are arranged by theme instead. One is about retired people. One is about dreamers still ‘in search of a calling’. The last is called ‘The Age of Charlie Blossom’, and it’s about people such as Charlie Blossom, who is described as ‘24 years old, of an upper-middle-class family. His father and grandfather are both doctors… His long hair is beribboned into a ponytail; his glasses are wire-rimmed; his moustache is scraggly and his beard is wispy.’
Charlie Blossom is a copy boy at a newspaper, and he has an attitude about work that is so shitty it is parodic:
I had been thinking for months, What will I do when I get fired? Will I smoke a joint in the city room? Will I meditate in the library? I wanted to do something to show, Hey, I’m better than you motherfuckers. I’m getting fired because I’m different. I don’t want to be a cipher. I was thinking, How could I show that? By kidnapping Marshall Field? By shooting him? I had to think fast, so I looked at the editor and said, ‘I hope you can live with the conditions you’re creating.’ And I just turned around and walked out and started to cry.
‘I want to be a frontiersman of the spirit,’ he says, ‘where work is not a drag.’
Terkel is afraid of Charlie, and of the eight other subjects collected under his banner, as though America was in fact about to enter ‘The Age of Charlie Blossom’, as if the culture could so violently come apart at the hands of these new kids on the scene, the hip entitled offspring of the upper middle class, the 1970s equivalent of the Girls girls.
In one respect, Terkel’s alarm is comforting — whatever your worries about the torpor of the young, it shouldn’t be directed at the young today; this kind of stuff has been going on for a while. And, of course, there’s solace in the fact that the youngsters Terkel fingered in his unhappy chapter did not, in fact, destroy the workplace — they grew up alongside the adults we look to now as role models, or became those adults themselves.
Still, it’s disappointing that a book-length treatment of the American working mind would devote a whole section to the toxic young, instead of the young who are earnest and careful about their jobs, or hopeful, or at the very least anxious about them, about not being as swept up by their work as they’d like to be.
I know a lot of kids who could fill a chapter like that.
An unexpected thing happened to me in college. I learnt that I like to read, write, write software, and talk to people; that I could spend my whole day doing these things; that I could get paid to do them. And so I dropped whatever expectations I had about what a job would be. I came to understand that my working life was not about jobs, but about reading some, writing some, talking some, and coding some. I saw these activities as being in a balance, all drawing from the same pool of time. My day job would be the one that happens to draw the most. I expected it would change over time.
It is an incredibly lucky thing, to find out what makes you tick. I salivate at the thought of my work, I have projects that I go after with a violent energy and I feel slowed down or crippled if I can’t. It is a total fire sometimes; it is as Terkel’s carpenter put it: ‘Your whole universe is rolled onto the head of that nail. Each lick is sufficient to justify your life… If you see a carpenter that’s alive to his work, you’ll notice that about the way he hits a nail.’
It does not escape me how self-satisfied this sounds, how cloying. Nor does it escape me that I learnt to feel this way about my work in college, at a time when my social life was supposed to be flourishing, when it wasn’t, when I left frat parties to go to empty classrooms. There has to be a connection between that and my regard for lonely toil. What I mean is that there is something here to do with sex, something that explains the shine I take toward Working (working) and the angst I’ve felt about Girls (girls).
It is complicated, of course. Work can be an escape from the stress and disappointments of being young, single and out. It can be a place you fly to when you’ve failed, but all that time in a room somewhere can give you powers. It can get you on the way to being good at something, and there is no more transformative force I’ve seen among my twentysomething male friends than their sense of being good at something. It lifts their bearing. It makes them feel worthy of the girls they want.
Earlier this summer, I went with a few friends on a canoe trip in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York. Only one of us, Michael, had much experience; we didn’t have a guide; we were taking it easy. On the third day, we came up on some rapids that weren’t marked on our map, and we decided to go down them. I capsized the kayak and very nearly lost it. To stave off hypothermia, I had to strip down naked and change, shivering and terrified, into my friends’ warm clothes on a bank of the river, convinced I might have truly fucked us, because it was getting dark and we didn’t know if we had cleared the rapids for good. When we finally got to the campsite — just a lonely clearing — it was already pitch black. We were shaken. It looked like it might rain. Some sleeping bags had gotten wet. And then Michael put us to work, and we came alive in the ancient way of people who had a job that unambiguously had to be done. While he made a fire from damp wood, we set up the tents, filtered water, carefully wrapped our clothes, prepared the food, cooked it, plotted the next day, and then all of us, dead tired, went to sleep.
This experience, of doing necessary work, made me think of the gravedigger featured in Working. He sounds less like a gravedigger than you’d expect. He digs the graves with a machine. He tries to cut the lines crisp. ‘Can you imagine if I wouldn’t show up tomorrow morning, and this other fella — he usually comes late — and sometimes he don’t show. We have a funeral for 11. Imagine what happens? The funeral arrives and where you gonna bury it?’
The older people in that book will say that they haven’t taken a sick day in 40 years, and before I’d taken the gravedigger’s point to heart I thought they were lying. At every job I’ve ever had, I’ve taken a sick day, usually a couple every few months, because of a bad cold. But, of course, every job I’ve ever had has been at a place where, even in my absence, the apparatus keeps running.
People have a very keen sense of when they are needed. There is an awful lot of talk of robots and machines in Working, of feeling like a robot or a machine, from people whose jobs did, in fact, become obsolete: the telephone operator, the gas meter reader, various hands along the automobile assembly line. Even an accountant said: ‘Is my job important? It’s a question I ask myself. It’s important to people who use financial statements, who buy stocks. It’s important to banks. Whether it’s important to society … [A long pause.] No, not too important.’
When the connection between work and goal is obscure; when the goal belongs to someone else; when the job, in other words, doesn’t seem to the doer like it has to be done — a person’s sense of purpose moulders fast. And so what if it does? Shouldn’t it?
A ‘tall’ from Starbucks has 240mg of caffeine. We need a socially acceptable upper or else the economy would come undone
I have a friend who used to work as a paralegal, and the big decision he had to make every morning was whether he was going to bring his headphones to work. If he didn’t, he would use his ample downtime to study for the GRE; if he did, he would watch Donald Duck cartoons.
A PhD student described his workday as largely self-directed: he teaches an undergraduate section, grades his students’ work, goes to colloquia and seminars, and finds time to do his own research. His research, he admitted, consists of ‘50 per cent work and 50 per cent Jezebel’. ‘I think this is probably true of most professions: it’s reading the news, it’s getting coffee, it’s fucking around.’ He works with big computer models that have a lot of parameters: each time he wants to test an idea, it might take five minutes. ‘You can’t read a paper in five minutes,’ he says, ‘but you can read half a Jezebel article.’
‘We’re a generation whose mental faculties are being destroyed by the internet,’ says another friend of mine. ‘Kids aren’t working, they’re narcotising. Track their web browsing history for just one day and tell me it isn’t scary.’ The enemy of the office worker is tiredness brought on by boredom, brought on, almost certainly, by the fact that sitting in an office all day is strange and hostile to a healthy mind. There is not enough movement, not enough change.
In college, I got my caffeine fixes from the soda fountain. The average serving of Coke contains about 80mg of caffeine. When I took my first office job, I started drinking coffee. A ‘tall’ from Starbucks has 240mg of caffeine. We need a socially acceptable upper or else the economy would come undone. Office workers I spoke to told me they are constantly tuned to the speed of time — unconscious when it’s moving fast, hyperconscious and tortured when it’s slow. They probably know that the drug-free way to speed up time is to dive headfirst into a problem. But the paradox is that, just when this would benefit them the most, it’s the hardest to pull off. When you’re languishing, the last thing you want to do is chew off a difficult puzzle.
‘Everything hinged on small things,’ my friend Mike said about working on airplane engines. ‘In an engineering environment, it’s like, it’s nice that you went over these fundamental equations — but how well do you really understand them? Are you so fucking sure that you understand it, that this thing won’t fail when someone stands on top of it?’
He said there was a review process at his company where every technical decision had to be approved by a ‘Jedi council’ of half a dozen senior engineers. Their mandate was to not think about cost or customers — just safety. They were ruthless. Mike remembers one reviewer in particular. ‘If you don’t know the answer to the question, say “I don’t know.” Do not try and answer it, because he had no tolerance for not being perfectly knowledgeable on everything. And forget if you made a calculation mistake — forget it. He would just say, “Listen, I know you didn’t mean to make a mistake, but you did, so I can’t trust another damn thing you’re gonna say.”’
Mike was a part of a training programme designed to weed out people who weren’t, by their constitution, engineers. He talks about the ones who dropped out. ‘They don’t want to give up their weekends when they’re 23, and they don’t want to stay at work till 11 o’clock on a Thursday, only to be at work again on Saturday — they don’t want to do it! But that’s what you had to do to just do the bare minimum there. That’s how it was. That’s why I always feel very safe flying in planes.’
There is a question that my friend Adam, the CEO of a web start-up, likes to ask every prospective employee: ‘Tell me something that you know about that other people don’t know about, and explain why it’s important as if I am in fifth grade.’ Adam told me that: ‘If someone can’t explain a deeply technical thing or an esoteric marketing thing or whatever in a way that a fifth grader can understand, they aren’t going to be able to explain it in a way that other people at the company can understand. I have seen that lead to a culture of distrust, and worse decisions, because people don’t understand the reasons for them.’
I have this thing that happens when I’m reading where I’ll get past a sentence and start to think that I didn’t quite understand what it was saying, not vividly, and yet I’ll continue to read as though I had understood. A guilty itch kicks in to tell me — like it tells the boy who lied — to go back and do the right thing, to square things up. And sometimes I listen to that itch; sometimes I ignore it. And it turns out that how well I understand a thing is just the sum of those decisions.
This integrity, this intellectual integrity, has as much to do with morals — with guilt, shame, blame, cleanliness, lying and truth — as the regular kind does. To be intellectually honest, in the first place you have to feel guilty — you have to think there is something unclean about not really knowing — and second, you have to abide that feeling. You have to be un-lazy: re‑read stuff, solve a problem the third time, work something out for yourself, follow a footnote — insist, basically, that close enough is not good enough.
The show develops the most conservative thesis you could imagine — that work is healthy for the mind, that it gives you a sense of purpose, that without it you will flounder in the preadult world
Most of us are not like that. I know for sure that I am not: I watch myself all the time deciding that close enough is good enough. I’m like the 17-year-old grocer in Working. ‘It never bothered me when I would put something in the bag wrong,’ he said. ‘In the general scheme of things, in the large questions of the universe, putting a can of dog food in the bag wrong is not of great consequence.’
It is a wonder there are people who are not this way. There’s a guy I work with, for example, who just can’t ignore his guilty itch, he has a compulsion, and he finds the energy to sate it. He doesn’t stop until he really, truly understands something, at the level of being able to explain it to a fifth grader. And so he seems to know everything about everything. ‘Expertise,’ the PhD friend of mine said, ‘is more about diligence than intelligence.’
These people are treasures, and we need them, and I’ve seen a feedback loop come into being when someone young starts going down that road where they get locked into it, because their diligence gets noticed, and more of the world’s weight gets shifted to their shoulders, and that new responsibility, in turn, ups the stakes — which they rise to by being more diligent. This is what’s happening to my friends, and they know it.
‘I’m distrustful of my own happiness — because it’s so easy, there are so many ways to satisfy me,’ my friend Nikhil said to me. ‘I could do a thousand Thursday crosswords, time them, write down the times, and plot them. But that’s not good for me. It’s a better guilty pleasure than playing Xbox Live — but it’s not good in the moral sense of the word.
‘I’d feel like I were wasting an opportunity. I have delusions of significance that would cause me lots of grief to give up.’ He wants to do something that not everybody can do. ‘I do think that I’m very good at certain things. And I also learn quickly. And so I feel it’s not just for my own benefit, but for society, that I make the most of my working life.’
The second season of Girls is much darker than the first. Under the stress of breaking up with her boyfriend, and the weight of expectations from her editor that she will deliver a draft of her manuscript, Hannah has a mental breakdown, a relapse into a disabling form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She does everything eight times; she feeds her hypochondria by searching the web for imagined symptoms; when she pops one eardrum after going too far with a Q-tip, she is compelled to pop the other.
Her friend, Marnie, who had worked as a receptionist at a gallery, loses her job, and is told at a later interview that she doesn’t belong in the art world. She seems to come apart. She takes a job as a hostess at a restaurant. She doesn’t know what she wants. ‘I wish someone would tell me how to spend my days,’ she says.
Shoshanna’s boyfriend, Ray, who earlier had criticised the girls — ‘It’s not adult life if your parents pay for your BlackBerry’ — is revealed in season two to be something of a loser himself, on account of not having ambitions beyond the coffee shop he manages. ‘You should have more interests and passions and things that you do,’ Shoshanna tells him.
Far from being evidence of a new ‘Age of Charlie Blossom’, or a showcase of the flippant unemployed young, Girls actually evolves into something like the opposite. It becomes a cautionary tale. The show develops the most conservative thesis you could imagine — that work is healthy for the mind, that it gives you a sense of purpose, that without it you will flounder in the preadult world. That adulthood, in fact, is defined as getting serious, if not about someone, then some thing.
I can see this in my own experience. The best minds of my generation, at least the ones that I know, are not being destroyed by madness, they’re not sitting up hollow-eyed and high smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz. Sure, some of them are lingering. But the others are working. They’re helping to make the world go. And they take it pretty seriously.