Recently I read a piece in the Sunday Business section of last week’s New York Times issue about the dangers of today’s work culture. In this piece, titled “Drudge Report,” San Francisco-based journalist Erin Griffith explains that the myth that millennials are lazy and entitled contradicts with the ridiculous amount of time they spend working in their offices. Griffith visits WeWork, a tech start-up company in New York where messages of “don’t stop working when you get tired” and “do what you love” pop up everywhere, even on the cucumbers in the company’s cooler water. This hustle culture, she says, is overly optimistic and tells people to work at their creative projects until they drop dead because ambition is a way of life rather than a means to an end. Everything they do, from breathing to interacting with others, should be for the purpose of their work. If you doing work you don’t really care about, you’re not going to change the world or be successful for that matter.
According to Griffith, tech companies originally had perks in place as a way of attracting the best talent and keeping people working for them longer,
but today, as tech culture infiltrates every corner of the business world, its hymns to the virtues of relentless work remind me of nothing so much as Soviet-era propaganda, which promoted impossible-seeming feats of worker productivity to motivate the labor force. On obvious difference is that those Stakhanovite posters had an anticapitalist bent, criticizing the fat cats profiting from free enterprise. Today’s messages glorify personal profit, even if bosses and investors–not workers–are the ones capturing most of the gains. Wage growth has been essentially stagnant for years.Griffith, “Drudge Report”
Working long hours in order to pursue what one thinks is their passion not only has a toll on one’s mental well-being but also their spiritual well-being. Griffith says that many American millennials are becoming less interested in organized religion and have internalized an extreme version of the Protestant work ethic by treating work as a lifestyle instead of a way to get by. Having a job isn’t enough nowadays; in order to be considered legitimate, you need to care about the work that you do. And if you take a break from it, you are spending time away from your passion, which makes you less productive and, moreover, less successful. One entrepreneur, Jonathan Crawford, tells Griffith his relationships suffered and he gained weight because he let his e-commerce startup consume his life and cut out any activities that weren’t going to do anything monetarily for his company. After realizing how miserable his work was making him, he started making more time for himself and encouraged his fellow entrepreneurs to also make time for things outside of their passion projects, such as reading fiction and watching movies. Most of his fellow entrepreneurs thought this was radical because they didn’t realize how much they had conditioned themselves to think that their productivity determined their self-worth.
How did we end up calling millennials lazy even when they work these 80-hour weeks at these startup “dream companies?” According to Griffith, it goes back to the ways in which society has conditioned millennials to think about success and productivity. Many of us grew up internalizing the idea that beefing our college resumes with high GPAs and extracurriculars would lead us to success, but it only wound up leaving many of us with school loans and jobs where we didn’t use our degrees. Most times work is not supposed to be fun, but a lot of start-up companies are still telling employees to think their work will make a difference in the world, using vague mottos to encourage employees to view their work as creative and philanthropic for humanity. This “do what you love, and never work a day in your life” mindset dates back to 16th century Europe, when employers would try to get workers to stop thinking about the monotony of work and think of hard work as a religious virtue (this didn’t work and only left workers more stressed than before.) However, people are starting to realize the facade behind these mottos, such as the Google employees who participated in a protest against the company’s poor handling of sexual harassment allegations. This shows that millennials are pushing back against the culture of overwork; however, there are people who still embrace this overwork culture. According to Griffith
the grim reality of 2019 is that begging a billionaire for employment via Twitter is not considered embarrassing, but a perfectly plausible way to get ahead. On some level, you have to respect the hustlers who see a dismal system and understand that success in it requires total, shameless buy-in. If we’re doomed to toll away until we die, we may as well pretend to like it. Even on Mondays.Griffith, “Drudge Report”
So…how does all this analysis relate to the movie?
This article was the reason why I finally got around to watching Sorry To Bother You. After reading Cal Newport’s rejection of the passion hypothesis in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I wanted to learn more about the downsides of telling people to pursue their dream job and how it fit into the larger discussion of capitalism and work culture in America. Based on director Boots Riley’s own past experiences working in telemarketing, the film Sorry To Bother You is a brilliant satire about the flaws of America’s capitalist system and the sometimes ridiculous lengths employees will go to please their bosses. Cassius Green, played by the brilliant Lakeith Stanfield (who starred in Get Out, another excellent film with incredible social commentary), applies for a job at a telemarketing agency, but his employer tells him that just because he has all these experiences on his resume doesn’t mean he stands out from the rest of the applicants. In order to advance in the company he has to stand out from everyone else in some way. Cassius bombs all of his first phone calls even when he sticks to the “hi my name is, sorry to bother you, but we have a great product…” script, but then a fellow black coworker of his (played by the veteran actor Danny Glover) tells him to use a”white voice,” or one that sounds like a stereotypical white American man, in order to boost his sales. Cash uses this voice and becomes successful with his sales.
However, he lets his success go to his head and lets it define his self-worth. He starts working longer hours when he gets promoted to the 1% of the company, even after he finds out that the telemarketing company sells slave labor to the Worry Free work program, which exploits workers for profit in the most disturbing ways. (admittedly I closed my eyes towards the end of the film because it was a lot to take in) Cassius eventually finds out that being in the elite means contributing to labor injustice and that he can’t sell his soul to long workweeks if it means losing his sense of self and his friendships. Even the 1% seem to be exhausted by this vicious game; one of the elite members of the telemarketing company reveals later in the film that everyone is just basically faking it until they make it because doing so provides them opportunities for career growth and, above all, more money.
Cassius’ girlfriend and fellow co-workers on the other hand, resist the idea that longer hours at the company will help them get promoted. Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, works two jobs so she can fund her performance art, and wants Cassius to work and make money but not let it negatively impact their relationship (she tells him she loves him “not for posterity’s sake”) When Cassius starts donning suits and talking in his white voice around her and his friends, she becomes at odds with him and it negatively affects their relationship. When she tells him her love for him exists in and of itself and not as a means to an end (aka marriage, children, retirement), I immediately thought about this book I read in college called Eros and Civilization by German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, in which he talks about how labor culture in society should promote sexual freedom rather than letting people repress it so they can be more productive. Marcuse argues that capitalism, aka the industrial advancements in society, are making it hard for people to feel comfortable with their sexuality and that love, or Eros, can provide the energy people need to be productive in society. In the film, Cassius starts off having a healthy relationship, but by working long hours he no longer has time to have sex or even just a loving relationship with Detroit.
Unlike the tech startup employees described in Erin Griffith’s piece, the people in Sorry to Bother You do not enjoy their work. It is not exciting or fun for them, but they do it so they can pay their bills and have enough just to get by. They aren’t interested in the rat race culture that promotes the “work hard and follow your passion mantra.” And that’s what incites them to do what those Google employees did and protest the telemarketing company’s unethical management practices. Similar to the WeWork proposal of having all employees work, breathe, sleep and eat at WeWork facilities, the millionaires behind the WorryFree program propose that the factory is the same place where WorryFree employees cohabit, sleep and eat their meals in “space-efficient” homes that really look like glossed-up prison bunks, and the workers don’t need to earn wages because their contracts with the company last for eternity, and they make everything and anything. However, other than food and a place to sleep, these employees really don’t get any personal benefits from working at WorryFree, and instead the company has an even darker trick up its sleeve for increasing worker productivity (I won’t spoil it since I already gave away many plot points of the film.)
Now obviously this was a long analysis of one film and, frankly, it’s a very messy and disorganized analysis. But this is why I love blogging, because after this nearly two hour film I kept ruminating over everything that went on in the plot and felt writing about it would help get some of the stress I felt watching the movie off my chest. Discussing social justice issues is supposed to be messy because individuals within oppressed communities have different experiences with oppression, and our conceptions of justice and societal expectations have fluctuated over time. Annapurna, the production company behind Sorry To Bother You, produced another insightful film called Detroit, which portrays the tumultuous 1960s race riots of Detroit. The violence is very realistic and difficult to sit through, but it really makes you think about truth and how bias shapes our perceptions of truth. The police officers in the film operate on implicit bias, and this leads them to commit what are essentially acts of terrorism against the black characters. Similarly, when Cassius adopts a “white accent” people immediately perceive him to be more likeable, and the white millionaire he aspires to be like (Armie Hammer ripped the role of Steve Lift to shreds. He played it so well it was terrifying) appropriates a lot of African-American cultural traditions and even forces Cassius to rap for him and his peers because he assumes Cassius can rap based on the way he talks.
Overall, I highly recommend you see this film. And yes, it will be stressful to watch. (if you are squeamish like me, I suggest closing your eyes when Cassius gets up to go to the restroom during his meeting with Steve Lift. The bathroom scene is unpredictable and, frankly, scary. Then again, the whole film is beautifully unpredictable, so that warning might not help in the least.) But it’s full of a lot of juicy commentary and the cinematography is original and incredibly well-done in my opinion.
Sorry to Bother You. 1 hr 52 min. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and drug use.