Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
9 August 2021

The future of work: the problem with millennial productivity books

A new publishing trend claims to make millennials work better. But how many young people have agency over their working lives? 

By Sarah Manavis

It was during the grim first working week of the year, on 5 January 2019, when the academic and journalist Anne Helen Petersen published an essay on BuzzFeed: “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation”. Petersen argued that millennials are in an impossible position, one where they were promised cool jobs and familial workplaces, but instead got low pay, bad employers, and endless hours – all against the backdrop of economic decline. This, coupled with being told they should be achieving more and more, was inevitably leaving millennials too exhausted to even function. 

The article received seven million readers and, to many readers, it came as a relief. The piece signalled the death of the “lean in” era – in which industry figures such as Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg encouraged young women to be more ambitious in the workplace – and recognised the professional pressure many had faced that was turning them into workaholics. Its popularity and salience meant it eventually became the book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, which was published in the UK in January, in which Petersen expands on how the “much-maligned generation” ended up here and how they might be able to get out. 

Now, a number of prominent books have been published in Can’t Even’s wake, addressing the conundrum of modern work. Working Hard, Hardly Working by Grace Beverley, You’re The Business by Anna Codrea-Rado, Working From Home by Harriet Minter, and How To Work Without Losing Your Mind by Cate Sevilla are just a handful attempting to find new ways to disrupt the perceived wisdom of how working works best. They recommend a well-being-focused approach to work, “resisting” hustle culture and pushing back against traditional goals. As self-help books, they are individualistic in their focus, but also nod to the wider issues in the working world that plague the (female, affluent, and white) office workers of the West, from glass ceilings to inflexible hours to – above all else – burnout. 

Some of these new work books are highly practical – You’re The Business and Working From Home both provide formatted guides for things such as conversations with bosses and how to plan your finances. Others are structured in the form of personal essays and agony aunt columns, weaving in advice and methods for improving working life. All are compassionate, commiserating with readers about the challenges of being a millennial in the modern working world, and acknowledging the role capitalism plays in producing burned out workers. (It’s near-impossible to get through any of these books without mentions of Petersen’s work.)

On the surface, this appears to leave young workers with ample tools to improve their working lives: to get an education on how they’ve been screwed, with a manual showing them how to make their narrow escape. But a closer read reveals a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a publishing trend pretending to provide the answers to structural problems that merely acknowledges a broken system and seeks to address it through superficial, commercially-friendly solutions.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

***

Inarguably, the most popular of these books is Working Hard, Hardly Working, from business owner and influencer Grace Beverley. At 24, she is the founder and CEO of two companies: a fitness brand, Shreddy, and an athletic-wear outlet, TALA. She founded both while finishing her undergraduate degree at Oxford University, a time during which she also bought and began renovating her own centrally-located, multi-storey London townhouse. The book debuted at the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list, and Beverley’s Instagram followers have continued to purchase and post about it since it was published in April 2021. 

The book is marketed as a “challenge” to unrealistic demands of modern work – a guide to how to “create balance” and feel more fulfilled. It is cut into two sections (“Working Hard” and “Hardly Working”, as the title suggests), the first on the world of work and the second on how to make work more bearable, according to Beverley. She spends much of the book talking about the “system” – how late capitalism has sold us the idea that our work is our identity, and that we are only worth as much as we work. These ideas, she declares, need radically changing. 

Content from our partners
Why modelling matters: its role in future healthcare challenges
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people

But the next several hundred pages of Beverley’s book have little to do with undoing these structures. (“I’m not suggesting that we need to overhaul our entire working practice legislation yet,” Beverley writes. “It’s imperative that we start making changes on an individual level, in order to be able to work within our current landscape.”) Instead, she offers a slew of productivity tips based on her own few years of working, largely catering to a very specific class of corporate, well-paid women in their twenties, who have the time and space to reorganise their lives (and whose jobs demand little enough of them to be able to shift their working patterns without risking unemployment). She emphasises doing this “where possible” and adds “I hope that doesn’t sound sheltered, and I hope you can see where this could help, regardless of your individual circumstances.” 

Despite these disclaimers, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this book was published in the midst of a pandemic and resulting recession, where young people have been some of the hardest hit – stuck in precarious work, if any work at all. An uncomfortable tension runs throughout the book between this fact and Beverley’s own wealth. Though she acknowledges her extreme privilege often – and acknowledges the irony of a 24-year-old business owner giving advice to entry-level workers – it’s a problem her book never fully resolves. She criticises the modern obsession with “side hustles”, even though she gained her own fame and success from juggling several at once, and denounces “announcement culture” (the need to have all achievements be something that could be “announced” on social media) even as she admits: “I’m aware I contribute to the very problem I talk about.” 

While Beverley’s book may present the most obvious contradictions, the issues that arise in Working Hard, Hardly Working appear across the board – such as the ways in which many of these authors address rest. They all talk about the importance of “self-care” and recoil in horror at the term’s popular associations with face masks and Netflix. But few can offer any alternative visions of what “self-care” might usefully involve – and if they do, they often look a lot like productivity (for example, watching a TED Talk). Some even encourage readers to think of self-care as a route to making us work better. As Codrea-Rado says, workers need to “learn how to rest properly” in order to achieve “better business results, happier clients and a healthier state of mind.” When speaking about “effective self-care”, Beverley writes: “What I’m hoping to encourage is that you start to see self-care as productivity… We need to manage self-care as productivity so that it can be a tool, rather than an excuse.” A glossy card that came in the post along with Beverley’s book read the statement: “Sometimes productivity can be a form of self-care.”

Rather than decentralising work, these books ask for even more of our lives to become work-centric – with every element, even downtime, functioning in the pursuit of making us work more effectively. Many of these books advocate for “proactive” rest – scheduling rest in advance, before burnout sets in – but the suggestions often include unrealistic suggestions such as telling their boss they’re going offline for the afternoon, or going back to bed for a few more hours on a working day. Such approaches would be impossible for the vast majority of workers, even those in comfortable corporate environments; it goes without saying that these books rarely strive to address what work is like for those in precarious, badly paid, non-corporate, or even dangerous jobs.

[See also: Young people are the real victims of the loneliness epidemic]

While practising “self-care” and maintaining “work/life balance” are central tenets of these books, there is a jarring whiplash effect in many, where, after extolling the virtues of rest and lamenting the punishing reality of modern office culture to the reader, the author ultimately concludes that the main way to be productive is to just get on with it. At one point in Working Hard, Hardly Working, Beverley writes simply: “Cut the crap and focus on discipline.” Readers may wonder, if it’s as easy as that, why they picked up the book in the first place. (It is worth noting that Sevilla’s How To Work Without Losing Your Mind escapes much of this, discouraging the “optimisation” of rest and encouraging readers to change how they view their jobs – arguing that we should give less energy to work, less time to bad employers, and for workers to see their roles as something they simply do in order to get paid.)

The biggest contradiction in many of these books is their acknowledgement of the capitalist system that has led to work being how it is today. Almost all touch on very real issues – neoliberalism, corporate culture, presenteeism –  but in none is there a real attempt to actually confront that system. Instead of imagining alternative solutions to change status quo, most simply advise readers on how to succeed without disrupting it. As Jeremy Gordon wrote in a review of Can’t Even for the Nation: “[Petersen is] more sanguine about the possibility of reorganising the system from within rather than tearing it down altogether… A radical approach or solution might scare her readers, but it’s no less unrealistic than imagining we can escape these problems by simply contorting our brains to accommodate them.”

Rather, readers are only offered tips and tricks to make that system slightly less painful (ones that are only useful if the reader is lucky to find themselves in a comfortable enough financial position to use them). Productivity hacks and tactical working methods are the bulk of what these books offer, underpinned by the idea that nothing can really be done about the systems causing these authors to recommend them.  

The authors of these books may argue that they weren’t attempting to do anything radical – just trying to acknowledge the systems at play and help women work within them. But it has to be asked: when we know the system is so stacked against us, when we know it is so irreparably bad, how much value is there to be gained by noting the small, largely inaccessible ways we can work around it? Why not suggest how we could collectively tear it down?

***

Alongside these more commercial works, radical texts are being published attempting to create a blueprint for burning down work under capitalism and rebuilding it to benefit its workers. Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back and Amelia Horgan’s Lost In Work are two published this year that don’t just observe the fundamentals of modern work, but examine what is necessary in order to replace them with something different. 

Horgan in particular captures what many of these more commercial works miss – that “in our jobs, the extent to which we can find enjoyment or fulfilment is shaped by how much control we have over our work.” A new productivity method may sound great on the surface, but dodges the fundamental issue: many of us have no real power over our working lives. “Work under capitalism is arranged, must be arranged, in such a way that workers do not have control over their work,” she argues. 

But it’s not just about the lack of autonomy – the common wisdom for how to cope in a bad working environment is also unhelpful too. Horgan argues that typical refrains such as “you are worth so much more than your productivity” ultimately have little impact when the system is built to make you feel the opposite. She notes, too, how the advice given focuses heavily on “toxic” elements of one’s current job, such as a bad task or a crap manager, “rather than the whole edifice of work”. 

The overemphasis on the individual in these books is just another barrier to improving work. Horgan writes that this thinking enables capitalism (and neoliberalism) to thrive – leaving workers “isolated and atomised”, while also reinforcing the idea that an individual’s work is an individual’s worth. “Today’s work promises the experience of togetherness, of being part of a collective,” she writes, “but typically delivers something much more competitive and individualistic.” 

Unlike the authors of the majority of popular work books, Horgan and Jaffe consider two major factors with the power to define the modern workplace: collective action – the ways in which unions can help individual workers to change bad structures – and the pandemic, both in terms of its effect on precarious work, but also on the culture of work more broadly. While many recent work books mention the pandemic, few do much to acknowledge the way it has exposed how deeply flawed our current working system is: they nod to working from home, but fail to consider sick pay, furlough, or unsafe work. If several popular authors rejoice that employers have been forced to accept that flexible work is indeed possible, Horgan and Jaffe more realistically note that most employers will just draw employees back to offices (as they already have started to), with few options for workers to fight against it. “For most workers,” Horgan writes, “you need your job much more than your job needs you.”

[See also: Is this the moment for a flexible work revolution?]

Ultimately, as Jaffe and Horgan demonstrate, the authors of productivity self-help books can’t do both. They can’t help you consciously uncouple from work and resist the oppressive structures of the modern workplace, and inspire you with their aspirational stories of how they found happiness while working harder than ever, gaining one million followers on Instagram in the process.

I understand why these books are so popular at this particular moment in time. While reading them I sometimes found myself feeling better about my working life. I was calmed by laying out my professional desires; soothed by prompts asking me how I could regain some control over my working days. But that serenity and sense of agency was lost, as the recognition that I can’t flow chart my way out of a broken system crept back in. “The new millennial refrain of ‘Fuck passion, pay me’ feels more persuasive and powerful every day,” Petersen writes in Can’t Even. It’d be nice if this refrain reflected reality, rather than just an illusory hope.

[See also: “We are close to becoming robots”: Anne Helen Petersen on millennial burnout]