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Work Culture

Hustle Culture Is Grinding Us Down

Opting out of "doing it all" demands something few of us have: a social safety net that guarantees everyone the resources and stability to prioritize living over working.

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“Don’t worry, you’ll bounce back to feeling motivated,” a colleague told me recently when I confessed that I wondered if I was falling apart, and I thought of a rubber band. When you pull hard enough, it either rebounds, snapping back together to reclaim its shape, or it breaks—the tension too much to hold. I wonder if I am breaking.

It’s hardly a novel observation, nor is it one that’s uniquely personal. Everyone I know is breaking. Society is breaking down on top of its broken systems propped up by political agendas that make quality of life a bargaining chip: We are still in a pandemic but are expected to behave, work, and perform as though we are not. The childcare crisis has been heaped onto the caregiving crisis. Pre-pandemic, workers lost out on an estimated $22.5 billion in wages due to lack of paid family and medical leave; now, even amid mass tragedy and a grief crisis, paid leave is being negotiated and “compromised” on. Meanwhile, we’re in what national news headlines call the “great resignation,” with workers exiting jobs for reasons spanning unsafe workplaces, toxic work cultures and burnout, or needing to fill childcare or caregiving needs. Disparities in work and the economy have disproportionately impacted Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant workers. Disabled and chronically ill workers have watched any semblance of accessibility they experienced in their workplaces be stripped away during the “return to normal.” (And it’s a myth that everyone got to work from home: The number of employees who worked remotely due to COVID-19 was 35 percent at its highest point in May 2020, according to reporting from The Atlantic.) Personal crises compound on structural ones—because the structures that are supposed to sustain people are nonexistent, engulfed in a capitalistic grind where the things people are expected to handle are mounting and resources needed to handle them are narrowing.

In the midst of all the falling apart, I noticed a refrain in what friends, colleagues, and people I spoke with were saying: They were not “returning,” or “bouncing back,” or “rekindling” their relationship to work, firing on all cylinders at all times, and doing at all is costing them. The hustle, the glorious ambition, the grind life, the striving simply isn’t coming back. Or, at least, it doesn’t feel like it.

On one end of the no-days-off spectrum, there’s overwork defined by low wages, economic instability, and necessity, punctuated by stories poorly framed as inspirational—like those about workers biking 20 miles in the snow to get to their jobs—which are meant to signal resilience and devotion instead of a grimmer reality. Then there’s the other end of the “grind life” spectrum: the overwork our capitalistic society encourages because doing your best all the time is, at once, a necessity to keep your job and a virtue that signals you aren’t just getting through, you’re thriving.

While much of this manifests as work, it starts earlier. “Powering through” illness or exhaustion is considered a sign of dedication even for kids in school, hence the common mental image of studying being one of Red Bulls and library all-nighters. Being stressed is a badge of honor, being tired becomes a hurdle to fling yourself over, and it becomes nearly impossible to untangle your “grinding” from your personhood. It can’t be detrimental if it’s aspirational.

Mandie Montes, 22, describes working while attending community college and attempting to transfer to a four-year university as the first time they encountered “grind life,” and even once they transferred, was constantly overextended. “It’s like this myth that gets perpetuated that you have to be always on top of your shit,” Montes says of the praise that comes with doing it all, all the time, and people getting used to you handling that. There’s an element of praise that comes with doing everything you said you’re going to do “correctly, perfectly,” as Montes phrases it. But lately, they’ve noticed more people breaking down.

The systemic racism, ableism, and warped ideas of what labor has value, and why productivity should dictate someone’s entire value, add to the collapse. Montes explains that their parents migrated to the United States from Mexico, and explains that,  “For them, grinding and hard work has always been their reality.” They feel indebted to their parents, to live up to the expectations they had for their children’s lives, even if their parents themselves don’t expect that. And because Montes was raised around a lot of white people, they’ve internalized racial microaggressions, and part of the grind became about proving their worth. “I just wish that we could retire the conversation of grinding and open up space for people to talk about rest more, and to talk about the different ways that we can help and support each other,” Montes adds.

Rest feels radical, but it shouldn’t be. What if we didn’t assume everyone was holding it together all the time?

Alex*, 40, who is going by a pseudonym to protect her and her family’s privacy, says grind life is necessary for her since she can’t live off the salary of her full-time bookkeeping and accounting clerk job for a small business. The job was full-time with flexible hours even pre-pandemic, but it wouldn’t cover her bills when she was a single mother. Now, her partner got laid off during the pandemic, which added financial stress when unemployment money ran out. Alex’s partner has been attempting to secure a job for more than a year and works occasional freelance gigs.

“My line of work is historically female, and is often touted as a perfect job for a mom,” Alex explains. “Pop into work when the kids are at school, clock 15-25 hours a week for some ‘extra cash,’ as assuredly your husband makes most of it,” she said. But right now, Alex is attempting to work two other jobs, too. She crams as much in during the day as she can, but also works in the evenings after her kids go to bed. “They see the cracks, though, and tell me all the time I shouldn’t be working so much,” she says.

Her middle child has recently taken to showing her TikToks and memes related to school shootings. Alex told him kids might make these TikToks as a way to take control over their anxiety around feeling unsafe at school, like a means of coping through humor. “But I wonder if there is a parallel here between people who fully embrace grind life,” Alex says, “who take ownership and feel in control over their own fate… [when] in the reality that is late capitalism.” Alex admits she sometimes feels flashes of pride as well: She never thought she’d make as much as she does, and spent most of her motherhood on food stamps and living paycheck to paycheck.

What policies would help Alex and her family? “Guaranteed basic income would be a great starting point,” she says. Having broader leave policies and more government funding for daycare centers would’ve been a game-changer, too. “If I became a mom now, 16 years later than when I [first] did, the landscape is even bleaker,” she says. She wishes the “crumbling, impossible” economy was more a focus of these conversations.

Em, who is going by her first name only, says the entire thing is unsustainable. “I am 27 and feel like I am 80 years old,” she says. The grind life has burnt her out. “Capitalism demands you grind yourself into the grind,” Em adds. “I have nothing left at this point, except massive student loan debt, I’m on the verge of homelessness, and I’m [trying to] figure out how I am going to do this for the rest of my life.” She wants President Joe Biden to cancel student loan debt, but believes, overall, “America needs better social safety nets.”

Of course, at this point, it feels utterly futile to tell people overworking, hustle culture, and burnout are bad, as if they are sweaters we can simply take off at the end of the day. In reality, without a social safety net that assures everyone the resources, economic support, and stability needed to live as a person first and striver second, opting out of the grind isn’t always possible. And it’s unacceptable to pretend or assume everyone can, as though there aren’t vast disparities in burnout and overwork.

But the glorification of “grinding” isn’t helping. It’s what allows overwork to become not just necessary, but a sign of passion and nobility. It’s what leads others to believe everyone can take on one more thing, because they have before. It’s what allows us to hide under clenched “I’m fines.”

I think of that conversation on “bouncing back” often. Bouncing back to anxiety-driven paranoia and overwork masquerading as ambition; bouncing back to work as a coping mechanism for my friends’ issues I don’t know how to solve, for my own health issues I can’t fix, and for grief. If bouncing back means returning to the belief that what I produce is the worthiest thing about me, I hope I don’t.

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