The ‘great speedup’ reconsidered: Being at wits’ end and beyond


The following paper clocks in at around 2500 words. If you’d like to read it in its entirety, it might be easiest to click on the title of the post above.

Here’s an abstract:

Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffer, in the July/August issue of Mother Jones, write about the grave social impact of what they term “the great speedup”–essentially, the modern workplace on crack. Their article has elicited a number of thoughtful replies among leftists. My essay tries to take that conversation a few steps further and to do so before the conversation loses momentum. In particular, I challenge recent “therapeutic” or DIY solutions to the great speedup of the modern workplace. The therapeutic solution implies that each of us can, on our own, achieve peace of mind despite the fact that the work world is crumbling all around us. I call instead for more substantive philosophical and sociological solutions. So I propose that we model new ways of living on the desire for self-integration, a commitment to simpler living, and the creation of more fulfilling, ecologically sounder institutions.


During the heat wave that enveloped New York at the end of July, I received an email, sent via iPhone, from one of my conversation partners:

Andrew, welcome home to sweltering NYC!

Been up since 5:55 (happens to be one of my favorite songs), took my panting cat to the animal hospital and wrote a poem in a car service, brought two sweaty kids to school, now on my way to a photo shoot and it’s only 9am and 95 out. A lady is standing on the street corner in a hot pink dress with a chartreuse parasol, sirens are blaring and thoughts of you are on my mind. What a journey this New York life is.

Yes it is. During the past six months, I’ve found that Michele [name changed to protect identity] is a remarkable woman: she’s an incredibly intelligent, self-reflective art director who is also raising two beautiful children while working for a prestigious yet low-paying corporation. Her economic situation, however, is not sustainable, and she knows it. In my philosophy practice, I hear quite a few creative types, lawyers, and post-academics like her talk about being at wits’ end. From what I’ve read recently, they’re not alone.

In an article that has been well-received in leftist enclaves, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffer, both editors at Mother Jones, report that American companies are in the midst of what they’re calling “great speedup.” Each full-time worker is now expected to be more productive (this straight out of Taylor management theory) and to work longer hours (the factory model redux) so that the company won’t have to hire new employees or cut its current workforce. (Meanwhile, corporate profits, the writers are quick to add, are up 22 percent.) In addition, full-timers are now collaborating increasingly with freelancers and interns who have been contracted to do short- and long-term projects.

But this is not all. During this period parenting has become more, not less demanding while our expectations for counts as good parenting have never been higher. According to a USC study summarized in The New York Times, from 1965 to 2007 “the amount of child care time spent by parents at all income levels–and especially those with a college education–has risen ‘dramatically’ since the mid-1990s.” And just in the past month, The Atlantic published a fine tragicomic piece on parents’ increasing concern over their children’s safety, well-being, and psychosocial development—all of which, paradoxically enough, is leading a good many young adults to lose their way and to head straight to therapy.

Let’s call this three-fold situation–the great speedup, full-timers’ increasing collaboration with freelancers/competitors, and parents’ dream of perfect parenting–“the work life crucible of the new economy.” The natural response to all of this has been to champion the cause of “slowing things down” and “dialing things back.” This, effectively, is what Jason Mark, an editor and writer at Earth Island Journal, proposed in on July 29, and it is strikingly similar to the recipe one finds in Dave Roberts’s piece on “the medium chill.” As Mark tells it, he and his acquaintance Kom both managed to convince their respective future employers that working fewer than 40 hours a week and having more time off to volunteer at a local farm would translate into their being more productive while at work. Their pitch is that it’s a win-win. From these examples, Mark draws the general conclusion that we’d all do well to dial back on the number of hours we work and to scale back on our material possessions in order to be more “time rich.”

While I’m deeply sympathetic to Mark’s commitment to sustainable farming and while I think he and I both share similar concerns about the need for social change, I’m not entirely convinced that his approach is a winning one and this for two reasons. For starters, it seems to be based on some rather questionable assumptions. In the philosophical background is an Ur-scene in which Mark presumes that the would-be agent is a Prime Mover, one who is unburdened by debts and responsibilities (both of which are untrue for many Americans today), who has the capacity to choose between an entrée of decent alternatives (an assumption unwarranted by high rates of unemployment, the underreported rate of underemployment, the clamoring of recently graduated college students for work north of drudgery, and the rise of unpaid internships, all of which means that someone is ready and willing to take your place if you slip up), who has the ability to turn down unfair offers and say “no” to outlandish requests (a position difficult to maintain in the current economic climate), and who is embedded in a business culture that genuinely honors outside commitments (something that is hardly the case in the 60- to 80-hour workweek business culture common in creative professions, the norm at tech start-ups, and the unspeakable Koan of top law firms). Rejecting these assumptions leads us to re-imagine agents as being deeply enmeshed in their social settings, to appreciate more fully the incredibly high stakes involved in Mark’s proposal, and thus to see early twenty-first century work life as a crushing social tragedy not unlike that depicted in the works of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Dickens.

Second of all, it is a fairly reasonable conjecture that the “great speedup” is not an isolable issue best addressed in piecemeal fashion, on a case-by-case basis, or through a handful of DIY tips but a symptom of the slow unraveling of a neoliberal framework. Under neoliberalism, the organization aspires to hollow itself out by increasing the division of labor, breaking its projects down into smaller and smaller parts, outsourcing work responsibilities to near and far, and reducing its cost structure as much as possible—and then turning around and paying its small but influential coterie of managers, administrators, and consultants unfathomably well. (Something like this has been happening in the university over the past 40 years.) The absurdity of neoliberalism can be seen in an organization’s being held together by a logo, a grand illusion, and an army of unnamed, outsourced workers. And yet if this model for individual and social living is fundamentally unworkable and if it is in the midst of degradation and collapse, then how might we re-imagine more fulfilling lives on the other side of this “great transformation”?

The Desire for Self-Integration

Concomitant with the end of the cottage industry and the decline in subsistence farming, the industrial revolution introduced the now-familiar separation of home life and work life, relegating each to different value spheres. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of self-sustaining communities in which artisans, craftsmen, and yeoman farmers owned their own businesses and lived on their fields and behind their storefronts was already something of an anachronism when he penned his thoughts at the end of the eighteenth century. My dad, who’s now in his early 60s, took it for granted that one did practical work that one may not have loved but that one didn’t hate in exchange for “the good life”: a life of leisure that was filled with bourgeois pleasures (weekends with family, paid vacations, and that odd notion of deferred gratification called retirement). Looking across the 30 years between us, my dad and I barely recognize each other.

Even though this division remains in our everyday vocabulary and even while we hold it among our mundane set of aspirations, the way of life that foregrounds this distinction is no longer available to us. The reasons for the porosity of the modern world are perhaps still opaque (though a partial account might include an economy in freefall, technological changes outstripping changes in custom, the rapid pace of globalization, an aging population starting to cash in on Social Security and Medicaid), but the desire for restoration is clear enough. Corporate workshops on “time management,” talk show chats about “achieving balance” and “making compromises,” self-help guides on how to tune out “distractions,” emerging psychological research on the Ulysses’s effect: these are but fantasies of restoration—and, sadly, they are self-defeating fantasies at that.

The good news, it seems to me, is that human beings aren’t cut out for self-division anyway. In their souls, they long for self-integration, for a sense that their most authentic commitments, greatest cares, and most meaningful projects can be brought into some greater whole. Even better: there are signs everywhere of re-integration within and without—for instance, among designers and the next wave of urban developers. In a beautiful piece that appeared recently in the Opinionator section of The New York Times, “Beyond the Cubicle,” Allison Arieff, former editor at Dwell and insightful writer on design, discusses how some designers are trying to re-conceive work and family, creativity and rest, individuals and collectives in and through the space they occupy. Arieff understands that our work spaces must reflect not just our mental life; they must also inspire our creative potency in an endless feedback loop of physical surrounding, intellectual activity, necessary reprieve, and leisurely strolling.

Consider also the various experiments in mixed economies as attempts to move beyond the split between civil society and market society. In local markets in Brixton and West Norwood, individuals and families can meet to give gifts, exchange wares, sell vegetables, chat idly, offer services, and develop stronger social bonds. Or think of the social businesses (about which more below) starting to emerge, organizations that seek to marry financial prosperity with spiritual cultivation. How might our communities look and who might we become were we to bring these projects to fruition?

The Return of Epicurus

Living in tiny houses, as some have begun doing of late, is probably taking Epicureanism to an extreme. By definition, tiny houses are less than 130 square feet, hence smaller than mobile homes as well as less mobile. Nonetheless, the fact that the “tiny house” conceit has gained considerable appeal among socially conscious leftists and the fact that it doesn’t sound, after the housing bubble, the debt crisis, and the McMansion craze, all that out there both suggest that the return of Epicurus may be well under way.

At the heart of Epicurus’s ethics was the prescription that we pare things down to the bare essentials. By “simplifying,” however, Epicurus did not mean that we continue to desire status, great wealth, and a range of external items nor that we hold our desires in check. Rather, he entreated us to retrain ourselves to desire only what is most worthwhile. Unlike self-help gurus and evangelical preachers who share the assumption that our appetites will remain strong but must be restrained by force of will, Epicurus urged that we go right to the source, uprooting those unnecessary and unnatural desires that would almost certainly leave us feeling dissatisfied and vulnerable. This would require not just thinking and meditating, not just finding ways of reminding ourselves of what we value most, but also adopting ways of life that accord with our most basic desires.

According to later commentators, Epicurus distinguished between three kinds of desires: those that are natural and necessary, those that are natural but not necessary, and those that are neither natural nor necessary. The first category could be described as “low-hanging fruit”: enjoying the simple pleasures like the conversations we have with kindred spirits, the thoughts that come to us amid leisurely contemplation, the aesthetic pleasures flowing from morning birdsong, and the food that is at once simple and nourishing. The second category is “catch-as-catch-can”: windfalls we don’t yearn for but we’d be foolish to refuse. The last category, which happens to be capitalism’s siren and which is stoked by overfed ambition, consists of desires for excessive wealth, great reputation, fame, and status—desires that have the making of melodramatic rise-and-fall stories.

As we reach peak oil, as climate change produces more volatile and less predictable weather patterns, as good water supplies become more and more scarce, as arable land reaches its productive capacity, as soil erosion becomes more acute, and as overpopulation approaches a tipping point, our 200-year love affair with industrial capitalism will surely come to an end, no doubt tragically in much of the underdeveloped world, and we will have to learn to live as Epicurus instructed. In this context, our work lives will have to change in order to meet our more fundamental individual and social needs at the same time that our ways of life will have to be more rooted in the places around us as well as more attached to the land beneath us.

The Development of Sustainable Institutions

Whether higher education, sustained over the past 30 years on student loans and now reeling after a long period of spending heavily on state-of-the-art unions and residence halls, is the next bubble may be beside the point. The larger problem underlying the national conversations about higher education and educational reform, the federal budget and debt ceilings, the Tea Party Movement and right-wing populism, Prop 9 and the passage of gay marriage is that our modern institutions are losing their legitimacy. Many have stopped making sense of our everyday experiences and, as a result, we find ourselves unable to identify with their broader missions or ultimate aims. To the extent that we fail to inhabit our social roles (and, again, the “great speedup” is but one telling indicator of this), we feel alienated from the very institutions that are supposed to give our lives shape and meaning.

For quite a while, the dual problem of social alienation and institutional legitimacy has been half-hidden by debates about reforming the systems. The principle of gradualism seemed like the only option when political agents were confronted with the memory of utopianism’s corpses. Yet for some change-makers, entrepreneurs, and new public thinkers, it is becoming abundantly clear that we can overcome the reform/revolution conceptual impasse by starting to build new institutions that are more in keeping with our desire for self-integration and our commitment to Epicureanism.

During this unsettled time, we are compelled to think seriously about first principles, particularly those that bear on our understanding of modern work. The emergence of social business, a model that seeks to expand our conception of prosperity to include notions of happiness and well-being, presents us with one such opportunity. Our dialogues should be focused on answering three related questions. First, how do we create workplaces that aim at creating goods and services whose final aim to transform persons and groups for the better? Second, what must we do in order to create a sense of belonging so that each worker can see how she fits into and contributes to the common good? Lastly, how do we get institutions to encourage their workers to become authors of their work—how to foster in them an intrinsic desire to see projects unfold from beginning to end and craftsmanship raised to a higher peak?

Because it can’t be reduced to changing our attitudes DIY-style without also changing the conditions that give rise to our anxieties, frustrations, and disappointments, the “therapeutic” solution that would have us attend only to our state of mind simply won’t do. Instead, we will need to take the longer, more arduous path which will involve cultivating newer, more spiritually enriching models for living. In order to make it through this great transformation, we will have to experiment to see what stepping stones we can lay down, what we can use to get us through the lean times, and what we will need in order to flourish. And we will have to become heartier but more pliable, more comfortable with managing risks foreseen and unforeseeable, and more nimble at thinking with our wits at a point just shy—damn near and yet just shy—of wits’ end.