Some questions are infinitely more interesting than their answers. One such question started to echo around the internet in the early days of the Covid-19 lockdowns and has become increasingly frantic in the febrile weeks that have followed. The question was this: How shall we stay productive when the world is going to hell?
Productivity, or the lack of it, has become the individual metric of choice for coping with the international econo-pathological clusterfuck of the Corona Crisis. How should we self-optimize when we’re suddenly having to meet our deadlines with our roommates, kids, and inner critics screaming in the background? If we’re lucky enough to be able to shelter in place and we’re not using that time to launch podcasts and personal projects and life-hack our way to some cargo-cult pastiche of normality, are we somehow letting the side down?
These are not practical questions. They are moral and philosophical questions. Yes, there are plenty of practical reasons why so many people are panicking about work. If we’ve been furloughed or lost our jobs, we’re scrambling to make up the shortfall. If we’re still employed, we’re worried about the long term, and if we’re relatively secure, we’re wrestling with survivor’s guilt. But the drive to stay productive is about so much more than making rent. It is a moral discipline. When I check in with friends and family far away, I usually get an update on how productive they have or have not managed to be since we last spoke. “Productivity” is not a synonym for health, or for safety, or for sanity. But as a precarious millennial who for the past 10 years has answered every cautious inquiry about my well-being with a rundown of how much work I got done that day, I do understand the confusion.
It’s hardly surprising that so many of us are processing this immense, unknowable collective catastrophe by escaping into smaller, everyday emergencies. A crisis you create for yourself, after all, is a crisis you might be able to control. Frantic productivity is a fear response. It’s a fear response for 21st-century humans in general and millennial humans in particular, as we’ve collectively awoken from the American dream with a strange headache and stacks of bills to pay. My whole generation learned relentless work was the way to cope with the rolling crisis, with the mood of imminent collapse and economic insecurity that was the elevator music of our entire youth—the relentless tension between trying to save yourself and trying to save the world, between desperate aspiration and actual hope.
Right through the white-knuckle ride of my twenties and beyond, I clung to work as a way of protecting myself when I was scared, when I was hurt, when the future seemed to collapse on itself like a stack of marked cards. No matter how many marches I go to, there is some part of me that believes that if I can only self-optimize a bit harder then the world will right itself, no one I love will suffer, and death will have no dominion. So when the coronavirus crisis began, I started writing myself ambitious to-do lists on giant sticky notes—because when every cultural certainty starts collapsing in my hands like wet cake, writing ambitious to-do lists is how I calm down.
I would exercise in the mornings and write in the evenings. I would cook. I would sort out my finances. By week three, I would finally finish my book. I would organize my time so I had no time to feel any emotion other than manageable, everyday anxiety about my workload, with occasional breaks for feeling appropriately grateful that I still have a job I can do from home. Unfortunately, somewhere between writing those to-do lists and watching overpromoted incompetents invite their voters to kindly die to keep the economy going in the manner to which it has become accustomed, the entire concept of linear time seemed to disintegrate, which really played havoc with my calendar.
These days, I have a new, surprisingly packed schedule of cooking, washing up, video-conferencing with everyone I’ve ever met, and hiding in bed hoping that history can’t hear me breathing. The giant sticky notes are proliferating around the house, and my roommates tolerate them so long as I don’t start linking them together with red thread and pictures of my enemies. Despite being various flavors of neurotic workaholic, my roommates and I have discovered that right now, while our personal productivity matters, what matters more immediately is that we all manage to live in the same house without killing each other. The human race as a whole seems to be coming to a similar realization.
There has always been something a little obscene about the cult of the hustle, the treadmill of alienated insecurity that tells you that if you stop running for even an instant, you’ll be flung flat on your face—but the treadmill is familiar. The treadmill feels normal. And right now, when the world economy has jerked to a sudden, shuddering stop, most of us are desperate to feel normal. This column is happening because I lost one of my three jobs to the Covid-19 crisis right around the time when I realized I had no idea when I was going to see my mum again, and after a few hours of crying and tidying, I emailed my kind editor in a panic and told him to please give me deadlines, I don’t know who I am without them. Why don’t I know?
The way most of us have been conditioned to think about work in the modern economy has all the hallmarks of hypervigilance. It’s what happens to people when they are trapped in abusive circumstances they cannot escape. Psychologist Judith Herman observed that “the ultimate effect of [psychological domination] is to convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance.” The body responds to relentless insecurity and threat with agitated alertness, looking for ways to protect itself from harm. This is how most of my peers have experienced the modern economy. We were told that if we worked hard, we would be safe, and well, and looked after, and the less this was true, the harder we worked.
The idea that hustling can save you from calamity is an article of faith, not fact—and the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to shake the collective faith in individual striving. The doctrine of “workism” places the blame for global catastrophe squarely on the individual: If you can’t get a job because jobs aren’t there, you must be lazy, or not hustling hard enough. That’s the story that young and young-ish people tell themselves, even as we’ve spent the whole of our brief, broke working lives paying for the mistakes of the old, rich, and stupid. We internalized the collective failures of the ruling class as personal failings that could be fixed by working smarter, or harder, or both—because that, at least, meant that we might be able to fix them ourselves.
The cult of productivity doesn’t have an answer for this crisis. Self-optimizing will not save us this time, although saying so feels surprisingly blasphemous. This isn’t happening because you didn’t work hard enough, and it won’t be fixed by optimizing your morning routines and adopting a can-do attitude. After the quarantine, after we count the lives lost or ruined, recession is coming. A big one. For millennials, it’s the second devastating economic calamity in our short working lives, and we’re still carrying the trauma of the first. This time, though, we know it’s not our fault. This time it’s abundantly clear that we didn’t deserve it. And this is exactly the sort of crisis that gives people ideas about overturning the social order.
The Great Plagues of the 14th century famously shattered the feudal system by wiping out half of Europe and giving the few remaining workers a lot more bargaining power—but the Black Death also undermined the power of religion. As broken communities surveyed the mounds of corpses, wondering what sins could possibly be proportional to this sort of punishment, they started to lose faith in God—and the Medieval Church began to lose power as an organizing force in everyday life. If the economic dogma of work under modern capitalism fulfills the same functions as the church of the 1400s—defining human value and justifying our place in society—the emotions of watching that dogma fail are akin to a loss of faith. If frantic productivity is a fear response, the opposite urge—to tear it all up and declare deadline bankruptcy—feels like blasphemy. Laziness is the only sin out of the seven big ones that seems to count in the moral metric of the modern economy, and what other word is there for that edge-panic impulse to simply delete your email address and spend time doing small, gentle things that make being alive hurt a little less?
“When we have no memory or little imagination of an alternative to a life centered on work,” writes theorist Kathi Weeks, “there are few incentives to reflect on why we work as we do and what we might wish to do instead.” In fact, as Europe and America remain in enforced lockdown, many people are working harder than ever—but the work they’re doing more of is not “productive” in the traditional sense. That does not mean it isn’t work. Childcare is work, as anyone who is suddenly having to do twice as much of it on top of their normal job can tell you. Cooking, cleaning, emotional and community management, all of which most of us are doing more intensely as we’re living together in lockdown, are work—they just don’t count on the ledger of human worth because the economy refuses to value them in its reckoning of what does, because most of it has been done in private, by women, for free. Making breakfast, making the beds, making sure your friends and family aren’t losing their absolute minds is work that matters more than ever and will continue to matter in the coming decades as crisis follows crisis. It is not “productive,” in the way that most of us have learned to understand what that word means, but it is work, and it is worthwhile.
There is nothing counterrevolutionary about keeping busy. But right now, we have a finite opportunity to rethink how we value ourselves, to re-examine our metric for measuring the worth of human lives. Right now, the entire species is trying to work out how to live in the same house without killing each other—and that may well turn out to be the work that matters most.
All Rights Reserved for Laurie Penny