"work hard, play hard" and how capitalism tricked us all

why this annoying phrase is a symptom of a larger problem

In The Devil Wears Prada, a movie I’ve watched a million times, Stanley Tucci tells Anne Hathaway’s unhappy character that “a million girls would die for this job” — when the job in question is a terribly paid low-level assistant job with an abusive boss who calls her at all hours of day and night. But it’s at a famous fashion magazine, so she’s supposed to feel lucky to be there, grateful for the opportunity. And it’s how many of us have been told to feel about jobs over time.

Many years ago, I was interviewing to work at a company and one employee told me during the interview: “We definitely work hard, but we play hard too.” In the late aughts it felt like nearly every company proudly described themselves this way; “work hard, play hard” was a badge of honor, a way to denote that you were a company of people who were having fun together.

The company had frequent happy hours and other booze-soaked events; employees would share photos on social media with captions like “Does YOUR company have a beer pong tournament during the workday?” to show their friends how cool their job was. We worked long hours — I’d sometimes stay at the office till 10 pm, I’d come in on weekends to get more work done — but we believed it was okay because we worked at a cool company that gave us free beer, it wasn’t like a regular company. In hindsight, there was always something a little insidious an unsettling about “work hard, play hard,” but at the time I was too inexperienced to realize that the phrase was bothersome because free beer wasn’t a sufficient substitute for better pay or working conditions. Instead I thought of all the other people out there with boring jobs and felt lucky I worked in a place that was more fun.

Alongside “work hard, play hard”, other things companies would frequently say around that time included “we’re like family,” “this isn’t a 9-5,” “this is more than a job, it’s a calling,” and of course, “dream jobs.”

“We’re like family” is another phrase that’s been discussed a lot recently. Emi Netfield wrote in the New York Times this week about her time as a software engineer; she loved the job deeply, she believed it was the most special place in the world to work, she believed it was a family — until she reported a superior who was harassing her, and suddenly the company no longer was a family.

“We’re like family” is such a common corporatism that often the absurdity of it doesn’t strike people until you really think about it. Companies are not families. Work is a transactional relationship; you agree to perform certain duties in exchange for payment. And yet we’ve given many of our workplaces this gloss of “family” to make it seem less transactional and more special — and to give companies a pass if they treat employees poorly, or if someone misbehaves. You’re only “family” as long as you still provide financial value to the company; once you’re seen as no longer providing value to their bottom line, you can be easily discarded, as Netfield found out.

This brings me to another term I have a complicated relationship with: “dream job.” Growing up as a Millennial, we were taught to think about what our dream job was and aspire to climb the ladder till we got it. That phrase was constantly everywhere. We were meant to aspire to “cool” jobs that we were passionate about. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” was the refrain. When we graduated from college we didn’t just want any jobs; we wanted jobs that aligned with our passions, jobs that we could brag about to friends and family, jobs that said something about who we were.

In other words, we viewed our jobs as an extension of our identities. And all of these catchy phrases were tools that companies used to reinforce that belief: work was a family, jobs were dream jobs, work hard, play hard. But there is no such thing as a “dream job,” really: at the end of the day, no workplace is perfect, and even if you love your job most of the time, there will be moments that are tedious, frustrating, or annoying. (I feel like I should say here that I very much enjoy my current job; I just object to the concept of “dream jobs” as a trick corporate America played on us.)

But all of this belies the ultimate point of work. Jobs are a means to an end; they’re a way to make money to support the rest of your life. Jobs were never meant to define our entire identities or our sense of selves. But as the economy tightened in the past decade and a half, companies were trying to do more with less and maximize profit margins. It was cheap and easy to hire young, impressionable employees, pay them low wages, and give them perks like kegs and ping-pong tables to make them feel like their workplace was more special than a regular job. And because Millennials were taught that we needed jobs that said something cool about who we were, we were willing to put up with low pay and abuse from bosses because we felt lucky to even be there, just grateful to have gotten such a dream job.

I bought into every one of these beliefs, for a time. I believed in “work hard, play hard,” in work as family, in dream jobs. All of these messages from workplaces about how special they were and how grateful we should be were no more than a way of tricking us into working more and accepting less in return, working unpaid internships for the “exposure,” being too afraid to negotiate salaries because we felt like we should just be grateful to have the job at all.

Work is ultimately supposed to be just work, but capitalism tricked us into believing jobs needed to be dream jobs and our callings, that workplaces needed to be “fun,” that careers should be our identities. It’s okay for a job to just be a job that isn’t a calling, for work to be just one part of your life and not your whole identity.

Related reading:

Good things to read

The overwhelming anxiety of corporate millennial Tiktok, Gen/Medium.

An ode to the people in my workout video, Vulture.

Is statehood next for Puerto Rico? It’s complicated, Gen/Medium.

White people, Black authors are not your medicine, The Guardian.

Turns out it’s pretty good: reading first thing in the morning, The Cut.

I called off my wedding. The internet will never let me forget, Wired.

An interview with the man who keeps uploading my feet to WikiFeet, The Cut.

For one glorious summer, Americans will vacation like the French, The Atlantic.

Beauty filters are changing the way young girls see themselves, Bloomberg.

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