Burnout

An old article nobody noticed when I linked to it before, small easily tackled topics like "the future of work in America," and 7 other things worth your time.

About two weeks or so ago, I linked in the “7 other things” section of this newsletter to a 1974 New York Times article about day care in the Soviet Union.

Short version: The Soviets made a show at the time of having enough quality day care for every child of working parents in the U.S.S.R., but they didn’t really come anywhere close to achieving that goal.

The reporter, Hedrick Smith (a character and a man with a long career in his own right), had a line or two in the article describing how Soviets reacted to his descriptions of life in America.

I’ve quoted it to quite a few people recently. It went like this:

“The vast majority of Soviet families require the salary of a working wife to make ends meet. Repeatedly, Soviet citizens express astonishment when they learn that an American father can support a family of two, three or four children without his wife's working.“

Well, that just sounds wildly anachronistic, and almost forgotten, doesn’t it? Were one-income families truly the norm back then? For the vast majority of Americans in 2021, at least, it’s just not true.

And yet, I keep thinking of a few other things that are also true now, or at least predicted:

  • First, the idea that there are lots of people out of work right now, and yet businesses are closing for lack of workers. In the short-term, maybe this has something to do with unemployment benefits and stimulus money, but in the longer term, it’s probably caused by other factors.

  • Second, the notion that we’re about to experience a “Great Resignation,” when (perhaps) a wave of office workers will decide they’d rather leave their jobs and do something else, instead of being gently nudged, or cajoled, or flat-out ordered to return to the office.

  • Actually, I should add a third factor, which is the pandemic migration we’ve been witnessing, with some people leaving big cities for smaller cities and suburbs, or even much more rural areas. Why live in the city if you don’t have to in order to work? (Actually, I can think of a lot of reasons, but again, let’s not derail this.)

Mark my words, doctoral candidates will earn their degrees by exploring some of the phenomena I’ve blithely stumbled through above. But, I think there’s another one-word rationale that explains the true motivation behind a lot of these ideas.

That word is: “Burn Out.”

Ugh, that’s actually two words, but it’s how Herbert Freudenberger, a New York City psychologist who first studied the entire idea of burnout, described it in the title of his 1980 book, Burn Out: The High Cost of High Achievement.

I bought a used copy of Freudenberger’s book on Amazon a while back. In a subtle ironic twist, it’s remained unopened on my desk for about a year now, as I’ve been far too busy with work to crack it.

However, because I’m fun like this, I did read the 2019 World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, which, for the first time, recognized “burn-out” (can nobody agree how to spell this thing?!!) as an official health condition.

Their description: “A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and characterized by—

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  3. a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

I think that’s where we’re at: a burnout pandemic. I was going to make a little joke and say, don’t worry, it’s not contagious! But, it probably is.

The more people hear about coworkers who decide they’re no longer willing to live their lives they way they did in 2019, and who set out to find a new normal, the more others will probably start thinking about it, too.

Safety in numbers. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as long as many actually do find what they’re looking for: more fulfilling, rewarding ways of living (and making a living).

Maybe we’re going to see the second coming of the Roaring 20s, as some have predicted, or else perhaps it really will be this time of recalibration. It could be a fascinating moment to live through together, watching as people reassess and figure out what they really want to do in life, and what they’re willing to do to get there.

Or else, maybe we’ll all be begging for our old jobs again two years from now.

Just don’t everybody go starting email newsletters with captivating daily content and fledgling premium editions. I already called dibs on that.

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7 other things worth your time

  • The president of the University of South Carolina, a former Army lieutenant general who has also been superintendent at West Point, resigned after a controversial tenure. The most recent problem: he allegedly plagiarized part of his speech at graduation ceremonies earlier this month, quoting verbatim without attribution from the book, Make Your Bed, by retired admiral and former University of Texas chancellor William McCraven. (Post & Courier)

  • Fascinating and somewhat depressing extensive article in the WSJ on just how much “a year of remote learning has spurred an eruption of cheating among students, from grade school to college.” Key vignettes: the professor who found 200 cheaters by giving each of his students different test questions and tracking which ones showed up on a “for-profit homework website,” and the sites with people offering to impersonate students online, including during group projects and tests, for an entire semester. (WSJ, $)

  • Elon Musk said Tesla will no longer take payment in Bitcoin, out of concern over "rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining." The price of Bitcoin fell sharply within seconds after Musk’s tweet announcing the decision. (CNBC)

  • New cars are scarcer and more expensive. Explanation: A global shortage of computer chips led automakers to slash production, which meant fewer vehicles on dealer lots, “just as the waning pandemic has fueled a pent-up consumer demand for cars, trucks and SUVs.” (AP)

  • The governor of Ohio announced his state will start giving away $1 million a week in a lottery to state residents (adults) who have received at least their first vaccine dose. They’ll also be raffling off four-year, all-expense scholarships to state universities for 12 to 17-year-olds who have been vaccinated. (Governor on Twitter)

  • Ellen DeGeneres says she’s ending her long-running daytime talk show after the upcoming 2021-22 season. “DeGeneres has hosted the series since 2003, meaning the show will have run for 19 seasons by the time it ends.” (Variety)

  • “Colonial Pipeline said Wednesday it has "initiated the restart of pipeline operations" after suffering a cyberattack while warning it would take several days for supply to return to normal.” The company reportedly won’t pay the ransom. Also, photos from the lines for gas. I think this is Georgia. (NPR)


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