Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?

The logical endpoint of excessively avid work, of course, is burnout. That is the subject of a recent viral essay by the BuzzFeed cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen, which thoughtfully addresses one of the incongruities of hustle-mania in the young. Namely: If Millennials are supposedly lazy and entitled, how can they also be obsessed with killing it at their jobs?

Millennials, Ms. Petersen argues, are just desperately striving to meet their own high expectations. An entire generation was raised to expect that good grades and extracurricular overachievement would reward them with fulfilling jobs that feed their passions. Instead, they wound up with precarious, meaningless work and a mountain of student loan debt. And so posing as a rise-and-grinder, lusty for Monday mornings, starts to make sense as a defense mechanism.

Most jobs — even most good jobs! — are full of pointless drudgery. Most corporations let us down in some way. And yet years after the HBO satire “Silicon Valley” made the vacuous mission statement “making the world a better place” a recurring punch line, many companies still cheerlead the virtues of work with high-minded messaging. For example, Spotify, a company that lets you listen to music, says that its mission is “to unlock the potential of human creativity.” Dropbox, which lets you upload files and stuff, says its purpose is “to unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working.”

David Spencer, a professor of economics at Leeds University Business School, says that such posturing by companies, economists and politicians dates at least to the rise of mercantilism in 16th-century Europe. “There has been an ongoing struggle by employers to venerate work in ways that distract from its unappealing features,” he said. But such propaganda can backfire. In 17th-century England, work was lauded as a cure for vice, Mr. Spencer said, but the unrewarding truth just drove workers to drink more.

Internet companies may have miscalculated in encouraging employees to equate their work with their intrinsic value as human beings. After a long era of basking in positive esteem, the tech industry is experiencing a backlash both broad and fierce, on subjects from monopolistic behavior to spreading disinformation and inciting racial violence. And workers are discovering how much power they wield. In November, some 20,000 Googlers participated in a walkout protesting the company’s handling of sexual abusers. Other company employees shut down an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon that could have helped military drones become more lethal.

Mr. Heinemeier Hansson cited the employee protests as evidence that millennial workers would eventually revolt against the culture of overwork. “People aren’t going to stand for this,” he said, using an expletive, “or buy the propaganda that eternal bliss lies at monitoring your own bathroom breaks.” He was referring to an interview that the former chief executive of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, gave in 2016, in which she said that working 130 hours a week was possible “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”

Ultimately, workers must decide if they admire or reject this level of devotion. Ms. Mayer’s comments were widely panned on social media when the interview ran, but since then, Quora users have eagerly shared their own strategies for mimicking her schedule. Likewise, Mr. Musk’s “pain level” tweets drew plenty of critical takes, but they also garnered just as many accolades and requests for jobs.

The grim reality of 2019 is that begging a billionaire for employment via Twitter is not considered embarrassing, but a perfectly plausible way to get ahead. On some level, you have to respect the hustlers who see a dismal system and understand that success in it requires total, shameless buy-in. If we’re doomed to toil away until we die, we may as well pretend to like it. Even on Mondays.