Hate your office job? Overwhelmed by late capitalist society? Feel like you’re slipping into fatalism? Nathan Ó Broin has some tips on how to overcome your alienation.
It took five separate interviews, tests and an actual riddle, for me to land my first “big” job after college. But none of these hoops I was made jump through mattered once I landed the job – I was naively won over by the new laptop (laced with an ungodly amount of trackers), a fresh office chair and the exciting prospects of working from home. In reality, this big exciting job would quickly lose all of its charm as the new laptop, like myself, half-buckled under the pressure of actually doing the work within a month or two. What I’d gotten myself in for was the slow-burn attrition of the person I’d been just a few months prior. This same story repeats itself again and again as the labour market encourages endless hoop-jumping and chronic indecision.
From out of this Gen-Z have voiced their disdain with core-core. A social media trend first popularised on TikTok, it emphasises the rot of late-stage capitalism, with droning walls of noise interspersed with sound bites and video clips. For me, core-core highlights a segment of my generation slipping into a tragic state of fatalism.
But all is not lost. In a sea of despair and “doom-scrolling” the “doomers” of my generation may find some solace elsewhere. First, to clarify, I do not have the answers to help you love your job – in fact, I’m writing this because I feel not enough ever gets written about the jobs we utterly detest. So, this article is for the jobs we hate, for the companies who mandate fun while paying you a pittance, who “value your hustle” and turf you out the moment the market wobbles. Troublemaking is class struggle, and from experience and history, some of the most venerated trade unionists were spurred on by their immense hatred for their jobs. So here is how I went from doom to active resistance in a quintessentially grim office job.
Alienation in the Office
My time in this dead-end corporate job was not exceptional, I’ve both spoken with and seen endless Gen-Zers tell the same stories again and again of humiliating linkedin posts, endless overtime and boundaryless bosses with just the right number of learned vocab to hide all of the ism’s they actually believe. Corporate work is a hostile place, and its facade is not standing up too well against a generation who struggle to imagine retirement. This work often operates under a fundamental anti-creativity, the driving-out of any rich daily potentiality, the slow-death of expression and the primacy of endless repetition. Naturally, this has an extremely grating impact on your mental health, as the moment of “success” becomes a rather grim celebration of expressionless box-ticking. The fulfilment of your job description, be it below or beyond amounts to little-else but false promises and the realisation of another alien subject’s luxury.
The scale of this particular type of labour is tough to reckon with and early on you notice that quite dialectically you are both the chauffeur of a great deal of wealth and yet somehow near-powerless; unable or potentially unconscious to any possible change. But this is the result of corporate culture, not worker culture. That perceived powerlessness is the tightening of a blindfold you can’t quite remember putting on. In reality, more often than not, scale is on your side and you hold a great deal of power; more than enough to fight for a significantly more human organisation of your workday.*
An elaborate scheme has been carried out in order to prevent the workers realising the probability of this change. Largely instigated by the masking of the worker, through alienation and the creation of opaque cultures that are mandated by the bourgeois upper-echelons of the corporate hierarchy. In effect, this culture pushes you to feel as if you have some enterprising role to play, that your labour is only a temporary hardship and that one day you too might have a cosy office with nothing to do besides reading fortune and “circling back” on any and all of your responsibilities.
Marcuse described this participation in capitalism as one that feeds on a worker’s eagerness and conceals the intention of the exploitation as something less nefarious than the thingification of the worker. The worker, convinced of their enterprise, might instead imagine themselves as something other than a servant to capital, but instead a lower, possibly middling master. This dominating corporate culture depends on that moment of reprieve that the worker convinces themself they can reach. Looking ever-upwards, they might not see that their whole world functions because they alone have their hands on the levers of production. The rest is the elaborate un-reality of mediocre men who deride any suggestion of work-life balance as “unrealistic”. The great un-reality of these spaces are much more fragile than many expect, and workers from my own generation are starting to see the horizontal reality of the office floor.
Part of this manifests in trends like core-core, which is a response to this cultural hegemony that pervades the workplace. But, it does not naturally spur the viewer toward a positive counter culture. Core-core becomes what Lefebvre calls the “unhappy consciousness” of our horizontal reality. Gen-Z must mitigate, disrupt and resist as much of their great unhappiness as they can muster. We’re not all able to quit our jobs and run for the hills, but we can contribute to workplace counter cultures that empower workers and erode the domination of the bosses culture. I’ll start simply with some suggestions that I know worked for my own office.
Building an Office Counterculture
Resistance is your joy. “Lean in” as corporate demigod Sheryl Sandberg once said, to the absurdity of it all. Take every opportunity to build networks with your co-workers where you can crack jokes at all the odd decisions of upper-management. Be careful though – you want to denigrate the mediocrity of your exploiters, not gossip or encourage nasty competition among yourselves. You laugh together to build each other up, you are the workers upon which the whole rotten thing rests upon – emphasise your power.
Mutual-care. Look after each other, listen to your co-workers complaints and make every effort you can to build upon your listening skills. Redirect their feelings of hopelessness toward something proactive and transformative. Once more, emphasise your collective power, endure together and begin to imagine a better workday, liberated from the semi-regular spate of midweek breakdowns. Thinking of the other is direct resistance to your own alienation and the ideology of your bosses. It can be tiring work but it begins the process of re-humanising the workplace and collectivising the struggle.
Take back every second you can get. Gavin Mueller writes in his fantastic book “Breaking Things at Work” that workers must recapture the usefulness of technology in order to liberate themselves from toil. Before the advent of a workers’ revolution that brings about the more general emancipation of the workers, act now and use sites like Chat-gpt to automate the repetitive tedium of your jobs. It doesn’t matter what it is or how you get it, any tip that gives you more time back is what we’re after. Share your results with your co-workers and never tell management. Reconquer your own productivity on your own terms and bring as many as you can trust with you. For those with less tech-heavy jobs, build a militant “5:01 and done” tradition with your co-workers, push back against the normalisation of unpaid overtime and co-ordinate feedback that you are all being overworked in whichever channels prove most effective. If one person consistently underperforms because 90% are overworking you have a serious problem that can only be solved with organising and coordination.
Building Collective Power: Organise and Unionise
Now you’ve got a bit more breathing room, it’s time to organise for a better workplace or defend your current benefits package. To do this we need to build a proactive, caring and durable collective. All of the previous advice should be contributing to the realisation of a small but empowered network of co-workers ready to do more. Start talking about unions, reach out to your local organisers and arrange a call to go over the basics of organising discreetly in the workplace. See: the AEIOU method.
Organise. Be smart, map the people in your network that you trust and mark the people on the fringes who you think would be open to a conversation or at the very least not run off to management or gossip. Listen, listen, listen, apply your skills from hearing out your co-workers’ problems and direct them toward proactive solutions, such as the union that you and your coleagues are building. The union is (mostly) not some alien third-party occupied and run by awful socialists like myself trying to bring about the “workers’ republification” of Ireland’s offices. It is you and your colleagues, often receiving helpful guidance from a professional organiser who will connect you to other individuals much like yourself endeavouring to do the very same thing.
The time is now, seize it. In 2023 the number of office workers unionising in tech nearly doubled as lay-offs brought about a greater sense of urgency to come together and explore alternatives that empower workers and imagine a more equitable workplace.
This all comes as more and more companies are enforcing return to the office policies which disproportionately affect both women and disabled workers’ rates of employment. The data ushering in this death blow to flexibility? A handful of CEOs who have convinced themselves that workers are still buying into the enterprising culture of the office after getting a glimpse at life beyond constant office surveillance, inaccessibility and commuting. Gen-Z resoundingly wants to remain hybrid. Workers are quickly learning to organise under these conditions and unions also need to keep up with their own efforts to take organised labour into a new space. No generation of young professionals has been better positioned to synthesise the labour movement into these new spaces than Gen-Z.
In addition to this, it is becoming extremely clear that the 5-day work week is a relic of the past and workers resoundingly wish to see their work weeks reduced without a reduction in pay. Bosses scoff at the possibility, regardless of all the innovations they pushed for which make these ends possible. Their disdain for the idea is emblematic of the fact that they rest on a system of contradictions that harnesses with a tight grip any benefits to the workers but unleashes every available resource to funnel surplus value to shareholders and CEO’s. The lie can only be maintained for so long and Gen-Z are proving a particularly tough audience to convince.
Making Trouble For Capitalism
In jobs that just fundamentally do not care about us, come together with your co-workers to empower each other and learn to resist as a collective. Jamie Woodcock and Lydia Hughes recently made the case in their book “Troublemaking: Why you should organise your workplace” that no worker is unorganisable. I sincerely believe this, but in face of all the tough wins and seemingly impenetrable workplaces I’ll conclude with a thought from Sartre: “No hope is necessary to undertake anything.” I do not need to be convinced of success to be assured of the necessity of my troublemaking. All I know is that it is right, that I am convinced this is the path to a more equitable workplace, one where we may be at ease in our labour.
The counterculture that could emerge from our collective troublemaking could lead us far away from the doom and despair of the current moment and embolden us to expand our doctrine into life more generally and attack the more systemic root of our alienation. And frankly, at that point I’m not sure that there’ll be enough mandatory pizza parties that could manage the difficult task of holding up capitalism’s un-reality. Our emancipation from drudgery starts when we are bold enough to find the richness of humanity in those spaces where capitalism manages a fragile hegemony. You do not have to love your job to organise, in fact it might just be what makes you a great organiser. I wish the reader the very best in their own troublemaking.
*Note: it is possible that for the rational-humanist organisation of society, the big evil company you find yourself working for may need to be rescinded to the trash-heap of capitalism. I direct the reader to workplace sabotage instead.