As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, millions of Americans face precarious employment, uncertain futures, and pressure to hustle harder from home and make it all work. In other words: we’re all millennials now.
As of early April, more than 60% of Americans said they had worked from home during the coronavirus crisis. And they seem to like it: according to polling, Americans are coming around to the flexibility that millennials have long demanded.
But millennials have also seen the costs.
Well before coronavirus, millennials were flocking to companies with flexible work options. We were willing to relocate and even move abroad if it meant we could work and have families. We were more likely to cobble together gig and freelance work, partly out of financial necessity, and partly so we could have the work lives we wanted. In the pre-pandemic days, millennials were much more likely than baby boomers to say they brought work with them on vacation.
At their best, flexible workplaces give employees more say over their lives; as long as they’re getting their work done, it shouldn’t matter if they do it from Brooklyn or Benin, or if they complete a task at 9 in the morning or 9 at night. But as we continue our months-long isolation, and as we rely on technology to bridge the now necessary physical space between human beings, there is reason for concern. Technology has, in many ways, radically improved our lives. But if millennial health is any indication – and as the first generation that came of age with smartphones and social media, we are the canaries in the Silicon Valley coal mine – modern technology has made for a generation that is more lonely, depressed, sedentary, anxious, and surveilled than ever before.
Modern technology has made for a generation that is more lonely, more depressed, more sedentary, more anxious, and more surveilled than ever before
Our remote workplaces aren’t just newly connected; they’re always connected. This is a recipe for overwork, especially when it’s combined with financial instability. Millennials entered the workforce in a recession, and our wages have been depressed ever since. We’ve never felt our jobs are safe or we can trust our employers to take care of us for life, which is one reason we are also workaholics and hesitate to use our (already paltry) vacation days.
Compared with baby boomers, we are less likely to have jobs that offer retirement benefits, let alone a pension (a concept about as familiar to millennials as a dodo bird); more likely to need to work a second job to make ends meet; and less likely to be in a union. The ability to work remotely, or to use technology to have a somewhat flexible schedule, was a consolation prize for a generation with declining worker benefits and protections, desperate for any kind of break.
Remote work worked for some of us, but it really worked for employers. As one company founder put it, remote work not only saved his company $1,900 per employee on rent and furniture, employees hustled so hard from home that the company “got almost an extra workday a week out of them”. Employees “worked more hours. They started earlier, took shorter breaks, and worked until the end of the day. They had no commute. They didn’t run errands at lunch. Sick days for employees working from home plummeted.”
Millennial workers, however, haven’t seen the financial benefits of this increased savings and productivity. We make 20% less than what boomers made as young adults. We are 22% of the US population, but hold just 3% of the country’s wealth.
Our connectedness has also left us surprisingly isolated. One survey deemed millennials “the loneliest generation”; 30% say they often or always feel lonely. One in five say that, excluding their families and partners, they have no friends.
The same tools that allow us to work from home also allow us to retreat from life. While many millennial-heavy gig jobs can’t be done remotely – driving for Uber or picking up groceries for Instacart – they’re also jobs that are often done solo; you might interact with an Uber rider, but a deep connection is unlikely. Most other aspects of life can now be done from the convenience of your bedroom, whether that’s ordering food; scrolling for a romantic connection; exchanging sexy photos or looking at an unlimited supply of porn instead of having sex in person; watching movies and television shows algorithmically selected to appeal to your tastes; or engaging a natural human competitive instinct by playing video games for hours. These things aren’t necessarily innately bad. But they enable an impulse to isolate, especially for millennials who also suffer high levels of anxiety and depressionwe often cannot afford to treat.
Communicating from behind a screen comes with most of the negatives of in-person communication and relatively few of the positives. Digital interactions decrease empathy, increase narcissism, and magnify the impulse to bully; for the person being tormented, though, the emotional experience isn’t any different from being bullied in person. Human beings are animals, and much of how we communicate and empathize with each other is through subtle physical cues that can’t be translated over a wifi connection.
The Americans lucky enough to still have jobs right now generally fall into two categories: the criminally underpaid and under-supported essential workers risking their health outside, and those of us tethered to a computer day and night, emailing in projects, conversing and conferencing via Zoom, helping a child with schoolwork on the iPad, stretching to YouTube yoga, Googling recipes for dinner, FaceTiming Mom, and settling in with Netflix. All of this is necessary in the immediate term, and thank goodness we have these options. But we must resist this isolated-but-always-connected reality becoming the new normal.
I hope that, post-pandemic, employers will be more flexible about how we work and from where. But that opens employees to even greater encroachments on our lives. Employers have already ramped up surveillance to make sure we’re “really” working when we’re home, using software to track employee keystrokes, monitor social media use, and score our productivity. Some companies have also said they may pay employees less, even as they work more: if you don’t have to live in San Francisco to work at a tech company, these companies argue, why should you get paid like you do?
Workers should continue to demand the flexibility they need. But it can’t come in exchange for more work, lower pay, and less autonomy. That’s not freedom. Consider what we lose when work is all-encompassing, social support optional, and our lives mediated through screens. Do we really want to live like this for ever?