October 29, 2021

Double, Double Toil and Trouble: The Growing Anti-Work Debate

fortune teller analyzing crystal ball while predicting the future of business people

According to recent measurements, r/antiwork is the fastest-growing subreddit of the last few weeks, with over 800 thousand registered members (and many more lurking, which means reading without joining). Almost a million people now subscribe to a community dedicated to “ending work.” Add that to the accelerating “Great Resignation”, various strikes affecting workforces globally, and this is quickly becoming the conversation of the moment. There are a lot of theories around why this all happening, and what we can do to solve it. Today, I’d like to introduce another probable hypothesis to explore — the difference between work and toil, which I believe is the key to understanding the growing dissatisfaction with our professional environments, and finally, a bit about a possible solution: emotional labor at scale.

First a mea culpa: As a U.S.-based, white-collar cis-male worker, I know I have some privileges. I also do not claim to speak for anyone or “explain” anything. People can do that for themselves. However, the reason this new awakening to work is happening is because it touches almost all of us. This piece is not about my personal experience but informed by my experience along with aggregated data and the experiences of others that I’ve been able to listen to. You will see below; listening is an important theme we will revisit.

A Hard Day’s Toil

“Toil” is not a common word in our modern lexicon. In fact, this might be the time of the year we hear it most, with the quote from Macbeth, “double, double toil and trouble,” popping up for Halloween. Believe it or not, toil has an interesting origin that we may have lost connection to. The root of the word is in Anglo-French: agitate, stir-up, entangle. If you go even further back to into Latin, you get tudes [too- days]; a word for hammer and tudicula, a machine for crushing olives. Pretty much nothing in the history of the usage of toil is pleasant when applied to people.

In modern times, toil is often used interchangeably for work (another hint as to why we are where we are today), but when used precisely it usually represents draining, repetitive, or useless activities — as opposed to work, defined as labor and activities that progress towards a goal. So, my perspective is this: most people do not want to end work, they want to end toil. Most would probably settle for less toil or at least toil in service to greater work. Even arguments for a more even distribution of wealth can be seen as anti-toil. The more unequal the split of proceeds from work, the more toil is created. Think of it like a fraction: grow the denominator (total wealth/output) without increasing the numerator (share) and you get a lower ratio — more toil. From “bullshit jobs to concerns over environment and pay, people are saying no to toil.

Less Toiling. More Listening.

So, what is to be done? Well, we could hold our noses, plug our ears and carry on, waiting for the dam to burst — unleashing a cascade of painful and disruptive social turmoil (origin unknown, but possibly another word with roots in grinding and milling). More gently and productively though, we could instead start listening.

“Start listening. It’s that simple?” to quote my 2-year-old daughter Vivian “yes. … no.” There are two barriers to effective listening. The first lies inside each of us — power can disconnect leaders from reality. “Power corrupts” is a pithy way of saying, “as people rise in status and power, there is a downregulation of energy in empathic brain loci,” which is how director of people science at UKG Dr. Jocelyn Tomaka puts it. While a PhD helps, you won’t need one to understand the effects of power. Just take Macbeth, for example. We see the once noble, Scottish general fall into corruption and depravity. Fiction. History. Take your pick of genre and time. The corrosive effects of power are not limited to moral failings but actual physical changes.

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these effects. The Romans did it by having someone ride behind the victorious general in his triumphal parade, whispering in his ear “momento mori” or “remember you are mortal.” In 2021, I’m sure there’s an app to replace a companion on horseback, and AirPods take up way less space on the golden chariot. More seriously, it does appear that reminders of mortality and humanity help counter the corrupting influence of power. Another classical example, the Emperor Vespasian (who replaced the infamously unempathetic Nero) insisted on removing his own boots at the end of the day. Literally keeping himself grounded. It also appears that leaders of more egalitarian organizations do better with retaining empathy. It’s been shown that companies who heavily promote from within do better with retention and often outperform otherwise identical companies in their segment. It’s important to create a core of empathic leadership because this tendency towards decreases in empathy can become a vicious cycle or returning to the theme of Macbeth – a self-fulfilling prophecy. If leaders become more isolated, their empathy diminishes, and so further isolation and consolidation occurs. Citing Rome one final time, the decline of republicanism and the rule of law closely followed the explosion in (unequally allocated) wealth from foreign conquest. Less grandly, many corporations suffer a similar fate as leadership loses touch due to the growing divide between themselves, their staff and even their customers.

The second roadblock to effective listening is the complicated and ever-shifting network of people’s relationships and their thoughts. We tend to flatten others and fix our view of them to a point in time. There is a corpus of psychological research studying and demonstrating these tendencies. For example, in their book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath describe a study where office workers were offered a $1,000 bonus in three different ways.

  • The first way highlighted material benefits. The down payment on a new car or home improvement that could be started with the money.
  • The second appealed to security, “put it in your rainy-day fund.”
  • The third way focused on recognition, reminding the employee that the company wouldn’t spend a grand on someone they didn’t value.

When people were asked which of the three most appealed to them, many said number three, recognition. However, when people were asked which is the best positioning for other people, they chose one and two. So, these subjects saw themselves motivated by the “higher” order desires of personal satisfaction but others as motivated by base material interests. There are numerous other studies demonstrating a similar effect. To paraphrase the poet Elie Wiesel, “In every person, a universe,” and like the universe, it is impossible to really grasp the breadth of other people’s values and thoughts.

So, we use tools like behavioral surveys and personas to distill these vast amounts of data into human-readable format but must never forget: the map is not the territory. With so much stacked against effective listening, from the corruptibility of the human spirit to the vast and unknowable reaches of others’ minds, it sounds hopeless. We give up.

No. We do not give up. Think fast; you live in Washington, D.C. and need to be in Atlanta by tomorrow morning. What do you do? The answer probably involves something with an engine moving very quickly. Maybe a small percentage would choose telepresence and use one of those robots that looks like a Segway crossed with a parking meter. What If I ask you to achieve “the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth?” Same answer: technology. We are so accustomed to thinking of technical solutions to physical problems, but rarely do we think to solve emotional problems in the same way.

A New Form of Technology

It makes sense, not thinking of technology in this way. Most of our technology, since prehistory, has been about physical space. Sure, there were cave paintings, statuary, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — but being composed of atoms rather than bits always limited reach and impact. Even in the dawn of the modern age, early forms of electronic communication were too simple to convey more than just information. Think of the telegram <stop> attempting to relay emotional depth <stop> awkward <stop>. And don’t forget, they charged by the word. We’ve spent less than a century with effective tools of “scaled emotional labor.” Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. It is a waiter smiling through an entire shift, a manager planning a baby shower, or the president of the United States telling a country all they have to fear, is fear itself. To do this work with reach and immediacy required advanced technology that only became available in the 20th century. Specifically: radio and then television for most of the timeline with the internet age bringing an explosion of variation not seen since the Cambrian. Listservs, internet forums, social media, podcasts and maybe one day (lord help us) the metaverse.

Television and radio are powerful but have a critical strategic limitation. They broadcast the voice of the few, to the many. They cannot invert the relationship (bring the voice of the many to the few). Remember, this transmission, many-to-few, is the key to organizational listening, which in turn is key to improving belonging, engagement, innovation, adaptability and all those other wonderful toil-reducing, price-per-share increasing outcomes. People in the 20th century realized this problem and tried to compensate for it. Look at the first applications of mass statistical survey techniques and the founding dates of organizations that administer them. As radio and television grew in the 1920s through 1950s, their mirror images did too. Despite best efforts it was always imbalanced. Churchill could sit alone, speak to all of London in a moment, and it would take a staff of hundreds six weeks to gather, analyze, and compose the reaction into something comprehensible.

But that was 60 years ago. Since then, markets have shattered Thomas Watson’s (maybe apocryphal) early estimate for worldwide computer demand. The time is right for a new form of technology. Right now, we have the capability to do for our emotional and personal labor what the steam engine did to mule and pulley. What is in the way? “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping old ones.” - John Maynard Keynes. In this case, the old ideas are what software and computer systems can do.

There are new techniques and technologies coming that can do for the heart what hydraulics did for the arm and integrated circuits did for the brain. Amplify our ability to feel and listen, remaking how we work and live. In fact, it has already begun, from sentiment analysis surveying tools at work to social media platforms like reddit at home to name two ready examples. These are the start of a powerful transformation. Our challenge is to break out of old ideas - To conceive these tools, build them, and use them to transform the drudgery of toil into the fulfillment of work. Before it is too late.