Nina Rudnick sometimes dreams of an escape. As a director at a psychological research nonprofit, Rudnick, 37, is beholden to an inescapable reality: Work — and the feeling that she must remain constantly immersed in it — never ends. On a typical day, she’ll herd her 3-year-old son out of bed and to day care before commuting to a nine-hour day at the office. Often, she’s back at her computer after putting him to sleep. As she continues to ascend the ranks of her field, the impulse to work beyond the hours of a normal day only grows.
But since the Covid-19 pandemic, life has slowed down. Rudnick no longer rouses her toddler in the morning and rushes to the office in a harried frenzy. She is still working, but productivity in front of a computer is making way for more sentimental moments with her son. She doesn’t want it to change.
“The last two years, I’ve been working so hard for so many hours and lamenting the fact that I’m away from my kid so much,” she says. But in isolation, “I’ve had so many incredibly sweet moments with him.”
Like so many other Americans, Rudnick spent much of her adult life striving to fulfill an incessant demand for productivity, in realms professional and private. She says “hypercompetitive areas” like the Bay Area, where she lives, reinforce a notion endemic to much of modern American society: that constant work and productivity equals a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life.
“When you make your identity what you produce, then you’re kind of limiting yourself,” she says. She’s learned that “the stakes for being wrong or not producing at the level one expects of themselves are much higher if someone defines themselves by what they do.”
Across the country, Maggie Connolly, 33, a Brooklyn hair and makeup artist for a bevy of commercial advertising clients, has come to a similar conclusion. Her career required her to travel most months, and business consumed most aspects of her life. In her field, “being overbooked and busy was really glorified,” she says. “I didn’t realize until now how unhealthy that was. We really link success with being exhausted with work.”
With the pandemic canceling her opportunities for work, Connolly has been wondering why she never looked for fulfillment elsewhere. Now that work is no longer the defining force of her life, she’s taken to cooking for a local charity, but she’s also asking bigger, existential questions: “What are my hobbies? What makes me happy? What are my interests outside of my job now that I don’t have it anymore?”
From subreddits to corporate boardrooms to humblebrag posts on social media, in recent years more than ever, work is heralded as a way of life, and productivity is the measure by which we prove we’re living it to the fullest. As we’re forced to work from home, or laid off from the workforce and collecting unemployment, America is still a nation obsessed with productivity. Readers are barraged with an endless stream of purported guides to remaining productive in isolation, or, by contrast, how to fight the pressure to perform and relish idleness. And workers such as Connolly and Rudnick are finding themselves aligned with strivers across the country who are grasping for a sense of meaning and identity in the face of vanishing employment and fleeting work demands.
“Productivity is the currency by which we measure our own self-worth,” Anat Keinan, an associate professor of marketing at Boston University, told Vox in an email. “We know it is impossible to maintain a normal level of work productivity during these times, but for some reason we feel like a failure when we are unable to productively accomplish all [our] goals.”
Amid the pandemic, that creeping sense of meaninglessness has some workers arriving at the same conclusion as Connolly: Isolation, she says, has been an experience of “waking up and realizing that you’ve spent so much of your time working. Is that really what you want to do with your life?”
Kaylah Braun, 30, of New York City, was recently laid off from her job as a compliance officer at an international bank. She always identified strongly with her job, but since isolating in her Manhattan apartment — her job search slowed by the pandemic — she’s at a loss for how to articulate that sense of self. “Thank goodness I’m not dating, otherwise I wouldn’t know what to tell people,” she says.
Even without a job to foster that sense of identity, she realized that “you’re still a person. You still exist outside of the job.”
The productivity cult has defined American work, and increasingly, leisure culture, for the past few decades, sold by a legion of academics, MBAs, TED talkers, and self-appointed experts as a magic route to professional mastery and personal bliss. Self-help classics such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Getting Things Done peddled the idea to millions of credulous worker bees that a managerial approach to both work and life is the fastest way to win.
Some of our most venerated historical figures were also productivity hawks; Ben Franklin’s daily schedule was as regimented as any modern-day CEO’s, while Shakespeare famously wrote King Lear in a fit of uber-productivity while quarantining during the Great Plague. Yet our modern obsession with productivity really began in earnest in the early 1980s, with the gradual withering away of the US social safety net and the rise of unfettered market capitalism.
For a time, the ideology bore fruit for the American economy, as US companies came to dominate the global marketplace in the 1990s. Essential to the meteoric corporate growth was a business culture that prioritized shareholders, says Andrew Smart, the author of Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. Workers had little choice but to internalize the productivity mandate to measure their own value in professional settings. This corporate strategy collided with an emerging body of productivity literature that parroted the idea of “just work yourself super hard and everything will be fine.”
Except that hasn’t proven true. The past 10 years of steady economic expansion has birthed the notion that productivity breeds prosperity, and that’s certainly the case for those at the top of the economic hierarchy, at least. But despite a surge in individual workers’ productivity since the 1970s, real annual wage growth has been sluggish, rising just under 0.2 percent between 1973 and 2017, a Hamilton Project analysis found. And the livelihood of workers remains remarkably fragile: In the face of a looming depression brought on by the pandemic, it’s clear that all that constant striving can be vanquished by a singular crisis outside of our control.
Yet the idea that productivity determines one’s worth remains internalized by a generation of Americans. It’s a force that’s been detrimental to our physical health and well-being — studies over the years have shown how stress can weaken the immune system, and how Americans often feel guilty about shutting down their laptops and allowing themselves minor indulgences, like vacations. The rise of an “always on” work ethic has meant an inundation of Slack messages and emails that follows workers home, well after the demands of a traditional eight-hour day.
Leisure time can become its own perverse form of labor, too, when checking off a list of unforgettable “experiences” becomes the entire reason for getting away — an act Keinan of Boston University calls building an “experiential CV.”
That affliction has followed workers into the uncertainty of quarantine, even as they’re furloughed or laid off.
Before the pandemic, Aaron Doty, 25, of Boulder, Colorado, was working five nine-hour shifts a week as a kitchen manager and taking classes at a local community college. Before the restaurant indefinitely paused operations, he felt he was making progress in life. “This is probably the first job I ever had where I felt like that if I work hard and stay productive, I’ll actually be able to get somewhere,” he says.
A lot of that yearning for productivity comes from social media, he says, where people tend to broadcast their accomplishments, even in spite of the pandemic. “Seeing how productive everyone else is during this situation, [I] feel like even though I’m just as productive as I can be, I am nowhere near as productive as I can be.”
Though nonprofit director Rudnick experienced something of an epiphany during this economic shutdown, the notion that we must stay constantly immersed in work has continued undeterred.
“I’m seeing people getting their backyards done, and sewing a bajillion and a half masks, making YouTube videos and doing five workout classes on Zoom per week,” says Rudnick.
Smart notes that humans have “always been these kind of endurance creatures.” On the contrary, though, we’ve learned through social conditioning to valorize work. “I think this heroic [notion] that I need to be some kind of superstar is definitely culturally learned,” he says.
Nobody really understands what a post-productive society might look like. Bosses and workers alike might be rethinking how much we work from home. Dan Schawbel, the managing partner of the human resources advisory firm Workplace Intelligence, says the pandemic will prompt a massive push for widespread remote working policies.
“Think of Covid-19 as the gasoline that has fueled these ‘nice to have’ workplace programs that employees always desired but companies weren’t forced to offer,” he writes in an email. “Now that employees have gotten used to participating in these programs, they are going to expect them in the future, so they will become part of their job search criteria.”
The question of how to implement a humane form of economics that requires less productivity of individual workers is the more onerous task. But perhaps, with the majority of Americans forced to reckon with an unprecedented state of inactivity, we’ll be more inclined to put down our phones and separate accomplishment from self-worth. Writers like Smart have long argued that this is beneficial and, ironically, can make us more productive in the long run.
Smart is also hopeful that the idea of productivity will be tied less to individual accomplishment than to a greater sense of community.
“What this pandemic shows, though, is that we can stop everything in a moment’s notice,” he says. “I hope that rather than panic and try to rush back to normalcy, people will reflect on what it is we should leave behind, rather than resume.”
This era doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the productivity cult. But it does give us a chance to escape it for good.
Sam Blum is a writer and journalist based in New York.