Boundless #37 - wtf 1950s?
Why was everyone freaking out about work in the 1950s?
The Boundless Newsletter explores the relationship between work & life, unlocking our creative potential and thoughts on the so-called "future of work" Visit Site
As you might notice, I’ve migrated to substack. I’ve done this for a few reasons. One is a design annoyance - I use a lot of quotes and you just can’t format quotes well in Mailchimp. Enter green blockquotes below.
Second is substack is building tools to help creators who want to write and simply share it, while Mailchimp seems to be at the stage of company building where they are trying to be everything to everyone.
Finally, this will remain a free newsletter, but Substack allows people to become monthly or yearly subscribers as a way to directly support the newsletter. I’ll hook all current Patreon subscribers up as lifetime “paid subscribers” and will try to see if there are certain things I’ll offer in addition to this humble newsletter in the future!
#1 Emergence of the Modern Corporate World, 1950s
As I've started digging into the history of work, the 1950s seem to stick out at an inflection point. This is when Josef Pieper started freaking out about work taking over people's lives in Germany, its when Alan Watts starting warning people about the spiritual limits of our modern institutions, its when Schumpeter warned of the danger of corporatism in capitalism and when a whole new genre of media focused on the modern organization emerged into pop culture.
It's also when the core feature of the middle-class started to be someone who went to an office rather than a factory.
Being middle-class in America used to mean starting your own business; by 1950, it meant, almost invariably, that you put on a suit and tie and went to work in an office, alongside millions like you.(From Cubed)
There was an explosion in books written about the corporate world Check out some of the titles that give you a flavor for what was on top of mind for people: The Lonely Crowd, The Hidden Persuaders, The Power Elite, The Affluent Society, The Human Condition and The Organization Man.
The Organization Man seems like the "Liar's Poker" of the 1950s - a book exploring the dark side of the business world that business people seemed to read and enjoy anyway. Here is a snippet from The Organization Man:
"Once upon a time it was conventional for young men to view the group life of the big corporations as one of its principal disadvantages. Today, they see it as a positive boon. Working with others, they believe, will reduce the frustration of work, and they often endow the accompanying suppression of ego with strong spiritual overtones."
While there was some optimism among the new office workers, people that came to be known as "knowledge workers" by Peter Drucker, there was also a deep disconnect that philosophers and critics were writing about constantly.
A good explanation of what was happening came in a book I've been reading about the emergence of different Asian economies called "How Asia Works," In it, there was a nugget of a potential reason behind this disconnect. The author was detailing the move away from farming and towards healthy growing industrialization of Western countries:
From the original, rather raw Meiji industrialisation experience to the post-Second World War one, however, there was a shift to a more consensual and social democratic variant on the model, in which relations between labour and management became less confrontational.This is also what happened in West Germany after the Second World War, when labour and capital began to co-operate, in a maturation of social relations. In both countries, post-war corporate leadership became less family-dominated and more impersonally professional – although family business remains important in every economy.
Viewed through this lens, the impersonal nature of "professional" work was probably a necessary and positive shift away from the family-controlled dominance of firms and capital in post-WWII Asia and other Western countries. However, this impersonal nature of work set off the alarms of many people watching the nature of work from the sidelines.
While things have gotten a lot better, we are still left with the legacy of the im-personality of work through our transaction mindset ("how much does this cost?"), the career mindset of people shifting jobs when they get a better opportunity and the fact we seem to both hold work in great importance as a society while constantly watching certain industries shed employees.
Are we having our own 1950’s moment with work right now too?
A Bali conversation on burnout…
Do we really know what we need?
"Bali hit me in many ways I didn't even know I needed"
I was at a meetup this week in Bali at a co-working space where people from all over the world convened to hear Christine Bader (I recommend her essay on the “year she learned to quit”) moderate a discussion on Buzzfeed’s Millennial Burnout article. There were people from Peru, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Romania, the US, Norway, Switzerland, Canada and the US in the discussion.
It was obvious that the challenge of work is a global phenomenon. Many people feel stuck and are not really sure what to do about it. Here are some of my reflections:
Everyone is a worker: An man who was traveling with his wife and son reflected on his hesitancy of not wanting to leave Switzerland for Norway because in Norway “there is no question of if you work or not, but where.” In Switzerland it is more common for one parent to be non-working and thus, there were stronger communities
Not knowing what’s next: There was general consensus among many people that had left a previous path behind that they discovered things they did not expect. This central challenge - that you may be leaving a certain path for an unknown path - seems to be universal in many people and may be forced upon us even more as work changes in the future.
Many factors coming together: As I listened to the discussion I jotted down several factors which seem to be converging to leave people feeling a bit “off” about their current relationship with work. I’ll be exploring these in the coming months:
Beliefs: protestant, catholic, political views of work
Education: what are we really educating people for?
Parenting & Community: What does it mean when everyone is a worker? How does this balance with our local communities?
How we Work: Big organizations, increasing “complicatedness” of work,
Ways of Working: What are the containers people can work within? The FT 40-hour week, freelancer, entrepreneur, gig workers. # of hours?
Designing Life: Buying isolation and comfort vs. happiness & connection. Extrinsic vs. intrinsic goals.
Economics: What are the costs of growth? Alternative models? AI/Tech, platform economics, creating abundance vs. creating jobs, international disparities
Philosophical questions: What is it all for? What is a good life?
I’m looking forward to exploring some of these ideas in the coming year.
REIMAGINE Work - Join Now
Are you thinking about taking a planned sabbatical? Going nomadic? Exploring a "freelance year"? Transitioning your full-time job to a remote job? Just want a better relationship with work?
I am kicking off a two-month group coaching experiment March 1st which I am tentatively calling "Reimagine Work" which will bring together 8+ people (I won't confirm it until we have a minimum number of people). We will have twice a month group video sessions, tons of content and exercises which I have already created, a private discussion group, new content I will create on-demand and other surprises.
If you are interested, sign up here.
#2 Starting A Consulting Firm: One Year Later
I interviewed good friend and fellow former consultant, Chris Donohoe, who I talked to almost a year ago after he launched his firm uncommonly. In this conversation, we talk about the last year, the challenges of launching his own firm, some of his lessons on selling his time versus selling work and how he has reinvented his lifestyle around a maximum 40 hour workweek.
#3 Susan Cain Remembers Her Dream
This interview with Quiet Author Susan Cain on the Tim Ferris podcast was great. The most interesting part (for me) was how she forgot her dream but then three hours after leaving her law job behind, it seemed to magically reappear:
So I had wanted to be a writer from the time I was four. And then, for a whole bunch of reasons, and like so many people, I graduated coll – well, I took some creative writing classes in college. And I decided, “I’m not actually that good at this. And I need to make a living.” And I also had a desire I think to show myself that I could be out there as an alpha person out in the world of finance or something. So I went to law school. And I practiced Wall Street law for almost a decade. And during that time that I was practicing law, it was so all-consuming that I completely forgot about the fact that I had wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t like I was walking around conscious of this broken dream or something. I’d completely forgotten. And in the first few years of practicing law, I really loved it. It was just this crazy adventure that I was on. And as the years went by, it started to get really tough for me.
I’m not a very natural lawyer in a million different ways. But I was on this partner track. And I was committed to it. And then came the day. And I think I may have told you about this in an earlier correspondence. But then came the day when a senior partner in my firm walked in and said – I was supposed to be up for partner that year. And he said, “Well, we’re not going to be putting you up.” And the funny thing is, to this day, I don’t really know if he meant we’re not putting you up ever for a partner or just not anytime soon. I don’t really know what he meant. All I knew was, number one, I burst into tears. And number two, here was my get-out-of-jail-free card.
So three hours later, I had left the firm. I was gone. I took a leave of absence. And I just started bicycling around Central Park. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. But as soon as that space opened up that I now had free time for the first time in 10 years, I started writing. And I had no idea that was going to happen. It was almost like in a movie.
It took her several years until she published Quiet, but it was pretty cool to hear her excitement as she got started.
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✍️ Long essays about work
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