How we fell out of love with slacking
Poor George Robitaille. Fifteen years ago, the sleepy TTC ticket-taker would have been embraced by Gen X
Sat Feb 06 2010 | Ryan Bigge | Special to the Star
At the risk of sounding like a cranky, aging Gen-Xer, whatever happened to taking pride in not doing your job? These kids today, with their optimism and ambition, make me sick. As journalist Katrina Onstad noted in a May 2009 Toronto Life article about the surfeit of confidence Millennials have exuded during the economic downturn, "Generation X's expectations out of university ranged from low to zilch, and we were right, met by an early '90s recession and several years of humbling McJobs."
Which is to say that 15 years ago poor George Robitaille (the TTC ticket collector caught sleeping in his booth) might have been considered a hero, at least to the Lollapalooza nation. Being a slacker used to be a good thing. In January 1998, cultural commentary Hal Niedzviecki extolled the emancipatory and creative potential of stupid jobs in THIS magazine: "Set your mind free. It isn't necessary, and it can be an impediment. While your body runs the maze and finds the cheese, let your mind go where it will."
For Niedzviecki, underemployment promised perks such as "daydreams, poems scribbled on napkins, novels read in utility closets." He was not the first lazybones to suggest as much. While defending his 1991 film Slacker, director Richard Linklater, argued that: "Daydreaming doesn't sound very productive, but it's where many of your breakthrough thoughts come from. It's in this daydreaming state that you can imagine an ideal life for yourself or the ideal society you want to live in."
Not every slacker was content with passive resistance, however, as the publication of Sabotage in the American Workplace in 1992 suggested. By 2000, a few years after Niedzviecki argued that stupid was smart, Naomi Klein argued in No Logo that career instability had a political aspect: "It is in the ranks of the millions of temp workers that the true breeding grounds of the anti-corporate backlash will most likely be found."
And then the impossible happened – work became fun. The dot-com era transformed the workplace into a big party replete with rec-room décor. But hedonism came at a price. Clive Thompson, writing in Shift back in 1999, noted that: "By making work more like play, employers neatly erase the division between the two, which ensures that their young employees will almost never leave the office."
After the tech crash, Richard Florida's creative class emerged, free to wear tattered jeans to work or freelance from cafes. But now, instead of making work like play, BlackBerries and abundant WiFi have eroded the psychological and geographical boundary between work and home. We can work anywhere, at any time. And we often do.
Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr are pulverizing the final distinctions between work and play. As Rob Horning noted on his blog Marginal Utility last month, "social networks are harvesting and reselling the details of our cultural cry of self, conveniently translated already by our volunteer labour into terms of brands and trademarks already on the market." This process even has a cute neologism – playbor, which was the focus of "The Internet as Playground and Factory," a recent academic conference in New York. "Social participation is the oil of the digital economy," explained organizer Trebor Scholz on the conference website. "It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between play, consumption and production, life and work, labour and non-labour."
While slacktivism is currently receiving a significant amount of negative attention, the bigger problem is a failure to realize that we are always already working when we're online. Everyone can agree that TTZZZzzz worker George Robitaille cannot effectively perform his job while asleep (even if he was daydreaming a solution to the current shortcomings of our public transit system). But when it becomes impossible to determine where work stops and our lives begin, then perhaps some slack is in order.
At the very least, we should remind ourselves that all jobs are stupid. In his 2005 book How To Be Idle, Tom Hodgkinson argues that: "The idea of the `job' as the answer to all woes, individual and social, is one of the most pernicious myths of modern society." This is a nicer way of repeating something Douglas Coupland (author of Generation X) wrote back in 1992 for the foreword of the Slacker companion book: "People gripe that it's some horrible crime against society not to work in a creepy job that has no loyalty to you and is killing you, anyway."
In other words, less work might be more. Last February, Gen-Xer David Scharfenberg used the recession to vindicate his decade-long experiment with the slacker lifestyle in a Boston Globe article: "In retrospect, it's clear that we did something right. We lived a smaller life, a life we could afford... As the nation rebuilds a crumbling capitalism, it could use a little perspective, a little wisdom. Bet you didn't think you'd get it from us."
Being a loafer is also an effective protective mechanism. Slackers long ago realized that vaulting ambition can overleap itself. Look what happened to Gen-Xer Conan O'Brien. After toiling away for years on the night shift of a dead-end job, O'Brien was finally given his big break, only to have it snatched away by his mortal enemy: a Baby Boomer. True to Naomi Klein's predictions, O'Brien the temp worker fomented a mighty anti-corporate backlash against NBC. "All I can say is I plan to continue putting on a great show night after night," he said in one of his final monologues, "while stealing as many office supplies as humanly possible."
Hark! The slacker uprising is upon us. Let the workplace sabotage and revolution begin ... right after we finish our coffee break.