How Work Became One Big Game

Before social media and reality TV, it never occurred to us not to take our work lives seriously.

Illustration by Melissa McFeeters

Illustration by Melissa McFeeters

At some point in my 30s, probably while I was running a vacuum cleaner, it occurred to me that one can view the whole of human history as a mission to do less work. Every invention of the modern age with which we’re surrounded — the vacuum, the automobile, the coffee maker, the disposable diaper — was meant to free us from drudgery of some kind or another and allow us more time in which to slack off. Laziness has been the driving force behind progress in every realm.

I was reminded of this moment of clarity when I saw a recent poll showing that the world over, people say they would prefer more free time in their jobs to more money, by a margin of 60 to 40 percent. What will we do with this free time? Chances are we’ll spend much of it watching other people work. In recent years, profession-based reality TV shows have proliferated to the point where it’s now hard to find any job that isn’t represented. We’ve had interior designers, dancers, musicians, makeup artists, entrepreneurs, landscapers, fashion designers, athletes, sportscasters, hairstylists, sharpshooters, models, inventors, chefs, tattoo artists and just plain artists all facing off and battling to be named the best. We rub shoulders with tried-by-fire contestants every day here in Philly: Dom Streater and Jay McCarroll of Project Runway, Ink Master’s Shane O’Neill, Jeffrey Bloovman of One Man Army, Cupcake Wars’ Lily Fischer, Top Chef’s Jen Carroll and Kevin Sbraga …

Competition has always been a part of the workplace; we live in a dog-eat-dog world. But the vast landscape of work-based reality TV has upped the stakes. What Time magazine terms the “rampant comparison and gamification” of contemporary culture is changing how we think about work and play and — dare we say it? — the meaning of life. Should we take our work lives seriously? Or should it all be fun and games?

If you go way back to the beginning, people didn’t use to “work.” In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve strolled around naked all day and plucked fruit. But then there was that ugly incident with the apple, and God came down on them like a thunder cloud, invoking the worst punishment imaginable:

Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee …
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,
till thou return unto the ground. …

In other words, from here on out, you work.

For centuries, the church used this cautionary tale to explain why human life was nasty, brutish and short, unless, of course, you were an ordained member of said church and could while away your hours debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The ancient Greeks and Romans took much the same tack, lounging on couches while being tended to by slaves. This division of labor allowed the upper classes to engage, as Italian philosopher Adriano Tilgher put it, in “pure exercises of the mind — art, philosophy and politics,” while the rest of us poor sods scrubbed their latrines and peeled their grapes.

The Protestant Reformation brought with it a boost in the prestige of physical exertion. Luther and Calvin preached that work honored God and was honorable in and of itself; the grape-peeler was as worthy in His eyes as the king (and more worthy than those indolent monks). This was a fortunate development, because right around the corner was the Industrial Revolution, which was going to require a shit-ton of people to stand for endless hours in miserable conditions to earn their daily bread.

A couple of World Wars threw our notions of divisions of labor into chaos, as Rosie the Riveter sought to make even the most masculine-seeming endeavor — the manufacture of war materiel — appealing to the lipstick set. In post-World War II America, women absorbed the message, chafing beneath their apron strings and longing to have it all — just as society needed them to bolster a rapidly expanding workforce. Women swelled the ranks of low-paying jobs — waitressing, nursing, child care — while men took the “real” jobs. (Of course, we women also still did the work that slaves once did re the latrines and grapes. And we served in other ways: The mighty Catholic school system of the 1950s and ’60s would never have been built without the unpaid labor provided by nuns.)

Now that just about everybody had a job, work took another philosophical turn. It was no longer mere grunt labor; it was a calling. It provided an identity, the first answer we gave to the question, “What are you?” Because our work took us away from our homes and families in ways that farming and mom-and-pop businesses never had, we felt the need to imbue it with a certain sanctity. We sacrificed for it, prided ourselves on the long hours we dedicated to it. We needed it to be important. It defined and refined us. As Joseph Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness, “I don’t like work — no man does — but I like what is in the work — the chance to find yourself.”

IT’S HARD TO SAY exactly when chinks began to appear in that concept. The first profession-based reality TV show I remember watching was Trading Spaces, which debuted in 2000 and ran for eight seasons. In it, two sets of neighbors, assisted by professional interior designers and carpenters, transformed rooms in one another’s houses. The show was a gentle harbinger of the genre; the competition was implied rather than explicit, and there wasn’t any winner — or loser. But the seeds were there.

A darker competition show, Survivor, also appeared for the first time in 2000, pitting entrants against each other in battles that featured “work” in its earliest sense: They had to build shelter, find food, procure water, and generally behave like particularly comely members of pre-agrarian tribes. But most of the early entrants to this reality TV scene — American Idol (2002), Project Runway (2004), Dancing With the Stars (2005), Top Chef (2006) — were artsy and homespun, starring lounge singers and line cooks and seamstresses. Their low production costs relative to scripted shows — and their wild success with viewers — brought forth an ocean of imitators in every field from cupcake-baking to drag queenery.

In 2008, with the Great Recession, we discovered, to our shock, that the mighty engineers of our economy hadn’t been approaching work with the seriousness of purpose we’d always attributed to them. In fact, as political economist Robert Reich put it, “Most financiers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants are competing with other financiers, lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another.” While these giants played around, the economy crashed and burned. And an entire generation — the millennials — found themselves overeducated and underemployed, sleeping in their childhood bedrooms, trying to cobble work lives together out of small-scale entrepreneurship and part-time gigs.

That same year, David Foster Wallace committed suicide at his home in California, leaving behind a massive unfinished manuscript that would be massaged into the book The Pale King, described by ethicist Christopher Michaelson as DFW’s “work about work, his despair about the boredom of characters who despair about the boredom of their own work.” Bereft of the meaningfulness of a manufacturing economy — you know, in which one actually made things — Americans found themselves instead being paid to serve lattes to others, or shuffle insurance forms around, or take orders for underwear and tulip bulbs over the phone.

Not surprisingly, under these circumstances work lost its glossy luster. We began to convince ourselves that our real selves lay outside our work lives; in the words of blogger Paul Hudson, we “drudge through work so that we can enjoy our personal life — the life that comes after we clock out. Our personal life is the only time that we have to grow, to explore and to find fulfillment. … ” By remarkable coincidence, this was just about the time that home and work began to bleed together. New technologies allowed us to take our personal lives to work with us, and vice versa — to check Facebook in meetings, Instagram photos of fellow employees, answer texts from the boss on the john.

This was supposed to convenience us. What it’s done instead has made us harried and hog-tied, never entirely free to do that exploring and fulfillment-finding. Is it any wonder that for amusement and distraction, we turn to shows that similarly commingle work and play?

THERE ARE HUMAN endeavors that strike awe into our hearts simply by virtue of their scale. We look at the Great Pyramid or Stonehenge or Machu Picchu and think, “My God, the work that went into that!” And then there are reality TV shows where we see a Chopped candidate create an appetizer out of gummy worms, avocado, squid and ginger ale in 20 minutes, or the cocktail dress and cape a Project Runway contestant completes overnight. This isn’t work; it’s a freak show, the occupational equivalent of running a marathon in concrete shoes.

On reality TV, contestants are under constant, tremendous pressure to be creative. This is in striking contrast to real life, where, according to another recent survey, 75 percent of working adults report being under increasing pressure to be “productive” rather than “creative” in their jobs. (How unjust.) Reality TV offers a template for the way we Americans would like things to be: We work really, really hard for a short time, and then we win a big prize.

Alexis de Tocqueville perceived this national character trait when he toured the United States nearly two centuries ago. “You may be sure that the more democratic, enlightened, and free a nation is,” he wrote, “the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer gain, fame, and even power on their authors.” The only difference today is that “productive industry” has been supplanted by “wasting time.” The Wall Street Journal recently offered serious tips on how to keep yourself from bingeing on entire seasons of TV shows in one fell swoop (“Don’t watch an episode to the end, because at that point, it’s almost impossible to resist continuing to the next one”) and thus failing to get the sleep you need to do your day job. This is apparently a thing that people do.

In a New York Times article on millennials in the workplace, a college administrator said the young people he’s managed on the job “value fun in their personal and their work life.” And if work can’t actually be fun — if, occasionally, it has to entail work — it should at least afford us the time to have fun, to toggle between typing and YouTube videos of cats.

I WONDER, SOMETIMES, if there’s any limit to the sorts of reality TV competitions we Americans would watch. A nation whose best-beloved televised spectacle causes progressive brain damage isn’t the sort to practice self-restraint. We’ve been enraptured with Survivor for 29 seasons. Would we watch heart surgeons face off against each other with patients on the table? Soldiers live-shooting at the enemy? Undertakers striving to produce the most presentable corpse? We probably would.

Job-based reality TV shows offer us distraction from what John Jeremiah Sullivan calls the “new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation [has] been nullified.” They start with what we intuit we’ve been cheated of — an even playing field. They let the little guy in us vicariously triumph, via the sous-chef or MBA student or waitress who scores the big win. And they allow us not to take too seriously jobs that don’t seem to take us too seriously, in this new era of piecework and part-time and no pensions, no rewards.

Naturally enough, to prepare us for careers in which we’re going to have fun, higher education is now getting gamified. A guy named Mark C. Carnes has pioneered a history game that’s been used in hundreds of schools. Called “Reacting to the Past,” it’s intended to provide “a more stimulating classroom experience” for the college students he teaches. His game, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “puts students in charge of the classroom and permits them to yell, interrupt, and even sing in class” in a “form of ‘subversive play’ that helps students learn.” Carnes claims that role-immersion games like Reacting “can solve almost all of the problems afflicting higher education,” but mainly the one where the students find it really boring to sit still and listen while a teacher lectures to them. Where are the bells and whistles, the flashing lights?

I’m not sure it’s gonna work, though. Even millennials are starting to ponder whether there ought to be more to human existence than So You Think You Can Dance before you face that Final Elimination Round. I know because a woman named Shannon Meairs says so. Meairs, who helped create and produce a competitive reality TV show called The Scholar in which high-school students vied against each other for college scholarships, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her new start-up, PurposeMatch promises to help young people navigate that ol’ spiritual wilderness — to, as its website says, “Find Purpose & Live It!” (As one of her fellow PurposeMatch creators explains their modus operandi, “We spent months on Wikipedia and Google compiling an 8,000-item list of human passions. … ” Oh, and if you donate a dollar, co-founder Andrew Ripley will shout your name while playing fetch with his dog. Doesn’t that sound fun?)

Call me crazy, but if your search for meaning depends on crap like this, it might be time to take another look at work — real work, the stuff you pour yourself into even if you’re being paid to pour lattes. There’s something to be said for making the best lattes you can. Here’s the rest of that quote from Heart of Darkness — the one about work and finding yourself:

I don’t like work — no man does — but I like what is in the work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself, not for others — what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

When you turn work into a show, you’re performing. You’re not your authentic self; you’re the projection you present to the audience. This is precisely what theologian Michael Sacasas warns happens when we live through social media and iPhones: “What we are doing is constructing and offering an image of ourselves for others to consume.”

Conrad’s character wasn’t being A Member of Congress or A Writer of Novels or even A Rock Star when he was finding himself. He was fixing up a battered old boat — in solitude, in the jungle, no audience to be seen. I’m not arguing for a return to the days when to be respected, you had to let your career consume you. I’m just advocating work/life balance in a real sense, where neither the life nor the work is performed “for others,” but is for ourselves.

And while we’re at it, it’s worth remembering that in the past, every new iteration of work’s meaning has been driven by forces with ulterior motives. The church needed those peasants who believed their reward was in heaven; the Industrial Age required factory workers content to be cogs in the wheel. Before we decide that the way we work now — little blocks of half-attention broken up by “rewards” on our phones and computers — is progress, we should at least take a hard look at who profits from that. Our overlords at Facebook and Instagram and Twitter would very much like us to keep searching for our authentic selves with our thumbs while we don’t take work too seriously.

Originally published as “The Labor Party” in the December 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.