I know what it’s like. You just graduated, you are a newly minted adult, and you are brimming with dreams, goals, ideas, hopes so vague you may have trouble defining them. And even if you expect nothing spectacular from your life—but let’s face it, you probably do—you’re still young enough to grasp each day as if it were a fresh and rare fruit, and yet old enough to fixate on how quickly the days are devoured.
And now you’ve graduated to the full-time workforce. The real horror takes a while to coalesce. At first you suffer because you must spend more than forty hours a week repeating boring and exhausting tasks that wear out your body and mind. You suffer doubly because you’re locked into a workplace hierarchy as rigid and tiered and anti-life as the military, with every inch of every minute regimented by bitter relentless hairsplitting EQ-challenged nitpickers. What’s more, some older co-workers treat you with a viciousness that doesn’t make any sense at all, until you consider how many years they’ve been performing the same duties, how they started off not so different from you, then rotted like standing water.
But the deepest horror is how the work-world infiltrates and routinizes your consciousness from myriad constellations of moving bright points into a dull and regular line whose rise and fall can be predicted by the hour. All out of pep, your imagination unfed, shut out of your good dreams for weeks or months at a time, you will often lose the capacity to be who you really are, the expressive and playful self who will henceforth only emerge during extended vacations, and sometimes not even then. As your life ghosts by, the weeks will trundle past like objects on conveyor belts, perfectly regular and inevitable and each a little heavier than the last. Even the sun will click along like a clockwork mechanism, blazing down on the loading bays where you sometimes get five minutes to breathe and witness just what kind of a day is passing: rare, yes, and ripe, oh yes, and so sapphire-skied it makes your teeth ache, and look there’s the first bumblebee you’ve seen all year—but your break is over. Time to make some rich men richer.
Meanwhile you will be paid as little as legally possible. You will perform the actual direct labor that underpins the business, work that in its combined intensity, dailiness and duration will far outstrip any work required to get into the Olympics—not to mention the fluffy exertions of the soft-assed, cash-stuffed higher-ups—but despite your daily ordeals, despite the grinding down of your body and the ashing away of your life, you will never be far from debt, never own your own home. Never be able to stop working. And to add insult to this deep chronic wound, your bosses will still insist that you be grateful for every crumb you’re tossed from the banquet table. The crueler ones will even pretend that you have submitted voluntarily to this, to being absorbed and mechanized into a function in their so-called family—as if the specter of homelessness did not spook you each morning from bed, to rush off half-ready from the apartment you rarely savor, to fight through traffic with your bike or drive a car that’s falling apart before it’s paid off, and to punch in and sacrifice another irreplaceable day on the iron altar of the deaf god of money. Every night you return home spent and charred after dark, smoked like a cigarette, but the landlords and loansharks tail you into your nightmares, and in the morning the managers smear their moods all over you. While you gradually stop enjoying everything you once loved, while you begin to lose your last hope of anything else, while you don’t know how you’ll make it through next week or even the next shift, and you want to shriek and beat about like a fly in search of escape, your bosses will sidle too close and repeat, “Keep in mind how nice we’re being for tolerating you.” “Who pays your bills, hm?”
And how is it that you are so divided from the other workers? There you are, imprisoned in the same hell as everyone else, and yet you all disagree on why exactly you must endure this hell. Many of your older colleagues and even a few younger ones stan for their distant masters. They defend the system even as it systematizes their lives into dust. Because they have given everything, they believe everyone should, and now they smoke and glare and wait to die, squabbling with one another in the neverending misfiring of their fury, jockeying for position in the only social mobility available to neo-serfs. It feels so impossible to reach them—they eye you from deep within the holes of their faces, having long since taken refuge in numbness and relief in anger, with no other way to bear their lifetime of underpaid overwork except by directing their rage to all the wrong places. These victims of the system, who should be your staunchest allies, will just keep blaming the weak and praising the whip that lashes their backs, even as the world order explosively unravels and slices itself into pieces, even as side-by-side in the break room you all listen to yet another news report on the cash-grabs pulling apart our planet into rubble and plastic.
Cause hey: it’s the 2020s, baby—your nightmare isn’t just another economic crash, fascism in a war power, or even suffocation in a world made entirely of branded merchandise. No: in full knowledge of the consequences, you are being forced to staff the Armageddon mecha-beast, to serve the behemoth machine chewing up ecosystems in front of your eyes, to collaborate with what you damn well know is going to kill you or at least make your later life extremely difficult and unpleasant. You have been conscripted into the army of workers laying waste to nature in an international race toward mutual destruction, and it seems impossible to believe that you can do anything about your own daily implication in this accelerating calamity. Trying to pay your rent, you fry burgers made from a being that lived and died in a concentration camp and meanwhile made the earth a little hotter. Perhaps you stack and sort plastic molds that will outlast humanity, or maybe you serve the well-off on cruise ships like giant floating pleasure-factories belching and soiling and leaving a fecal trail of oil and trash. Then you clock out and slip back to your tiny nest, but there, on various sizes of screen, you watch protestors get shot and the south feed flame to orange skies, you watch genocide, you watch as rivers shrivel and deserts spread their sandy smiles, you watch as icebergs melt into the microplastic soup and the free animals vanish from this starbound Noah’s ark, all while a few ravenous cannibals dine on billions. It sure looks like the apocalypse from where you’re lying down, with your back hurting again, and your thoughts circling into zeroes. And above your head—all the unread books.
Now your days don’t look so edible. Now you close your door and you just want to blow your mind out with a bong or a bullet of whiskey. Now Saturday is for recovering and Sunday is for dreading Monday and 3 a.m. is for surfing meme pages in bed because in the morning you must drag yourself to work. And of course you’ll feel undead if you don’t sleep, but let’s be honest—you’ll feel undead anyway. You gave your life for your paycheck, and you gave your paycheck for an apartment that mostly stands empty, and now you must survive as that little squeaking remainder of yourself that groans deep down at the end of the day and craves its treats, its consolation prizes, its rewards for enduring another of those dreadful repeating shifts.
Instead of trying to live, you are now trying to forget. And the tools of forgetting are straight-up incredible. You have access to more and higher-quality porn, drugs, videos, movies, series, fashion, novels, comics, music, food, gadgets, vloggers and blogs and social media and memes than anyone before you could have imagined without being called a lunatic. Plus let’s not forget video games, which micromanage your attention like no other distraction. At least to me, nothing is more tempting after a shit shift. In fact, work and gaming complement each other perfectly: first you pour your day and all your best parts into the jaws of your job, and then, in the bitter dregs of the evening, wishing only to shut off your aching mind, you explore immersive worlds where the colors are bright and the work meaningful and well-rewarded, and maybe you even rescue the planet. Having sold your life, you’ve plugged into a spellbinding fantasy that can overwrite your grim reality for at least a few hours—and who can blame you? By now you are consuming to preserve your sanity. You are consuming to save yourself.
And because of this buying as an act of self-defense, along with your grocery and self-care shopping, you are dubbed the consumer, a name used to imply that you and your ilk are responsible for creating and sustaining the consumerist system, as if all these interlocking disasters are descending upon you because the corporate producers must helplessly cater to your unstoppable cravings for new delights and lower prices. You want to consume a lot and cheaply—so the line of argument goes—thus animals must be tortured, thus employees must slave away in overtime, thus rural areas must lose their jobs to third-world sweatshops, thus civilians in oil-rich countries must be blown up by bombs that cost more than schools.
To a small degree, you do in fact share in the blame. But you were also born into a pseudo-democratic system that schooled you to pursue its rewards, engineered your political apathy, and, most importantly, trapped you in a financial headlock that left you with little choice but to be exploited and to support the exploitation of others. Your freedom to buy is like the freedom of a child with a handful of arcade tickets—you can only have what is behind the counter. Just try to make a purchase that doesn’t enrich some billionaire or local petty tyrant. Just try to buy items whose manufacture doesn’t involve abuse of animals or the environment, especially when you can barely afford halfway-healthy food.
But even if you did give up consuming as far as possible, which is not that far—what then? The intercontinental death-machine would just grind on chortling without you, and you’d be stuck outside with no cake and nothing to keep you warm except climate change, maybe a free meditation app, and the bonfire of the calendar. And everyone else would just keep consuming without you.
Yet consider that the animals in factory farms consume too. In fact, they are consuming and expelling so much that they endanger us all. But—do you blame them? How could you?
And you, the underpaid worker, are just like them: you are not primarily the consumer.
You are the consumed.
It is your time that is consumed. It is the excess profits you generate. It is your freedom and your youth, your strength and your potential joy. It is your creativity chewed to the seeds, your body licked to a wilting soggy core, your brain squeezed to the last tangy drop. And it is your bank account charged for falling into the minuses, your loans that metastasize like terminal cancer, your rent that finances your landlord’s next apartment. Your sacrifice that keeps the digit-eyed idol of capital alive.
You do the work, yet the wealth is siphoned off by bow-tied carnivores who do a fraction of that labor or none at all. Moreover, their pleasure at consuming your life will be less than a millionth part of your pain. The men at the top of the pyramid, the men who drink your life through extraordinarily complex straws, avoid you because in part they can’t be bothered, in part they don’t want to be challenged, and in part they don’t want to witness your suffering. They don’t want to be reminded that you could have a better rewarded and more fulfilling and human existence, if just they loosened the noose a little—if just they didn’t exist.
But in the end, the people who consume you aren’t free either. We are all trapped in this world order based on ceaseless cutthroat competition, and the rich are only protecting their own interests, just like everybody else, like every group, like every country. They have every incentive to be selfish. And the corporations—they have to grow or die, but they can only grow at the expense of one another, and so they scrabble like mathematical vampires after our blood. It’s all straight-forward: each blood-drinking, transcendental profit-machine can only edge out the others and win by cutting and stealing and lying and exploiting and abusing and enslaving and overproducing and impoverishing and drinking dry and attempting to change laws to favor whatever sickness it’s selling. And any leader who doesn’t serve those ends and employ those methods—will be fired.
No matter how many times this system returns, I think it will end just like this: with the wealthy rewriting every regulation and draining off all the benefits and pillaging every patch of earth and in general making our lives so difficult and so insecure that we will all radicalize, one way or the other.
Once a foreman caught me smiling into open air.
I’d been thinking about the hallucinatory novel I’d just read, marveling at its insane and phantasmagorical finale, and I’d started smiling because goddamn if the book didn’t make my head light up like a cathedral made of stained glass, and I felt happy to have lived just so that I could read that book and have it blow my mind so exquisitely, and I was filled with that special love and reverence and wonder for the highest and most transcendently beautiful of manmade creations, and right beside the conveyor belt, in a raftered world of dust, deep underneath a small wedge of brilliant daylight, I beamed, grateful that the world existed and that I was there to experience it, with my brain ringing like a bell—
Then the foreman barked, “Stop grinning like an idiot! Con-cen-trate!”
Yet the conveyor belt was empty of objects.
What then should I have concentrated upon?
Was I supposed to stay permanently in the work-zone, forever hyper-alert, never forgetting for a second that my body and mind did not belong to me while I was on the clock, hemmed in on all sides by cronies who had never even met their master?
But let’s not read too much into his action: the foreman couldn’t have thought less about my insides. He was only a man who had been brutalized by giving up his life to body-breaking and under-rewarded drudgery in a grimy warehouse.
My smile made him itch, so he slapped that itch.
And I never saw him smile. Not once.
When I criticize my worklife, doubters often retort that I could go back to school. But all right, let’s say I personally escape the low-wage sub-universe—another person would just suffer in my place, right? Someone has to do those jobs. Yet the hardest work is not just the worst paid but also the most stunting and paralyzing, the most disabling of all potential for escape. I haven’t set foot in that warehouse for five years, but I know for a fact that the foreman and my old colleagues are still there, still withering in the same overlapping cages, still barely able to pay their bills, still sunk into deep-sea depressions. No longer young, they lack the time or language or capacity to learn, and their willpower is daily worn away by the ceaseless dragging of the conveyor belt, which slides along like the passage of time, just one colossal minute repeating itself forever as everyone gets greyer and angrier and more broken, suffering all day and then slumping back to their twice-mortgaged homes, where they collapse into their armchairs and fork up poison food while they squint at the poison news.
Now, these people don’t agree with me on pretty much anything. I could spend my life arguing with them over social issues and still never shift them a millimeter in my direction—unless I take a very certain tack on a very certain topic. Unless I say, look, let’s forget everything else, we can argue about abortion and immigration and the roundness of the earth later, cause the biggest and most essential problem is the rich. They are the ones destroying nature. They are the ones trapping and impoverishing us. If we want to save ourselves, we’ve got no other choice but to gang up on them. The numerical advantage is ours.
And if I say all this, if I say it often and strongly enough, and if I avoid all the usual left/right terminology, I can sometimes get the other person to agree.
Is that agreement worth anything? Does it reveal some possibility of a broader unity?
To be honest, I’m not sure.
But it’s strange and new that I can convince anyone. Until the last few years, most people were too comfortable to take me seriously—and hey, I started out just as passive. Since then, however, the money-squeeze has gotten so much tighter, and so many disasters are corkscrewing down toward us, that even some of the most conventional folks have begun to realize what’s happening, to face that the economy is a scam, that nature has been ravished down to her bones and then tossed onto the fire, and that a very ugly future indeed is just around the corner, bearing down, coming to eat us all if we don’t depose our corporate emperors, and quickly…
Yet there’s a golden lining: empires don’t fall at the peak of their power. They fall only after they’ve weakened and decayed and stopped delivering. They fall from warfare, pestilence, corruption. From their own internal contradictions giving way—the whole shimmering superstructure crumbling in on itself over centuries, cracking around the flaws built into its foundation.
Only now is the system tearing in its own mega-plastic plating; only now is it mass-manufacturing its critics and reaping and proliferating toward its furthest boundaries; and only now, as the heatwaves and hurricanes approach, is fundamental change at long last becoming feasible.
What’s coming won’t be pretty—yet what comes afterward still could be.
And so but here you are, like me: a speck in the tsunami of history; a body climbing the ladder of the years; a deeply living mind weaving the world into itself and itself into the world; an offspring, a lover, a friend, a neighbor, an employee, a neo-serf, a living cog in the billion-man cyborg, both consumer and consumed; a victim and very minor cause of the planetary catastrophe; a citizen of the decline and the smash; and a potential future witness to upheavals bigger than the Sack of Rome, bigger than the World Wars, bigger than anything in human history so far—
So just how are you supposed to keep calm and carry on? How can you find comfort in the thought that our ship, which needs to sink, which was always going to sink, is sinking with you aboard? How do you find peace when anxiety is so accurate and rage so righteous? How do you even stay sane?
Perhaps you know the answer. I have no idea.
But it helps me that people like you exist: those who are going through this same dread and torment and monotony at the end of time, yet who haven’t turned hateful, haven’t embraced an ideology that saves a few at the expense of the many. And we are not alone. Just look at the studies, at the other junior employees, at the art, the articles, the memes being produced and shared by our generations—and you will see millions of mostly younger people all vibrating with us, all surging in the same direction. The age gap is not just real: it’s vast and overwhelming.
And unlike our parents, those of us in our thirties mostly aren’t aging into supporters of the system. I mean, our lives have consisted of being broke forever, owned by billionaires, horrified in our front-row seats to the flames of the 21st-century. Why on earth would we ever pivot into supporting that which has burned us so badly?
So I’ll leave you with one last thought, however feeble, however qualified, however uncertain and belated:
With every year there will be more of us—and fewer of them.