I became an ‘inspirational meme’, but the truth wasn’t so #empowering

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Last week I became an inspirational meme.

A photograph of me commuting home from work was shared on social media with the caption, “This is what determination looks like…” Apparently, determination looks like bicycling through a busy intersection wearing heels, a trench coat and a rather grim facial expression, helmet-less and loaded down with tote, garment bag and more.

I only found out that I had gone viral when friends began to send me the image via Facebook and Instagram, asking if it was me. To be quite honest, I was rather taken aback. The picture itself didn’t seem too remarkable to me – although I remembered that I had been pretty determined to make it home to my couch the evening it was taken.

But the comments were unexpectedly positive, and all assumed I was having an extremely productive, perhaps even profitable, ride: “Get it by any means necessary!!” “#HustleHarder.” “This is called ‘making it work’.” “GOALS!”

It was flattering, of course – even empowering. (My favourite, “Divas Bike Too” – punctuated by a heel emoji – may end up tacked to a mirror.) But as the photo continues to make the rounds, I’ve begun to question its message.

Does determination look like a willingness to risk life and limb to make a meeting? Should an unsustainable load (physical or mental) be a prerequisite for success? Is being harried aspirational?

My meme-ing seems an extension of our tendency to give in to an undue glorification of work – and to see bearing up under relentless market demands as something to strive for.

On its blog late last year, the ride- hailing company Lyft posted the “exciting” story of a driver who, working through her ninth month of pregnancy, went into labour while ferrying a passenger.

A depressing new ad campaign for the freelance marketplace Fiverr declared: “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a Doer.”

A few days ago, Slate helpfully pointed out that “A 94-Year-Old Woman Who’s Worked at McDonald’s for 44 Years Is Making the Rest of Us Look Bad.”

Set aside the fact that driving while in labour seems extremely unsafe, that sleep deprivation can lead to health problems and that the last thing most people hope to be doing at 94 is waking at 3am for work. The larger problem is that attempting to live up to these expectations – of being always on, completely flexible, willing to undertake any task – isn’t translating into much for the workers who do it.

For many, declining fortunes are not a question of not working hard enough. The average American workweek has expanded to nearly 50 hours, but time off, retirement and other benefits haven’t increased with it. Millennials are embracing the idea of having a “side hustle” on top of a day job because their employment and saving prospects have diminished. Profit-driven automation is increasingly replacing human workers: As almost-labor secretary Andrew Puzder has noted, robots “never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall.” The nerve of some people, slipping and falling.

Were you hoping that all your hard work and dedication would help usher in macro-level change? Sheryl Sandberg herself admitted that “leaning in” hasn’t worked.

A New Yorker article captured the irony of such buckle-down-and-bootstrap exhortations in a system that doesn’t reward them: “It [is] more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system.”

But what would a less flawed approach look like? Today, as the cracks in the system have become more visible, many are pushing back against the idea of capitalism as the best possible organising principle. Some have begun to question the efficacy of the neoliberal project overall, while others – as the 2016 election season showed – want to give socialism a try.

A wholesale revolution is probably not yet at hand. But a better system would begin with a reordering of our priorities, to create an economy meant to serve people rather than the other way around.

We might move to reject the infiltration of market-based logic into places it doesn’t belong, valuing individuals not according to how many red lights they’ll speed through in pursuit of professional success but on their intrinsic worth.

It’s not an unreasonable thing to ask: Even Adam Smith saw production and exchange as only part of the human experience.

A more moral economy wouldn’t deny the value of work but also wouldn’t make it the centre of life. And in that sense, my first response to seeing that photo of my overstressed commute might have been the correct one: It was a slice of my life, but not the whole of it – and certainly not the part to celebrate.

The Washington Post

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