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The Remote Work Debate Is A Generational Class War For The Future of Work
A smart Twitter comment on yesterday’s Substack made a really good point about everything I’ve been writing about:
While I don’t think Kyle was being literal, there is absolutely a point here about how much of the workforce - in particular with knowledge workers - is predicated on the subjugation of a younger generation that simply “must tolerate” what is happening because the older people say it. I also think that the entire remote work debate - and the negativity toward it from management - is the beginnings of a massive generational war. While there’s a multi-generational hunger by sickos to micro-manage and control people, those making the big statements about remote work are absolutely older. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan (65-years-old) said that remote work “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle, it doesn’t work in terms of spontaneous idea generation.” David Solomon of Goldman Sachs (59-years-old) called remote work “an aberration.” Cathy Merrill, CEO of the Washingtonian, wrote in the Washington Post that she “worries about the erosion of Office Culture - she graduated college in 1991. Reed Hastings (60-years-old) of Netflix said that he “doesn’t see any positives” from remote work.
The two things that stand out here are both the age of those against remote work, and also their positions at companies in question. These are not people that are actually doing the day-to-day work that remote work will truly change - they are not slogging in cubicles, they are likely not commuting as much, and they are not having a remotely similar experience to those that their callous choices are affecting.
They are also so far removed from the current state of having a job and doing a job that they lack the basic facts to make the generalized, idealistic decisions they’re so rigidly proud of. How often do you think Reed Hastings actually goes to a physical meeting with the people that he is demanding go back into the office? In fact, how often do you think Reed Hastings is in the office? Does he have to be in the same hours that people lower on the totem pole are? Does he get in trouble if he’s late?
In fact, a great question to ask someone who’s telling you to go back to the office is “what is your office like?” In the case of Reed Hastings, he has a giant office to himself atop Netflix (or at least he did in 2013). [Edit: It seems that Reed Hastings may not even have an office?] I imagine it’s not such a bad thing for him to return to his weird penthouse on the schedule he sees fit, because he’s the CEO. Jamie Dimon’s office is basically available in one picture but certainly doesn’t look bad. That, and he’s paid seventeen million god damn dollars.
The loudest voices that are anti remote work are those that experienced a vastly different path to their work, when it was easier to get work, cheaper to go to college, cheaper to live and, in general, cheaper to thrive. They didn’t get the chance to work remotely because, at least in Reed Hastings’ case, he graduated his masters in 1988, about twelve years before consumer broadband gained traction in America.
The people that are owning the conversation and making these big stinks about how bad remote work did not grow up in a digital world yet have managed to monetize it effectively. They don’t want remote work because they themselves didn’t have it growing up, and thus they don’t believe that anyone else should. Their disingenuous “but our culture!” cries are so dissonant because they don’t even really work like the people that their decisions are making - how often does Jamie Dimon walk the floors? Does he talk to people? What big idea can Reed Hastings actually credit to a spontaneous conversation?
This debate, and the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and CNBC articles that continually fight for the powerful’s right to deny those below them industry, is one that is happening because the older generation wants to continue controlling the young. They feel their grip slipping in general as technology leaves them behind, and remote work is the natural end of the classical, inefficient way of working - the physical presence of a 9 to 5 and the ownership of people through contracts and employment. Their agony around remote work absolutely isn’t based on any recent big idea they’ve heard in person, because let’s be honest, these people did not get to where they got because they wanted to speak with the people below them. They do not know what actually happens in their office based on anything other than one single org-chart level below them, which is likely someone vaguely reporting something they’ve vaguely heard from someone else - that office culture is good, and spontaneous collaboration is the future. What does that mean? Who cares!
The classical CEO of any company is, by definition, removed from the process that enriches them. As a result, they are a poor definer of what actually makes their company work on a micro level, which is where remote work sits. Reed Hastings claims that he models his company on professional sports teams, and also that Netflix is “fundamentally dedicated to employee freedom because that makes us more flexible,” several months before saying that employees must return to the office. This is the problem - these CEOs, these managers, these people that do not actually do the work or see the work or really interact with the work, they are the ones that are making this big argument about how bad remote work will be for their office culture, the office culture in which they do not participate in any meaningful way.
It’s the natural climax of ten or so years of calling millennials entitled and lazy for asking that they work for people that care about them and not automatically respecting people simply for their title. Where previously the revered CEO or Manager was kind of expected to do less work, as they’d earned it, young people are asking - while faced with an unfair world that also kind of hates them - why the fuck they are being ordered around and judged by people that have experienced none of the experiences they’re being evaluated on.
When a CEO that has effectively put real work in their rearview mirror starts talking about office culture, it is the right time to tell them to shut the fuck up. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company has about as much insight into the day-to-day operations that remote work would affect as my dog, and my dog is colossally stupid. Anyone over the age of 40 that is demanding the return to the office likely did not grow up with the Internet, and is likely making calls based on their privilege and distance from real work, and the actual struggles of the average person. They believe that they have earned a distance from “the working class” (IE: people expected to do the day-to-day operations of their company), and through their privilege and station believe that they have earned the right to make calls that will literally change lives in ways that they cannot and will not comprehend.
It is the professional version of when an old person tells you that you should just “save up and buy a house,” because they were able to at their age. Because they have become successful - entirely based on their merits, in their mind - without working from home, they believe that is how the world works now, and they will not be dissuaded from their belief. They believe that their personal histories are proof that working in an office is good, despite the fact that if they were born today in the same situation they would likely not have succeeded, because the world is harder now. In any case, they also are making the judgment that something magical is lost by not being in the office most or all of the time because they, based on their working history from the fucking 80s or 90s, were in the office and are now successful.
You’ll also notice, thematically, that those who are fighting against remote work are usually managers or CEOs. You rarely hear from workers who want to go back to the office because they like it - you hear from CEOs and managers who do, because for them, being in the office and seeing people and knowing they have to do stuff for them is all part of their compensation. Removing their ability to go into rooms and have people have to stand up and pay attention to them is effectively a demotion - what’s the point of power if you can’t wield it? What’s the point of being the boss if people don’t slightly fear you? That winning culture you love so much may still exist, but what’s the point of it if you can’t see it “in action,” by which I mean “see people in an office talking to each other and knowing you, on some level, own their future”?
There is a vast generation (that has their acolytes in our generation) that sees being the boss as a mechanism more than a job. The older generation was educated to see being the boss as something bordering on holy - the embers of the protestant work ethic that poisons American work - and that, at that level, you had effectively earned a break because you’d got there through some sort of meritocracy (lol). The working world has trained many people to believe that managers are just mini-bosses, and thus by extension only exist to delegate and distance themselves from the process - which is a poison absolutely injected by an older generation that sees management as an exercise in power. It is all terribly inefficient, but it is very satisfying for those who have power and want to pass on power to those who want to abuse it.
At its core, it’s also a battle over efficiency and what work actually is. While our generation isn’t perfect, the elder generation seems obsessed with the optics and power dynamics of work than…making more money. They want people in the office so that they can feel like they worked for something - somehow tens of millions of dollars isn’t enough - so that they can exercise their power, so that they can see what their years of work got them (versus actually being happy outside of work). If they don’t see you working in an office, you’re no longer a fun toy that they get to glower at and order around, but a line item, and a line item requires them to actually consider stuff and do stuff, which is hard. I believe there is a massive generational shift happening away from a generation that feels - ironically, considering their accusations of millennials - entitled to power, money and control.
Without the office, they cannot show their dickhead friends that they have a big office full of young, smart, excited and cheap people. It is harder to enforce the norms that made them powerful - being white, being straight, going to an ivy league college, speaking a certain way, and so on - and to burden the young with the consequences of their “big ideas.” That’s why they keep talking about office culture - because just like their own vague narrative that justifies their success, office culture is merely a narrative to enforce the norms that keep the powerful empowered and the laborers in check. Office culture is dogma, and to question it is sacreligious.
Any time you read someone talking about remote culture being bad, go ahead and look up how old they are, or what position they have. The loudest voices in this conversation have a vested financial interest in maintaining control, and the office is the mecca of that control. It is not something that is for the worker - it is simply a place to trap them and use them.