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No Expectations 014: Rain So Hard
Working less is not a problem. Plus, Sluice’s excellent LP ‘Radial Gate.’
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“I heard you write about culture / What’s that mean? / Is it sort of like everything?”
Working less is not what’s making people unhappy
Every once in a while, I’ll see a headline that will make my eyes bug out in disbelief and temporarily turn me into the True Detective “smoking Matthew McConaughey” meme like this week’s Bloomberg Opinion piece “Less Work Is Making People More Unhappy.” (Now, to be totally fair, the slug in this article reads “Burnout is growing as we spend less time working,” which makes me think social editors switched it to the more outrage-inducing hed post-publish or in editing). There is a difference between saying “burnout is rising even though Americans are working fewer hours per week than they did 40 years ago” and “working less is by itself causing Americans unhappiness.” The former is an interesting data-backed phenomenon that likely requires some deeper digging while the latter seems like an evidence-free “return to the office” screed that wonders, “what if the thing that makes you feel burned out was actually the cure?”
The subhead, “A four-day week is the ultimate worker fantasy, yet we’re already working less than previous generations and feeling more burned out” doesn’t bode well for the more nuanced argument and neither does the fact that the writer is a Bloomberg Opinion Columnist and a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. I would take an argument in this vein a little more seriously if it was from someone who actually held a difficult job. All that said, I didn’t find as much to loathe in the actual piece as the headline and subhead suggested I would. The writer makes decent points about how American men are working at least 10 hours less per week than they did in 1965 (women are working more, however) and how a four-day workweek could become a luxury solely benefitting high-earning salaried workers more than workers in general. As a freelancer, it’s easy to imagine how it’ll be just one more day in the week when staffed editors do not respond to your emails.
What the piece gets wrong is a baseless assertion that a “four-day week would also damage the economy” despite citing data that states the opposite and thanks to its headline, a misjudged framing of looking at why people feel burned out. It’s disingenuous to point to the ‘60s and say “see how much they worked then and didn’t complain?” when the popular conception of burnout didn’t really happen until the ‘70s. According to an international study reported on by Bloomberg a few months before the piece that tracked almost 1000 workers in the U.S., Ireland, and Australia, “dozens of indicators, ranging from productivity to well-being to fatigue, all improved as the companies transitioned.” Productivity rose by eight percent during the trial and 38 percent from the previous year: out of the 33 companies that instituted the practice, which ranged from a U.S. chain restaurant to a climate nonprofit in Dublin, none decided to go back to a regular five-day workweek. The headline of that piece reads, “Want a Four-Day Work Week? Show This Research to Your Boss.” I would have maybe switched it post-publish to something along the lines of “Show This Research to Your Opinion Columnist.”
It’s not working less: it’s not having flexibility at work. Slack, the workplace messaging company arguably responsible for making you feel like you’re at work at all hours if you’ve ever gotten a notification from a boss late at night, has been surveying tens of thousands of workers across the globe each quarter for the last couple of years. They found that reported feelings of burnout are at an all-time high at 42 percent and that “employees who are dissatisfied with their level of flexibility at work are 43% more likely to say they feel burned out at work than those who are satisfied with their level of flexibility.” People may be working fewer hours historically speaking but are they being treated with dignity? Are they allowed to do their jobs from home if possible? Are they just doing their job or covering for another laid-off or departed coworker that their company hasn’t filled yet? The author of the op-ed doesn’t seem concerned with these questions.
The Bloomberg op-ed writer does actually make a few points that really scan. "Maybe it’s because even as working hours have fallen, it feels like we’re never getting a genuine break," they write. "Parents do spend much more time doing child care than previous generations. We also spend our leisure time differently. Even if we have more of it, leisure may not be as restorative as it used to be." They point to “the time to stare at screens and play adrenalin-fueled video games, and less time reading or spending time with people in our community” as ways people misuse their free time. While I’m unconvinced playing video games and being on your phone is bad, I do think whatever time spent behind a screen should be paired with going out into the world, seeing friends, and family, and maybe reading a book. This isn’t some maximize your productivity even when you’re supposed to relax bullshit. I’m just speaking from experience as a guy who has had to work from home on the computer for the past decade and would be hundreds of times worse off mentally and emotionally if I didn’t know how to balance my screen-based leisure time.
This won’t be solved by more work. Besides deteriorating work conditions, less stable jobs, and a whole litany of pressing political and socio-economic issues making life measurably tougher, especially for the most vulnerable, our free time feels like work too. Our attention is persistently hijacked by pressures of productivity and optimizing our time. There are endless life hacks and quick, easy tips to be better at something, somehow. I don’t think it’s normal or healthy to be exposed to so much content: relentlessly negative news articles, incessant newsfeed churn, toxic antisocial behavior online, vicarious windows into opulent wealth and unattainable status, making yourself a brand, and simply being aware of so many people thanks to social networks and other people making themselves a brand.
Finding ways to steal moments of joy anywhere you can, especially in real life is where it’s at: seeing friends, witnessing some live music, reading a book, going to the movies, or whatever. A digital approximation of real-life connection has only a shade of the benefits but all of the deleterious effects. There’s value in trying to protect your dignity and your happiness from your job and the Internet—even when those things are occasionally sources of self-affirming power. It won’t work all the time but those things should never consume you.
The favorite songs of 2023 playlist is now well over 100 songs
Every year, I do a running tally on Spotify of my favorite songs of the year. If you follow me on there, you’ll see lists from each year from the past decade. After remembering that one Rhye song leads off the 2013 playlist, I can assure you these mixes got better over time. The one for this year has hit 111 songs as of March 7, which is probably a record and probably a reflection of how much this Substack has really renewed my focus on writing about and listening to music. Either way, the tunes are pretty good here. Updated to include that massive eight-minute Ratboys song, a new sound for Strange Ranger, a lovely single from waveform*, and a triumphant track from ANTI-’s latest signing Slow Pulp.
What I listened to:
Sluice, Radial Gate
This is an album about floating in a river, drinking a beer, and thinking about life: the friends you love who are getting married, the childhood memories of taking swim lessons, and being “struck by the beauty and comedy of attempting to exist.” In other words, it’s totally my shit. Sluice is a North Carolina collective fronted by songwriter Justin Morris, who makes openhearted and introspective folk in the same vein as Friendship, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Bill Callahan (the narrator on the Sluice song “Fourth of July” calls himself “a cartoon Callahan”). These songs are loose but lyrically dense and boast (brace for the music writer cliche here) pastoral arrangements that feel lived-in. There’s a song about getting ready for a friend’s wedding and ultimately feeling grateful for how you all got to this point (“Giving myself to all that is beautiful and it'll do the rest”) and also a track about being offered an oxycodone from Jesus Christ. It’s got everything you could want if you’re into this sorta thing.
What I watched:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “director jail.” As I understand it, this is when a filmmaker takes an artistic swing and makes an expensive movie that absolutely flops at the box office thus entering “director jail” where studios basically avoid working with them until situations improve with the movie industry enough to give them another chance. Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land and Whiplash is probably entering “director jail” after Babylon. It’s a three-hour bonkers take on the “Golden Age of Hollywood” that allegedly needed $250 million in ticket sales to break even to cover its production and marketing budgets. The film has made a shade under $64 million worldwide and only grossed under $4 million on its opening weekend. It was nominated for just three Oscars: one for production design, another for costume design, and finally for Justin Hurwitz’s score.
I went into Babylon thinking I was going to love it. I’m a huge supporter of big swings even when they don’t quite work and judging from the film’s harshest critics whose taste I usually don’t align with, I was expecting to become an “actually this movie is genius” contrarian. After a day to mull it over, I have no clue what to make of it. I think I hated it. Right after sitting through its 189-minute runtime my immediate Letterboxd two-star review just read “that’s it I’m never moving to L.A.” I respect the hell out of it though: there are some immaculate scenes and extravagant setpieces. Certain surprise actors like Rory Scovel and Tobey Maguire steal their scenes too. That said, I found it a slog but I’m mostly baffled by the critiques that it’s overindulgent and a cheesy ode to “the magic of the movies.” Did we see the same movie? To me, this felt like an expressly pessimistic view of Hollywood: how it chews up and spits out its talent, is racist, sexist, and antisemitic, and full of craven amoral and hedonistic people. Even the final montage—widely mocked on Twitter for being cringe—reads to me as kind of a nightmare rather than an ode to Hollywood. A Chaotic Evil version of The Fabelmans or Armageddon Time. Eyes Wide Shut meets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or something. I don’t know. I’ll get around to a rewatch eventually. It’s on Paramount+ and I recommend it just so you can say you’ve seen it.
What I read:
Peak TV Is Over. Welcome to Trough TV. by Sam Adams at Slate
“The age of Peak TV—the halcyon days when streamers would throw money at established creators and new talents alike, and no idea was too strange to try for a season or three—has been drawing to a close for a while: Succession and Ted Lasso both start their final seasons this month, and Better Call Saul and Atlanta wrapped up last year. But it’s only now becoming clear what is going to replace it: a steroidal hybrid of algorithmic insights and old-school showbiz wisdom about what sells, resulting in a flood of bad-idea IP extensions (Velma, That ’90s Show), true-crime schlock (Netflix’s entire Documentaries tab), and Yellowstone spinoffs. Call it Trough TV, when the networks that once aimed for the stars now see how low they can go.”
The great touring gamble by Leor Galil at the Chicago Reader
The current conventional wisdom about the music economy is that touring is where the money is. Now that streaming has destroyed most artists’ ability to earn meaningful income from recordings, they’re supposed to hit the road and hope they can get close to a living wage that way. Never mind that some musicians simply don’t have a live show or can’t tour due to family obligations, disability, or a hundred other factors.
During the pandemic, plenty of stories have surfaced that expose additional cracks in that conventional wisdom. If even a single member of a touring band tests positive for COVID-19, it can result in a string of canceled shows and the loss of hundreds if not thousands of dollars—even without factoring in the cost of housing, feeding, and transporting the band while they can’t perform.