A few weeks ago, in the midst of our catastrophic economy and general social discontent, Prince Harry offered some inspiring words of consolation for working people. The prince, a world-renowned authority on quitting, commented that we should celebrate the fact that record numbers of people are quitting their jobs for mental health reasons this year. This observation inevitably struck a nerve, less for its content than for Harry’s sheer ignorance about the actual realities of life as an American employee. But despite the rage at Prince Harry’s Marie Antoinette moment, he’s not wrong that workers are miserable and looking to jump ship. A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs last September. Clearly, something has got to give.
One of the most miserable groups of American workers is women, who face a “burnout crisis” and report the highest levels of workplace exhaustion and dissatisfaction. A 2021 study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org (ironic) found that 42% of women say they feel burned out often or almost always. According to the same study, 1 in 3 women says they have considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce this year.
Paradoxically, women in this country were promised that we would finally be fulfilled and empowered if we entered the workforce. Unlike my mother and grandmother’s generation, who were raised to become mothers and wives, my entire generation was taught that our careers will give us deep meaning and allow us to make a difference in the world. That promise rings hollow for several reasons. On a personal level, it creates a mentality in which the loss of one’s career can lead to a devastating emotional void, and on a societal level, it has been manipulated for all sorts of damaging corporatist ends. So why is it still orthodoxy in most feminist circles that going to work equals liberation?
At its best, feminism is a political movement that aims to reduce the exploitation and abuse of women. But today’s feminism has warped into an easily exploited source of emotional validation. The idea that solutions to personal problems can only be found through change in the public sphere was ingrained by feminist scholars and activists since the 1960s. If a movement seems to sparkle with the promise of self-help, it can be easily co-opted to sell something to its followers, who are primed to buy into promising solutions (after all, change comes from without, not within). Feminism was thus liable to not only become the identity- and affirmation-obsessed spectacle we see today, but also to be swallowed whole by corporatism and sold back to us as the promise of liberation through our careers.
There is no denying that the second wave of feminism saw women gain financial independence and the ability to work at almost any job we wish, alongside men. But tying women’s self-worth to their jobs became a measure cynically adopted by the major political parties and by corporate institutions. Through diversity and inclusion measures, big business shrouded their actions in a feminist cloak while squeezing more hours of work out of the middle and lower classes. Instead of women’s mass entrance into the labor force increasing overall wealth and prosperity, wages stagnated, costs of living went up, and the single-income family became a dream of the past.
Yet as our jobs become less and less fulfilling, and we fail in our attempts to be girl bosses with a work-life balance that makes us happy, feminists still push the narrative that robust careers are a source of surefire personal fulfillment. Many professional women cling to the illusion of “impact driven” work, even as it drains them and leaves them to languish in their waning years, when they are no longer useful. The McKinsey study states that “women continue to have a worse day-to-day experience at work” and proposes a fitting solution: increasing “diverse female representation” in the corporate hierarchy. While filling more positions with women may help women feel less “othered” and demeaned at work (as the study claims), it is worth noting that the narrative we are supposed to buy is “women hate it at work. We need to get more women in there stat.”
Some researchers believe women’s happiness and satisfaction in life has declined relative to men since the ’70s. And yet, pop-feminism has continued to lean into the corporate system, devaluing any life choice for women that does not center on economic prosperity. Some nonmainstream feminists, such as Marxist feminist Harriet Fraad, have argued that the women’s movement should have focused on making housework and home life more appealing for both sexes, while also fighting for better pay and working conditions for those who choose to pursue careers. These are compelling ideas worthy of further examination, which doesn’t seem to be coming from today’s feminists, who are more focused on identity than economics.
Of course, this system does not only harm women. Lower- and lower-middle-class men today are reduced to a third-tier status in today’s workplaces, too. America is known for its poor treatment of such workers, with long hours, low wages, little time off, and no mandated paid parental leave. Countrywide, only 30% of Americans report feeling engaged at work. Jobs that feel like “bullshit work” subsume the lives of most everyday people to the point that they suffer some form of mental anguish. Yet identity politics obscures that this state of affairs applies to all workers, and the advocates of careerist feminism promote the idea that men have a joyous experience in capitalism that we can also be privy to—if we could only break the glass ceiling. Funny how “leaning in” works for the employer.
The truth is that the “lively, fascinating day” that Sylvia Plath imagined resenting her future husband for in The Bell Jar is a laughable scenario today in a world where most people actually find their careers to be uninteresting. Many professional jobs appear to be little more than a lifetime spent busily producing nothing of true value, for a profit that someone else reaps, in the best hours of the day and all the best years of your life, under draconian employers who police your every private word and activity. But the liberal feminist narrative continues to inform us that as long as we are granted a level of “flexibility” by our employers, and go for impact-driven jobs that “fulfill” us, the workplace works for women.
We are told that fulfillment is to be found in one’s accomplishments and accolades and that careers will give us the opportunity to help others. There is nothing more cynical than taking the human impulse toward enterprising self-sacrifice and service and exploiting it for material gain. But this is just what politicians and corporate culture have done—and continue to do—by appropriating feminism for their own ends and pushing careerism down our throats. And instead of advocating for a cultural framework that acknowledges the many diverse and noncorporate ways women find personal fulfillment, today’s feminists accept our current system and seek merely to have a greater say in its workings.
To put it in layman’s terms, modern feminist culture has polished the turd that is wage slavery and presented it to us as liberation. We should always resist the temptation to look to an ideological movement for our salvation, but especially when that movement peddles mindless hustler culture as a certain panacea for complex personal ills. When someone advertises “work makes free,” you might wish to remain skeptical. Even if it’s written in pink letters.
Sasha White is a co-founder and podcast host at Plebity.