Two years ago, I gave an academic talk via Zoom on the need to limit work in order to combat the culture of burnout in the United States. Following my presentation, a senior scholar had more of a comment than a question for me. He said that “we” needed to acknowledge our privileged status among workers. When academics criticize the American work ethic, he added, we ought to recognize that most workers “can’t afford to burn out.” Burnout, I took him to be saying, was a luxury, and to complain about it was like flaunting your wealth before someone desperately poor.
Standing in my living room in a sport coat and sandals, I argued in response that in my call for shorter hours and living wages, there was no competition between what was good for “us” and what was good for the custodians who cleaned university classrooms. Everyone is harmed by burnout culture, I maintained, and if everyone has equal dignity and therefore an equal right to a decent living, then everyone deserves better working conditions, regardless of the work they do.
That scholar, by the way, held an endowed chair at the same university where I was an adjunct making $3,000 per class.
This brief exchange typifies an aspect of recent discourse about work and identity that seems to take labor exploitation seriously but ultimately undermines the cause of workers’ rights. Again and again, keywords like burnout that scholars and activists developed in the 1970s and early 1980s to make sense of changes in American work have been co-opted and ultimately distorted by the intra-elite rivalries of the past decade. In the conference session, the scholar had drafted burnout into privilege discourse, wherein, as the writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy shows in her 2017 book The Perils of “Privilege,” elites substitute awareness of injustice for material efforts to diminish it.11xPhoebe Maltz Bovy, The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2017). The call to acknowledge the dubious privilege of being able to “afford” burnout makes systemic labor injustice personal, but it leaves the unjust system intact.