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'On Work: Money, Meaning, Identity' by Derek Thompson: An Excerpt

Derek Thompson •
Apr 13rd, 2023

Readers of The Atlantic know contributor Derek Thompson for his provocative commentary on the role of work in our society and lives — including his widely read treatise on the religiosity of "workism" in America. The way we work is changing profoundly, and is at a particular inflection point now given the rise of AI and the resurgence of labor movements. This new anthology of Thompson's writings could not be more timely.

This excerpt of the book has been reprinted with permission of the publisher.

The Millennial generation — born in the past two decades of the 20th century — came of age in the roaring 1990s, when workism coursed through the veins of American society. On the West Coast, the modern tech sector emerged, minting millionaires who combined utopian dreams with a do-what-you-love ethos. On the East Coast, President Clinton grabbed the neoliberal baton from Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and signed laws that made work the nucleus of welfare policy.

 As Anne Helen Petersen wrote in a viral essay on “Millennial burnout” for BuzzFeed News — building on ideas Malcolm Harris addressed in his book Kids These Days — Millennials were honed in these decades into machines of self-optimization. They passed through a childhood of extracurricular overachievement and checked every box of the success sequence, only to have the economy blow up their dreams.

While it’s inadvisable to paint 85 million people with the same brush, it’s fair to say that American Millennials have been collectively defined by two external traumas. The first is student debt. Millennials are the most educated generation ever, a distinction that should have made them rich and secure. But rising educational attainment has come at a steep price. Since 2007, outstanding student debt has grown by almost $1 trillion, roughly tripling in just 12 years. And since the economy cratered in 2008, average wages for young graduates have stagnated — making it even harder to pay off loans. The second external trauma of the Millennial generation has been the disturbance of social media, which has amplified the pressure to craft an image of success — for oneself, for one’s friends and colleagues, and even for one’s parents.

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Excerpted from ON WORK: Money, Meaning, Identity by Derek Thompson. Published by Atlantic Editions. Copyright © 2023 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

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