Millennials are anxious perfectionists. Recent research indicates that younger generations are more likely to hold ourselves to unreasonably high standards, and to perceive that others require perfection of us. We acknowledge this, but we do so using the same performatively sheepish but secretly proud tone people use to say, “Oh, I’m such a workaholic!” – we brag about our pathology even when we know it’s harming us.
Our perfectionism, and our attitude to it, is likely connected with the relentless messages many of us received from parents and teachers about the need to become competitive high achievers. But our perfectionism problem is exacerbated by the working conditions into which we have come of age.
Millennials live in an era of increasing work insecurity, and nearly a third of young Australian workers are unemployed or underemployed. Facing the spectre of increasing work automation, we suspect that only the most impressive, experienced and highly qualified workers will make the grade. We fear that, when employers know they can have their pick of us, some of us will end up as the human equivalent of blemished or malformed fruits, destined to be ignored and discarded after languishing on supermarket shelves.
Looking at the millennial world of work through the lens of disability theory can help us understand why we’re feeling this way. In disability theory and activism, the “social model of disability” is the idea that many hardships people experience come not from their impairments, but from the way the world is organised to suit only people who lack those impairments.
I’ve often simply elected to donate extra hours of my own time to prove myself a worthy worker.
One way this plays out is in the world of paid employment. Disability theorist Susan Wendell talks about how, in a “fast-paced” society with increased pressure to be relentlessly productive, more people “become” disabled, not only because of physically damaging consequences of efforts to go faster, but also because fewer people can meet expectations of 'normal' performance: the physical (and mental) limitations of those who cannot meet the new pace become conspicuous and disabling, even though the same limitations were inconspicuous and irrelevant to full participation in the slower-paced society.
This idea is particularly important for millennials like me, who have impairments that unavoidably slow down our pace of work. Rather than openly negotiating for the accommodations I’m entitled to under Australian employment law and risking my employer deciding that a non-disabled candidate would do my job better (that is, faster), I’ve often simply elected to donate extra hours of my own time to prove myself a worthy worker.
This approach feels rational and unavoidable in the modern working world, even though it can be health- and sanity-destroying or simply impossible for many disabled people. But this issue affects millennials who lack obvious disabilities too. Eager to be perceived as sufficiently able and productive, millennials have become “work martyrs” who take less leave than older generations and feel pressure to show complete dedication as workers. I have heard high-achieving, burnt-out friends confess that they feel guilty whenever they’re not working and find it hard to enjoy leisure or relaxation. Many of us have internalised the lessons of the fast-paced society, seeing ourselves as defective because we cannot achieve constant perfection and productivity.
After all, we’ve been bombarded with the rhetoric of “lifters” and “leaners”, those who contribute more than their fair share and those who fail to pull their weight. We’ve seen what happens to our peers who can’t access steady work and struggle on Centrelink payments well below the poverty level – some because there simply aren’t enough jobs, and others because they are too disabled to be seen as advantageous hires but not disabled enough to access the Disability Support Pension.
Disability history, though, provides us with stark warnings about the dangers of simply accepting the idea that an insufficiently productive person is a “burden”.
We’ve noticed the increase in homelessness in our cities. We know what happens to people who, regardless of their willingness, can’t prove their societal “worth”. Aware that we are not only competing against the best and brightest to survive, but increasingly against algorithms and robots, we’re striving to be good little engines ourselves.
Disability history, though, provides us with stark warnings about the dangers of simply accepting the idea that an insufficiently productive person is a “burden”. When these ideas have been applied to people with disabilities, they have led to policies supporting discrimination, neglect, control and even murder in the name of eugenics.
Today, much of the rhetoric that justifies disabled people living in poverty, or being denied things like migration rights and essential medical treatments, stems from flawed ideas about disabled people taking more than we are worth; thus, contemporary disability activists like Ki’tay Davidson and Lydia X. Z. Brown emphasise the idea of inherent human worth, divorced from measures of productivity.
Disabled people must fight for that idea, because not fighting for it means accepting neglect, mistreatment and deprivation. Contemporary Australian millennials need to realise that, as automation progresses, we may soon all be facing that same fight. If we continue to play along with the idea that an unsustainably productive worker is the only acceptable worker, trying to adapt to our new world rather than changing it, more and more of us, with and without impairments, will be labelled “leaners”. Policy will either fail to address our needs or be hostile to them. Maybe some of us can move forward with the cringing attitude that we’ll hustle hard enough to beat the machines. But what about all the people we love who can’t keep up? And, if we keep going the same way, what about our children and grandchildren?
Society, and our ways of managing work and distributing resources, need to serve all of us, not just those of us who can work hardest and longest in whatever ways our potential employers would prefer.
To make it through our future, millennials need to embrace what disability activists and theorists have been saying for a long time. Society, and our ways of managing work and distributing resources, need to serve all of us, not just those of us who can work hardest and longest in whatever ways our potential employers would prefer.
Humans are inherently fallible, imperfect and valuable, and it is inevitable that we will all contribute differently to society – and constant, frenetic productivity is not a sustainable form of contribution for most of us. Given that we already produce a great excess of what we need to survive and thrive, our current rates of productivity are not just unsustainable and exclusionary but unnecessary. We can’t allow the same attitudes that underlie eugenics and the marginalisation of disabled people to rule our lives, minds, or social systems.
We know that disdaining and discarding unsightly fruit is a ridiculous practice, one that contributes to waste and environmental destruction. It’s tempting to embrace this metaphor and say we are all useful to society regardless of our perceived flaws or large variations in ability or energy, but we are not fruit. We are not products for society to consume. Society is for us just as much as we are for society. As we try to find responses to automation, underemployment and inequality, we must resist seeing ourselves as imperfect products, and fight for philosophies and solutions that detach human worth from productivity and perfection.
'The Employables' airs every Wednesday at 8.30pm on SBS. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere via SBS On Demand. Catch up on Episode One here: