My grandfather left China exactly one hundred years ago. He went through incredible hardship to provide a better opportunity for his descendents. Back then, Chinese called America 金山 or “golden mountain” because of the opportunity that it represented.
Two generations and almost a hundred years after he left China, the fruit of my grandfather’s sacrifice (me) was living that dream of opportunity. I had a comfortable, cushy job that most people coveted. But I lacked autonomy, mastery and purpose. My days were filled with creating unused reports and analyses for decisions that had already been made.
And that was just my last job. My entire career, my employers have treated me like a child. Dress codes, facetime, useless meetings, seating charts, training videos, policies with no wiggle room. I even had to interview for my own job one time. I left that job and that career.
Obviously, while my grandfather leaving China and myself leaving the workforce are completely different situations, there are similarities in our decisions to leave. We both detested dealing with performance art that manifested in the conformity of appearance, the need to show respect, and a disconnect between performance and reward. What I came to realize is that the performance art was a veil that covered up a lack of freedom.
My grandfather was born in the last years of the Qing Dynasty. The ruling class of the Qing Dynasty were Manchus, foreigners to China. They forced the native Chinese to cut their hair in a “queue” as a reinforcement of their authority.
The most obvious sign of a lack of freedom is the conformity of appearance. Many workplaces, especially finance, have a dress code now.
My last company required suits because “clients might see us”. Which was a pretty low probability given that clients only came into the conference rooms, which were on the other side of the floor from us worker bees. What made the dress code even sillier is that everyone hung their jacket on the back of their chair as soon as they came into the office!
A second sign of a lack of freedom is the need to show respect to authority. Respect comes naturally when it’s earned. When it’s forced, it’s just authority asserting itself. 朝會 (“Chao2 Hui4”) was a system during the Qing Dynasty where officials would report to the emperor. These became CYA (cover your ass) sessions and opportunities to play political games. Showing up and saying you did a good job became more important than actual results. The parallel in the modern day is facetime and office politics. You need to come in before your boss and leave after he does. You need to manage your boss.
Both China and the modern workplace became meritocracies in name only. China has had an examination system for thousands of years. If you pass the test, you’re eligible for government work, schools, etc. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, the system became corrupted. People who passed still had to pay bribes to secure positions. In the modern day, we have an ostensible meritocracy. Advancement is still in the hands of your superior. Due to a lack of producing tangible things, advancement became subjective and then sycophantic. Kissing your boss’ ass has become the de facto method of promotion.
Why do people put up with lack of freedom?
People put up with the decaying Qing Dynasty for decades. Eventually, they reached a tipping point. People started rebelling and emigrating. In the present, the pathology of the workplace is satirized by “The Office” and “Office Space,” but it’s not actually funny. It’s the sort of thing that would be funny if it wasn’t true. Or if it happened to someone else. But this is reality. The vast majority of mankind are subjected to these circumstances. But this shouldn't be a normal set of circumstances. Employers shouldn’t hold your job over your head like the sword of Damocles.
Billions of people currently accept constraints on their freedom. They sacrifice autonomy for security. Generally, submitting to a hierarchy gives you more security and less autonomy. Participating in a hierarchy also allows you to reap potential rewards by moving up in the hierarchy. But these reasons for giving up freedom are decreasing. The promise of security is fading and there’s more opportunities to create security for yourself. As people realize that productivity and rewards aren’t tied together they have three choices: they can play the game, they can give the least amount of effort (check out), or they can leave the system
As people realize that the upside of sacrificing freedom isn’t there anymore, they will pursue more freedom. My grandfather saw less security - there were more rebellions, more famines, more needed bribes to advance in the examination system. In the present, there’s more inflation, more realization of the rat race, more work with less reward.
What are the consequences? In China there were two options: rebel or leave. My grandfather took the second option. In today's world, more and more options are appearing - crypto, gig economy, creator economy. There are great examples of people who have left the corporate workplace and forged their own way: Khe Hy, Daniel Vassallo, Nat Eliason, Paul Millerd. Balaji Srinisavan has talked about an even more extreme option, a cloud country.
Employers have started to react to workers leaving their jobs. Some companies are starting to use four day work weeks, some are raising pay. But this is lipstick on a pig compared to what every person actually wants - freedom, respect, and autonomy. When will companies stop treating their employees like fungible assets?
If your employer refuses to learn from history, you cannot afford to.