Amazon’s 24/7 Hell Is the Future of Work

Working at Amazon may be "bruising," but so is working everywhere else.

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Aug 18 2015, 5:34pm

The digital revolution. Image: Mike1024/Wikimedia

Working at Amazon may be hell, but so is working everywhere else. Or at least it will be soon. The blockbuster New York Times report documenting Amazon's "bruising" white collar culture is a fine piece of labor reporting, yet its revelations shouldn't be too surprising. Amazon is revealed to be a more efficient and more unpleasant formulation of the standard modern workplace; one shaped by globalization, digitalization, and increasingly limitless expectations placed on the plugged-in worker.

While Amazon's management does come off as particularly callous, many of the biggest grievances that employees shared—working extraordinarily long hours; enduring persistent stress and anxiety; getting penalized for taking time off, regardless of the cause; being "on duty" around the clock; and suffering an environment inherently less fair to women and to those who fall ill or spend more time with their families—aren't particularly novel.

Ample research shows that job satisfaction has been falling for years—a 2010 Conference Board study found that satisfaction was lowest in two decades, and a 2006 Pew Research survey found the same—while worker productivity, abetted by technology, has been skyrocketing. (Wages, of course, have stagnated.) Meanwhile, longer working hours and higher stress levels are prime contributors to the fact that Americans are increasingly unhappy. Headline after headline over the last few years details how "Most Americans are Unhappy at Work."

The Times story has been met with outrage, but that outrage has mostly been focused on a handful of anecdotes, when the core problem lies with the system itself. Companies have the tools, technology, and means to push their employees to work around the clock, and to penalize those who make themselves unavailable.

"I wasn't surprised about anything in the report, except maybe the desperation that allows workers to accept such conditions," Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media theory at CUNY, and the author of Present Shock, told me in an email. "But what Amazon is doing is entirely consistent with the way most companies are using digital technology. It's a way of extracting value from humans and converting it into share price."

Sure, it's appalling that a woman returned from taking time off for cancer treatment and was met with a negative performance review. That employees are explicitly told to spend less time with their families if they want to succeed. That management encourages employees to use bizarrely branded snitch-tech (Anytime Feedback Tool™) to clandestinely complain about each others' performances, and actively promote ruthless peer- and self-criticism. That the environment gets so mean-spirited that adults weep at their desks. (And that it's much, much worse at Amazon's blue collar distribution centers, where conditions are actually back-breaking.)

"What the New York Times reports about Amazon seems generally consistent with the ways in which institutionalized work is being reorganized all over the planet"

That's all horrible—but that sort of thing is happening everywhere, in less-blunt permutations. It's mostly Amazon's style and approach that's sparked the outrage; its culture's brazen disregard for human nicety. Endless hours, round-the-clock availability requirements, a greater burden on women with children, and stress—these are endemic to modern work culture itself, which is in the process of adapting to and seeking to exploit a new global marketplace where the flow of information, ideas, and capital never ceases.

Matt Yglesias argues at Vox that Amazon's work culture is so relentless because it's a "startup that never grew up," but Silicon Valley is exporting that startup culture to companies desperate for modernization, everywhere. So 24/7 digital communications, big data, and a veneer of world-changingness—the implements of torture for Amazon employees—are increasingly commonplace. Amazon, in other words, is not some dystopian outlier. It's the new normal. It's just a little more frank about its goals and intentions.

"What the New York Times reports about Amazon seems generally consistent with the ways in which institutionalized work is being reorganized all over the planet," Jonathan Crary, a Columbia professor and author of 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, told me. He notes that "in corporations everywhere now, it is imperative that one fully internalize the demand for maximum performance regardless of the toll it might take on one's health, family or sanity."

That means, first and foremost, blurring the lines between work and not-work; being constantly available. As Crary tells me, "One is expected to fashion one's existence as something perpetually flexible and adaptable to the changing and always intensifying requirements of the enterprise." It's why we're waking up in the middle of the night to check work emails. It's why Jason Merkoski, a 42-year-old Amazon engineer told the Times that "It's as if you've got the C.E.O. of the company in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck."

Work is monopolizing our time, in part because digitization has, as has been much remarked, broken down the boundaries between the personal and professional. And it's a lot of time. "Not only are Americans working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept, but now they are also working longer than anyone else in the industrialized world," a 2014 ABC report explained. According to BLS statistics, the average American now works 49 hours a week. Last year, Tony Schwartz, the founder of the business consulting firm the Energy Project, and Christina Porath, a professor for Georgetown's Business School, wrote a piece for the New York Times sharing the results of their research into modern working conditions. Only 37 percent of 12,115 workers polled said they were able to balance work and home life at their current jobs.

"Demand for our time is increasingly exceeding our capacity—draining us of the energy we need to bring our skill and talent fully to life," they wrote. "Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession workforce add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology is perhaps the biggest influence, exposing us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night."

"I guess the main problem is that Amazon's workers are in an always-on situation," Rushkoff said. "They are monitored by machine, and judged according to specific metrics. Labor is a resource like any other, and people are part of the bigger program."

"Plus, believe me, if Amazon let up their shareholders would be mad," he added. That's probably true, and supported by the fact that the scathing report didn't seem to worry investors—share prices for AMZN rose $3.70 on the first day of trading after the Times story was published. CNBC's Jim Cramer said on his show that investors "would love Amazon even more now." For investors, Amazon's efforts to maximize output is ideal.

"But of course, except for a tiny number at the top, it's a system driven by fear and panic, and the portent of failure, redundancy and disposability are always at the periphery of one's actions every day," Crary tells me. Which may explain why the loudest voices defending Amazon from the Times' reporting are those profiting most from the extreme productivity.

So far, two of the company's executives—CEO Jeff Bezos and Senior Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs Jay Carney—have stepped up to say they "don't recognize" the company they see portrayed in the article. At least two others, Nick Ciubotariu, the Head of Infrastructure Development, Amazon.com Search Experience (SX), and Tim Bray, an entrepreneur and coder working on Amazon Web Services, offered spirited defenses of the company on their personal blogs and LinkedIn accounts.

Meanwhile, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen tweeted the following:

And industry scribes like Fortune Magazine's Matthew Ingram intoned that while he doesn't think that any inhumanity is hard-wired into the system, "What I think is hard-wired into the company's culture, based on conversations with former Amazon employees, is a desire to do great work—even if that requires some level of personal sacrifice—and a feeling that the company is doing something worthwhile, perhaps even revolutionary." It's also probably worth noting that all of the above are men in positions of power.

Much of the commentary about the Times exposé has dwelled on the fact that these are highly paid, well-educated employees who are free to leave—and that's true. Amazon's truly exploited workforce is the tens of thousands of warehouse employees who do hard labor for much less pay, and often without any job security at all.

But major companies like Amazon are helping to normalize the 24/7 work culture that stands to define tomorrow's jobs. Amazon is now the world's most valuable retailer—it's worth $250 billion. As automation continues to move more jobs away from the warehouse floors, how we define—and limit—work done online, over the cloud, will be one of the great labor challenges of the near future.

Because, as Crary reiterates: "this is hardly just Amazon."