Broadly, this selling point is based on the relatively new American ideology that you—yes, you!—are a unique and special creature, and therefore deserve a job that is meaningful and brings value to the world. But coming from the tech sector—where such thinking has seeped into the very foundation to the point of parody—it is coached amid the legitimate reality that new technology does bring change, albeit not always for the better. Mostly, though, it just seems to serve as a defense mechanism that those in tech use to justify their own exorbitant salaries and lifestyles.
Which brings us to Elon Musk’s recent announcement about what he’s looking for in a worker:
Musk would later go on to tweet that “if you love what you do, it (mostly) doesn’t feel like work,” specifying that while ideal work hours vary per person, what he’s looking for is “about 80 sustained, peaking above 100 at times.”
For starters, the idea that working these kinds of hours is useful is objectively dubious at best: A 2014 analysis by Stanford economist John Pencanvel reviewed World War I-era factory data and more recent literature to conclude that exceeding 50 hours in a week leads to diminishing returns, and may actually reduce output. Other studies—not to mention federal government warnings about health and well-being—similarly suggest working all the time is bad for you and bad for your work. In fact, a 2017 CUNY review of relevant data sets approvingly cited a 2005 study finding a 60-hour workweek resulted in a 23 percent increase in workplace hazard rate.
But Musk is smart. He’s not talking about that kind of efficiency. He’s talking about maximizing what he, the man with $24 billion, spends on his own workforce.
Here is what I think he’s actually saying: I want to cement my legacy, and thus my wealth and value to society, by changing the world through technology. To do that, I’ll need your help, and for that, I’m willing to pay you a predetermined wage or salary. But while you’re here, I’ll try to draw extra work out of you by selling you on the idea that you, too, are changing the world. And if you don’t fall for this, I’ll find someone else who will.
This is like any boss, really. The boss wants to make money by doing something, and will pay you to help him get there. But in this system, he’s always going to try to pay you as little as possible, because it will allow him to keep more money. (Maybe he’ll reinvest in the company, maybe just buy a boat—if he’s a private equity type, it’s probably the latter.) When that avenue becomes blocked due to a contract, he’ll try to get more bang for his buck by continually blurring the line between “work” and “home” life. He’ll get you to stay after hours, tether you to your smartphone, or just give you tasks that were not at all what you signed up for. The ultimate dream for any boss is getting one of their workers to believe that they’re part of something grander, that the project is worth the sacrifice, while not having to give them any stake in the company’s ownership. The utopia is for the world, but the profits are for him.
It’s a fair question to ask what "changing the world" even means, by the way. Greener transportation via Tesla cars (and charging equipment) could help keep humans populating the world for awhile longer without entirely destroying the planet, which is nice and good. But it arguably also represents a sort of lame escape valve from capitalism’s drive toward global-resource consumption. Conspicuously green technologies like this often seem geared more than anything else toward making you feel less guilty as you, say, drive to and from work everyday. And while SpaceX is "cool" in a nerdy space exploration kind of way, it seems likely to effectively be tourism for the ultra-rich until it (maybe) devolves into a series of escape pods from a dying planet. (Musk has insisted this is not the case.)
Now, imagine what “change” to your own personal world could mean. Might working fewer hours positively affect its quality? Would being able to allot more time in your limited existence to other activities like reading, writing, playing with your kids, exploring the world, or maybe just your own neighborhood, improve your quality of life? Probably! And yet that’s not what Musk tries to sell his potential workforce on, because that’s not even the world he’s trying to use his technological prowess to build. (Imagine going back to the year 1930 and telling someone about all the technological inventions we’ve made, and then watch their face drop when you let them know how many hours people still have to work. If you happened to tell legendary British economist John Maynard Keynes, he’d smack you across the face.)
Realistically, whatever Musk accomplishes during his life by instructing his hired help to make a variety of tech items will be less of a change to the world than what those who fought and died for the eight-hour work day, and 40-hour work week, accomplished. You know, those folks in unions or who want to join one, the people Musk has long derided and been repeatedly accused of targeting for reprisal—a.k.a. union busting. People like these legitimately changed the material conditions of lives around the world in a way that Musk, or any boss, never will.
Most damning of all, supposedly visionary minds like Musk’s could never even dream of that sort of change.
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