Clive Thompson: Why Your Fabulous Job Sucks

THE ELEVATOR DOOR SLIDES OPEN AND JESS slides in, looking slightly rumpled. Tara sizes her up.

"Didn't get much sleep last night?"
"You can tell?"
"Well, you're wearing the same clothes as yesterday."

Jess laughs. Her music show, Freq, broadcast live over the internet here at the new-media house Pseudo, went late last night: Apparently the crowd got deep into the mix and the staff wound up hanging around until dawn. Now it's 10:30 a.m., and she's back from breakfast to make some calls and set up meetings. "At some point I'm gonna have to shower," she mutters, as she wanders off to her desk.

Tara and I tour the studios, trolling through Pseudo's odd mix of high camp and high-tech. The office is a study in chaos and energy, with each room reflecting the peculiar pop-cultural animus of the twentysomethings who work here. There's the room for the women's net shows, decorated in a sort of late-seventies drag with a rainbow-coloured bead-door entrance, shag carpeting and inflatable toys. There's a group of goateed musicians hanging out in one room, holding keyboards and a computer monitor. (Who are they? "I have no idea," Tara says.) There's a massive ballroom on the top floor where Freq is shot, complete with dorian pillars and an ornate high ceiling, a reminder that this part of Soho has some of New York's most architecturally quirky lofts.

The ballroom, it turns out, is where Tara was called into some unusual service yesterday. A recent graduate of Ohio University's broadcast news program, she is, technically speaking, the executive assistant to Pseudo's CEO. Yesterday, however, the company needed someone to dress up as a "Pseudo chick" for a promotional photo shoot, so Tara--a tall, blonde twenty-two-year-old--found herself strapped into tall, white go-go boots, a short mini and a faux-fur-fringed black top. "The photographer had this 40-ouncer of Wild Turkey, and he kept saying, 'Want some more? Want some more?' " she recalls. "We wound up getting a bit loaded." In the end, she didn't manage more than a few hours of sleep herself. "Sorry," she apologizes at one point, yawning. "I'm a bit burnt out today."

I'm not surprised. In new media, it's difficult to find anyone who can boast a full night's rest. Later in the day, after I leave Pseudo, I visit a twenty-three-year-old acquaintance at a website design firm across town, only to find him collapsed on a comfy sofa in the staff room.

Late night? "Yeah." He's been setting up a database for a website that is set to go live in two days. The deadline looms and the client--a major corporation--is getting twitchy. Some deeply caffeinated all-nighters will be called for. "It's intense, but it's going pretty well," he says, his hair out of whack with a minor case of bed-head. "I figure I have another two days like this. But it's cool--it's a really cool project." He pours himself a thick coffee in the well-stocked kitchen (bypassing the free beer) and heads back to his workstation, plopping down beside some two dozen other coders and designers who are clacking away at their keyboards as a stereo pumps out ambient techno on an endless loop. Most of them figure they'll be here until four in the morning.

PULLING ALL-NIGHTERS, DESTROYING YOUR EYESIGHT, PLAYING QUAKE ON the company LAN, hanging out in a funky office with your dog: In the modern digital workplace, this sort of stuff is de rigueur. Indeed, for young Turks in new media--software, website development or the amorphous zone of "content"--aggressively casual and freewheeling is the signature office style.

On the surface, it has to do with making work seem a lot more fun and thus a lot less like a job. It is, as it were, the master narrative of the New Work, which we could sketch out like this: Young digital workers, we're told, demand a more creative and accommodating work environment. They have thrown off the stuffy, nine-to-five straightjacket in which their parents so miserably toiled. No more suits and ties, no more rigid corporate hierarchies, no more dull, repetitive tasks. Today, work means getting to wear your Star Wars T-shirt, sport your multiple piercings and hang out in an office with homey perks: massage-therapist visits, pets, wacky furniture, toys and lots of beer. The staff dines together and parties together; it works hard, sure, but it plays hard, too, and usually at the same time. And the workers aren't chained to any one job; instead, they bop at will from company to company, forcing hapless employers to scramble after them, offering ever funkier perks and more stock options to lure their portable, highly paid talents. These kids hold all the cards.

It's a story that has fascinated the media. Reporters covering the industry regularly marvel at the scenes of controlled chaos and pop-cultural riot, the offices transformed from grey ranks of veal-fattening pens into bohemian venues with all the ambience of an elite club. At New York's Razorfish, the staff caps off frantic all-nighters by hitting the powder en masse for a weekend of snowboarding. At Mountain View, California's Netscape, staff members are willing to quit if they can't bring their dogs to work. And as USA Today breathlessly noted, Organic Online's office "has been the scene of a dance party, complete with disc jockeys, for 400 people."

Which is precisely the problem.

The studied hipness of new media is a fascinating and rather devious cultural illusion. Those ultra-cool offices cover up a seldom-discussed truth: That the jobs themselves are often deeply exploitative, demanding intense work and devotion for relatively low pay and zero security. Ironically, the coolness of the new-media workplace is an essential part of the exploitation. By making work more like play, employers neatly erase the division between the two, which ensures that their young employees will almost never leave the office.

And it's true: High-tech employees hang out at work for hours, long after the city has gone to bed. They'll kill themselves over deadlines, putting in up to eighty hours a week and pulling all-nighters at the drop of a hat. And instead of going justifiably postal over these crazy workloads (or unionizing), they'll smile and thank their lucky stars for being part of the digital revolution, the cultural flashpoint of the nineties. For employers, of course, it's a sweet deal; you can't buy flexibility like that. As more than one worker has told me, a website design company can almost always hold a meeting at two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon because, well, everyone's there. Where else would they be?

But for all the talk of easy-going, accommodating environments, new-media companies are notorious for employee burnout and nanosecond turnover. It's not surprising: Given the insane hours, the payoffs are rather slim. We are hit relentlessly with media hype about digital workers' high pay, desirability and stock options. But none of these myths holds up under the slightest statistical scrutiny. The vast majority of new-media workers in New York, for example, make less than junior accountants or human-resource drones, enjoy the job security of fast-food workers and have a laughably small chance of getting offered any stock anywhere. As for programmers, most are paid surprisingly little and are hurled overboard as soon as they hit their mid-thirties.

Enamoured of its distorted image, the digital workforce is reluctant to accept the facts. "People do not want to face the reality," complains Bill Lessard, a veteran of the industry who runs NetSlaves, a website that compiles true tales of new-media burnout. "Someone will tell you, 'Oh, I'm a producer,' but they're just a schmuck who's working ninety hours a week. You give these companies body and soul and you really get nothing back."

In a weird way, the everyday lives of these workers undermine the values under which they supposedly toil. They are touted as the most renegade--the most entrepreneurial--generation in years. Yet they are, in traditional labour terms, amazingly subservient: the ideal post-industrial employees. Chained to their keyboards, working far longer hours than they are paid for and blurring the boundaries between their jobs and their lives, digital employees paradoxically present the kind of compliant workforce that would have pleased Henry Ford, Nelson Rockefeller and probably Chairman Mao.

WHEN I VISIT FRED KAHL, HE'S BUSY DESIGNING A SHOCKWAVE-ANIMATED computer game based on the TV cartoon Space Ghost. I peer over his shoulder at the screen, where Fred is fiddling with a sequence: Space Ghost chasing the arch-villain Lokar, who is impersonating Santa Claus. In a few days, this will air on the website of the Cartoon Network, one of the major clients of Funny Garbage, the new-media design firm Kahl works for. "It's, uh, sort of a rip-off of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," he jokes.

It's hard to deny that new-media workplaces are, aesthetically anyway, extremely pleasant places to be. As Kahl shows me around Funny Garbage--a firm respected for its right-brained, creative web animations--it's not unlike wandering through a seventies kitsch store. Workstations are cluttered with hundreds of retro pop-cultural toys and icons; Fred's desk alone sports several Silver Surfer models, toy UFOs, action figures and posters from the Coney Island Circus Sideshow (where he worked as a sword swallower before going to Funny Garbage). One of the company's founders, the thirty-three-year-old Peter Girardi, has three different video-game systems in his office; when I checked in with him, he was "about halfway" through Nintendo's Legend of Zelda. Stacked nearby is a pile of other toys, including a rare Fisher-Price instant camera he uses to produce cryptic, low-res shots for websites. "This is a visual business we're in," he says. "It's all about pop culture. So we surround ourselves with pop culture for visual inspiration. We built our workstations so that it would be easy to put up a lot of stuff--pictures, toys, things like that."

This is not to suggest that everyone is horsing around. Over by the animation computers, three designers are hunkering down for a long haul, even though it's already past five o'clock on a Friday night. By nine, staff members will likely launch into a Quake tournament on the company LAN. ("I had to stop--I almost destroyed my wrists doing that," Kahl says.)

In this context, it's easy to see how work and life inexorably bleed into each other. It's also easy to see how new-media employers can capitalize on the confusion. For people involved in digital culture, a highly wired office--replete with digital toys and fueled by a T1 connection--can be a more inviting place to hang out than a cramped Manhattan apartment, bar or club.

In fact, sometimes work offers even better partying than a club. In new media, few companies have confused the distinction more than Pseudo. "It's always been impossible at Pseudo to draw a line between what is a party and what is a business," notes Jason Chervokas, editor and co-founder of @NY, a website reporting on New York's new-media scene.

One of Pseudo's longest-serving staff members is a twenty-nine-year-old programmer named Joey Fortuna. A witty, thoughtful type who sports an ABUSE THE POWER T-shirt, Fortuna takes a bemused view of Pseudo's work mania. On his first day four years ago, he arrived to find the office in a fantastic mess from a party held the day before--a party that included huge tubes that dripped water into wading pools, dozens of performance artists and a gargantuan octopus bong. That morning, Pseudo CEO Josh Harris staggered in from his onsite apartment wearing nothing but boxer shorts: He instantly put Fortuna to work developing the company's nascent chat-and-broadcast network, even though Fortuna had never written a line of code in his life. Things soon got even crazier. Harris wanted to make the company a cultural mecca, a place that would physically embody the idea of content. More parties followed, on a weekly basis, some so wild that they ended only when the police arrived.

To get up to speed on HTML, Fortuna--like most of the staff--put in months of twelve-hour days. "I'd smoke incessantly while I worked, and I timed my breaks for when the ashtray was brimming with butts," he laughs. Co-workers would breeze by to drop six-packs on his desk and challenge him to the inevitable multiplayer Quake sessions. In 1996, he spent Christmas Day writing code for a video-publishing database. "It was just insane! I was working all the time. I lived here. But I didn't mind. It was like a clubhouse. And I was learning a [computer] language; I was immersing myself. " He gestures around the loft, pointing to its kooky mix of high- and low-tech--screaming Pentium computers sitting on top of scarred, third-hand, wooden desks, with broken piping and heaps of refuse lying about. "You know, it's ironic," he grins, "but in the last century, this used to be a sweatshop."

As a result of the killer workloads, new media has become known for producing instant burnt-out human shrapnel. A database specialist I know worked at one of the most prestigious New York website design companies. She'd often arrive in the morning to discover HTML coders passed out and drooling on the staff-lounge couches. "These guys were just getting killed," she marvels. "For the hands-on designers and coders, there's no respite. They're just destroyed." Today, the company holds motivational pump-up sessions to boost sagging energy levels; meanwhile, staff perks include toothpaste and toothbrushes in the bathrooms.

Burnout is now commonplace enough that the savvier managers and employees don't ignore it. The smartest try to put limits on the workaholic vibe, insinuating a bit of old-fashioned rigour: Get in by 10 a.m., get out by no later than seven. At Funny Garbage, for example, Girardi says he rewards results, not the amount of sheer work hours. ("I don't care if you work twenty-four hours a day if the end product is bad," he notes. "What's important is quality and inventiveness.") At Pseudo, Fortuna has achieved enough seniority that he's pulled back on his hours, and now even works from home two days a week.

IF THERE'S AN ARCHETYPAL SUCCESS STORY IN NEW MEDIA, IT'S PROBABLY that of Jeff Dachis and Razorfish. In spring 1995, Dachis and his friend Craig Kanarick, both in their late-twenties, founded the website design company in their living rooms. Within a year, they had nabbed sizeable clients such as Time-Warner and Pepsi, and had hired some staff. Quickly becoming known for clean but edgy design, the outfit grew exponentially. By 1997, they had forty-five employees and $3.7 million worth of business; last year, they had 350 employees scattered throughout eight offices, and did a staggering $30-million in business. In 1997, advertising giant Omnicom bought a stake in the company, as part of its estimated $25-million investment in five high-tech firms. "We've been very, very happy with how things have gone," Dachis says.

And indeed, when I visit Razorfish, it's the epitome of glossy, laid-back success. Some staff members pound away at their keyboards seated in futuristic thousand dollar Aeron chairs. Others meet to grab lunch in a small conference room stocked with Lego. As one employee studiously tweaks a site, another plays with a remote-control car, running slaloms through chair legs. (And occasionally smashes into obstacles. "It's the beer," he grumbles. "I shouldn't be drinking and driving.")

Companies like Razorfish have built the mythos of gold-rush success in new media: Start a firm in your garage, wow the senior executives at Fortune 500 companies, then take occasional breaks from your PlayStation to watch the dough roll in. "The trappings of power have changed," wrote Time magazine in an October 1997 survey of the "cyber-elite," heralding its "brazen encouragement to out-think the status quo, to invent a thousand possible futures." But here, too, the hype far outstrips the reality. True, there are dozens of fantastic entrepreneurial successes, but when you look at the statistics, the New Work starts to look like a very old story: low pay, no security and those who no longer suit the company are pitchforked instantly overboard.

Consider the issue of pay. In 1997, the New York New Media Association did a study of the local scene. It discovered that high-tech jobs paid an average of only $37,212 (u.s.). That's middling at best for a city as expensive as New York. It's also far outstripped by the average salaries in other media, such as advertising ($71,637), periodicals ($69,849) and TV broadcasting ($85,938).

Moreover, the churn rate in new-media jobs is amazingly high. As the New York study found, almost half the work in new media is freelance or part-time. More than two-thirds of all freelance contracts last fewer than six months, while most are lightning-quick three-month stints. And part-time jobs are growing four times faster than full-time positions. What this means, of course, is that a large chunk of digital workers have no employer-supported health care in a city where it costs about $2,500 per person for even the poorest-quality health coverage. Like all of today's outsourcing industries, new media is expanding by essentially passing its costs on to those on the bottom rungs--all under the name of "flexibility."

In place of decent pay and regular work, new media offers the lure of instant wealth--the fabled stock options that turned the creators of or into overnight multimillionaires. It's a seductive pitch, if only because stock-market-watching has become a favourite North American pastime, and a potent driver of the digital zeitgeist. Those who have won the game have won huge. Inktomi's Adam Sah cashed in some stocks when the company went public. Now, he says, he's put the years of 400-hour months behind him and works when and how he likes. "It wasn't fun," he says, "but it did turn out all right for me."

Sah previously worked at Microsoft, which pretty much invented the geek stock-option trick, knowing that the lure of the market is one of the few things that will motivate coders to impale themselves upon unshippable products with unmeetable deadlines. "It's amazing what people will do for money," Sah laughs wryly. One of his colleagues killed himself with work, then cashed in his shares, jumped into a SUV and took off for a year-long holiday. "Technically speaking, I don't think he'll ever have to work again," Sah adds.

The stock pay-off, though, is about as chimerical as you can get. Though there are no stats on new-media stock cash-ins, high-tech headhunters counsel their clients that the chance of getting lucrative options is rather slim. Interestingly, the culture of new media actually mitigates heavily against making stock options pay off. "To cash in on stock, you have to stick around for several years at a company," says Alex Santic, head of Silicon Alley Connections, one of the first headhunting firms to specialize in new media. "But few people really want to. They want to move on after a year. They get lured in by the promise of stock but rarely see it through." Indeed, as the New York new-media study found, the only folks who own substantial equity are management and founders; worker bees have a statistically insignificant slice of the pie.

Perhaps the most persistent myth of recent years, though, is that of the "programmer shortage." According to this tale, geeks now run the show. There isn't enough programming talent to go around, so companies are fighting tooth and claw over warm bodies. Mainstream media have taken this up like a mantra. "Business leaders say the shortage has reached near-crisis proportions," wrote The Washington Post in an article detailing--with a sort of horrified fascination--the incredible perks offered to lure programmers, from "signing bonuses like professional athletes" to seventy-dollar-an-hour rates for temporary work.

Again, the facts completely contradict the hype. Last year, Norman Matloff, a University of California professor, released one of the few studies ever done on the programmer job market. He surveyed the hiring practices of software and new-media firms, and concluded that there was, in fact, no shortage of programmers. Quite the opposite--employers could afford to be picky. Companies were hiring only two to four percent of the people they interviewed, a rate far below that for other types of engineers. The shortage, Matloff realized, wasn't in programmers per se. Rather, it was in young, unattached programmers--the type who are willing to destroy themselves for work, pulling 100-hour weeks for a comparatively low salary (a national averageof $40,000).

Older programmers, in contrast, are ruthlessly squeezed out of the business. Age discrimination, Matloff says, is "amazingly rampant." He found that after age thirty-five and increasingly as they get older, programmers are ditched in favour of the new, freshly-scrubbed kids released each year from technical colleges. By their early forties, fewer than one-fifth of all trained programmers are still working in the field. One forty-seven-year-old programmer that Matloff talked to was fluent in C++, Perl, Unix and a host of other languages, but when he went looking for a new job, he landed only two interviews in fifteen months of searching. Another had been programming since 1976 and had kept up to date on several new languages. It was no use. "I can't get so much as an interview," he told Matloff. "I now earn about $24,000 a year in retail sales and management."

What high-tech companies were doing, Matloff realized, is the oldest capitalist game in the book: Find the cheapest labour possible, squeeze it for all it's worth, then throw it away. "Younger workers are cheaper, easier to exploit," he says. "It doesn't say much for the future of the young programmers out there now." They may feel invincible today, but come the ripe old age of, say, thirty-five, they'll probably start feeling the pinch themselves.

When you look at the raw facts, you begin to realize the incredible power of new-media workplace culture. It sells a lifestyle of liberation and autonomy that is wildly out of sync with reality. Then, you begin to realize why those LAN Quake marathons, those cappuccino machines in the staff kitchen and all those dogs at work are so important. Absent decent pay and a commitment from your boss, maybe a game of Quake is the best you can get.

BUT AS BILL LESSARD FOUND OUT, NOBODY IN NEW media really wants to hear this story. Lessard did his time in new-media sweat labour. In 1995, he was hired as a content producer and bulletin-board manager at Pathfinder, Time-Warner's website. Like most producers, he found himself pulling twelve- to fifteen-hour days. "I wouldn't clean my apartment for a month," he recalls. "I'd have cartons of milk of various vintages, all fermenting. I was a mess." Like most digital shops, Pathfinder touted itself as a cultural hotspot, and the young staff governed themselves accordingly: hanging out, sleeping together and almost never leaving the office. "It was a dorm in there," Lessard says. He burned out and fled in 1996.

By then, all of Lessard's friends in new media were telling him horror stories about their jobs. So, he and a friend, Steven Baldwin, decided to compile a book on the subject. In an homage to Studs Terkels' famous book Working, it would relate tales of everyday digital work in the employees' own words: NetSlaves. They collected dozens of interviews, and given the boom in internet-related books, they figured they'd have no trouble attracting interest. No such luck. Publisher after publisher declined their proposal. "They'd say it wasn't upbeat enough and that nobody would want to read about this," Lessard says. "They wanted a book about how everyone was having these great opportunities." Eventually, even their agent lost hope and gave up. With nowhere else to go, they turned their project into--what else?--a website (

Lessard's story is a testament to the power of the myth of "liberated" digital work. Yet it's surprising that today's young workers, so self-reflective, so otherwise fluent in irony, would buy into such a myth. This is not to suggest that new-media jobs are unmitigatingly horrible. All in all, they're considerably better paid and more challenging than the minimum-wage tedium that passes for most people's work in North America. But what's intriguing is that new-media employees are so desperate to believe that they are not, in fact, workers: that their work can be play, that they can control it and that their employers are bending over backward to please them. Instead of the other way around.

This story is from the March 1999 issue of Shift Magazine.