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Kim Kardashian

Letting go of hustle culture is harder than it seems

Kim Kardashian’s comments only highlight the bigger problem: it’s impossible to totally escape capitalist culture while living under a capitalist system

“Get your fucking ass up and work” is billionaire Kim Kardashian’s advice. “It seems like nobody wants to work these days,” she huffed in a recent interview with Variety, while Kourtney and Khloé purred in agreement. 

Arguably, Kimberley’s observation that “nobody wants to work these days” is an astute, accurate encapsulation of the zeitgeist. Two years ago, in between chain-baking loaves of banana bread, the world began to grapple with its unhealthy relationship with work. It was so obvious all of a sudden: I wasn’t a bin man or a teacher or a supermarket worker or a doctor or something so important society would cease to function if I didn’t turn up in the morning. So what was it all for? What was the point of it? Why should I “get my fucking ass up and work”?

Since the first lockdown in March 2020, we’ve seen the rapid rise of the anti-work movement; one in 20 workers in the UK resign as part of the so-called Great Resignation; renewed calls for a four-day working week; and terms like ‘burnout’ and ‘toxic productivity’ enter the mainstream. General consensus among progressives seems to be that, ultimately, work isn’t working. Kim’s right: nobody does want to work these days – but she clearly didn’t get the memo that it’s no longer a moral weakness to admit that.

I’ll freely admit that I’m critical of work, however, it’s proving more difficult to put this into practice. I think about work all the time. On weekends and in the evenings, I devour books and podcasts in the hope that they will make me better at my job. Even my choice of career – writing – is the monetisation of a hobby. As Jenny Odell puts it in How to Do Nothing: “In a situation where every waking moment has become pertinent to our making a living [...] time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing’. It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.” I can’t remember the last time I wrote something without the prospect of payment dangling in front of me like a glittering carrot.

Asyia, 22, feels similarly. “I would turn everything I did into something that I could monetise or use for my CV,” she says. “Whenever I do take time off, I feel very guilty about the fact that I'm not working.”

I can attribute my unshakeable addiction to the grind, in part, to my mother. Back in the 1970s, she swapped one island for another, forfeiting the azure ocean surrounding Mauritius in favour of the sad, brown River Thames. Determined to haul herself out of hardship, she’d come here to work – and that’s exactly what she did. She became a nurse. She got up early and kept her uniform pristine. She scrubbed bedpans without complaint. She worked and worked and worked, building her career before having a child (me), at a time when it was still relatively unfashionable to do so. Part of the reason she worked so hard, she told me as I was growing up, was because of xenophobia and racism. She didn’t have a choice: she couldn’t just stand by watching white nurses get promotions that she deserved more, especially not when she’d sacrificed so much to be here in the first place. “You have to work twice as hard as your white counterparts,” she always told me. I took this to heart.

21-year-old Saksha tells me she can relate to this. She explains that her middle-class, Indian immigrant parents never pushed her into becoming a doctor or a lawyer like the typical ‘tiger parent’ stereotype. “But they were like, ‘you have to be the best at what you do’.” She adds that she also feels the pressure to make good on her parents’ sacrifices: “I just think: ‘your parents have moved to the UK, all the way from India, so you need to use this opportunity.’”

Asyia is also the child of two immigrant parents who work as doctors. “They worked incredibly hard to create a life here. Growing up the priority was always studying, working, our career,” she says. “Because I've decided to go in a different direction and not go down the science route or become a doctor or a lawyer, I do feel this pressure to work even harder to justify all of my decisions. I don't want to squander all of the opportunities and the life that my parents have given me by making silly or frivolous decisions, or by being too lazy or not working hard enough.” Regardless of what you think of her work ethic, it could be said that Kim K and her sisters have inherited a similar anxiety from their Armenian grandparents: that pressure to be a good, industrious immigrant who assimilates, takes nothing from the state, and contributes something to society.

These struggles aren’t inherent to the condition of being a second-generation immigrant: they’re caused and intensified by the system itself. It’s really no wonder so many of us struggle to let go of hustle culture, even once we’re aware of its toxicity, given its deep-seated roots: here in the UK, the Thatcherite idea that there’s “no such thing” as society has engendered the myth of meritocracy. Over in the US, the American Dream ethos espouses the belief that hard work can earn you social mobility and financial security. For workers born into capitalist societies, there’s a real, almost visceral attachment to the idea that hard work pays. It’s like a collective suspension of disbelief, as the reality – that you need something as ephemeral and random as luck to succeed – is too horrible to consider.

In Working Hard, Hardly Working, influencer and entrepreneur Grace Beverley rails against the evils of late capitalism and urges us to disentangle our identities from our jobs. But she stops short of calling for a total overthrow of the system: “I’m not suggesting that we need to overhaul our entire working practice legislation yet,” she writes. “It’s imperative that we start making changes on an individual level, in order to be able to work within our current landscape.” 

Ironically, Beverley calls for individuals to claw back control over their lives while being unable to do so herself. One Instagram post, shared while Beverley was in the process of writing Working Hard, Hardly Working, reads: “I have an absolute disease that means I cannot sit still which now means we’re scaling both companies while my full manuscript is due in October (which means averaging 8-10k words a week).” But she doesn’t have a “disease”, she’s not suffering from “productivity dysmorphia” – it’s the system around her that is diseased. Overemphasising how much power individuals have to disentangle their identities from their work obscures the real enemy: capitalism. 

I get her hypocrisy, I get the guilt about doing nothing, and in the book, even she acknowledges that she contributes to the very problem she talks about. But I’m wary of Beverley’s suggestion that we should individualise a problem that is ultimately systemic because it’s impossible to truly disengage from capitalist culture while living under a capitalist system. She speaks to young women who, like her, have degrees from Russell Group universities and drink green juice and buy notebooks from Papier. It might be possible for them to go on a lunchtime walk as an act of self-care – but what about women who work in sweatshops or in Amazon warehouses?

Ultimately, the vast majority of us aren’t free to choose how or when we work, or whether we work at all. There’s doubtless some autonomy to be regained by becoming conscious of the unfairness and oppressiveness of work – but that’s only half the battle. The other, more complicated half is rebuilding the system. We need to shift our focus from asking “how do we resist hustle culture?”, to asking questions like this one posed by Diyora Shadijanova: “how can we collectively create conditions where such attitudes to ‘work’ wouldn’t exist in the first place?”