College students often measure the value of their day in terms of their productivity. In some ways, this is intuitive: we are at school to learn, progress and engage in academic work. Assessing how much we are able to achieve each day makes sense. However, there is a dark side to productivity, which we often associate with “grinding” away, as if college was a game to be mastered. This notion of productivity leads us to tie our daily lives to our ability to produce without reflecting on what it does to our sense of self. When we equate our worth with our work, we ignore the values of learning and inquiry, and we forget about the importance of health and joy.
During the Industrial Revolution, productivity was a collective act. Companies, harnessing the power of the assembly line and modern technology, sought to produce as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Doing so involved a collective effort to maximize efficiency, with employees in specialized roles who worked together to maximize output. Setting aside the issue of worker exploitation — such jobs were mind-numbing, physically strenuous and undercompensated — productivity was not about how much a single laborer could do, but rather about how much the “well-oiled machine” of the assembly line could produce.
In the 1940s, however, the rhetoric of productivity changed. As more and more workers shifted into white-collar jobs, companies began to place the burden on the individual. Rather than seeing the workplace as a collective act of production, employers measured how much an individual could produce, how focused they were and how much time they were able to devote to their work. This began to blur the line between work and personal life. When employees felt that they were being closely monitored, they could not easily separate their work life from their home life — though their work involved less physical labor, companies placed a greater burden on workers’ mental health with near constant deadlines and the expectation to be in contact with coworkers and managers at all times. No longer did people put down their tools and leave their work at work — they carried the stress, anxiety and dread of the evaluation of their labor back home with them.
This blurred line has been nearly erased today. Online work management platforms like Slack and ClickUp make workers accessible and accountable at all hours of the day. Instead of replacing email like they were intended to do, they create a new, digital workplace in which the productivity mindset transcends the physical bounds of the office. Additionally, they bring attention-grabbing, social media-like communication to your phone which makes it nearly impossible to tear yourself away from its grasp.
Contemporary college students share in this technological destruction of work-life balance. Canvas notifications can flash on our screens at any moment, reminding us of looming assignments no matter what we are doing. The ubiquity of LinkedIn, an achievement-centered social media platform, reminds us that even when we don’t have any more schoolwork to do, that we should always be striving for more — seeking opportunities, applying for internships and growing our networks.
College students often work themselves to the point of exhaustion. Take self-care, a term describing even the most minute actions to maintain one’s well-being: our obsession with productivity has gone so far that small actions to improve our mental and physical health — like going on a fifteen minute walk or taking a bath — have become treats that we reward ourselves with rather than necessities.
When a student works less than they feel they should — doesn’t write a paper in a day or doesn’t study for a final like that one kid in class — they see this perceived failure as a reflection of their value as an individual. Internalized capitalism — the idea that hard work will guarantee success, and that failure is a sign that one is not worthy of prosperity — has justified the notion that one needs to learn how to “love the pain” that is hard work. Ambition, drive and work ethic are admirable qualities. But why must we perpetuate the notion that we need to suffer in order to succeed?
Escaping the dominance of productivity culture is easier said than done. Many students face external pressures to succeed and they feel they cannot simply slow down. For example, for many of the university students who are children of immigrants, college is an important step toward social mobility. First and second generation immigrant students often face the pressure of achieving enough financial success to provide for their parents and family members. Additionally, like the many office workers who feel their work consumes them, many immigrant students feel they cannot turn off their productive energy. Thus, the epidemic of productivity does not affect all students equally; it forces marginalized and under-supported students to work even harder, often making constant production feel like a necessity, not a mindset.
Fortunately, people are beginning to stand up to their exploitation. In 2022, “quiet quitting” emerged as a trend among younger members of the workforce. Recognizing that their work is exhausting, time consuming and that their attempts to go above and beyond often go unnoticed, people began to do “the bare minimum.” Some, however, discount the movement for embracing laziness and hopelessly swimming against the tide of the meritocratic world order. Kevin O’Leary, a conservative pundit ironically nicknamed “Mr. Wonderful” said of quiet quitting, “This is like a virus. This is worse than COVID.” Harmful hyperbolic comparisons aside, the trend represents an important reconceptualization of the role of work in our lives, and demonstrates that we do not have to accept being overworked without recognition.
When success continues to be defined by salary and status, college students blind themselves to the effects of productivity. It creates an intrinsic link between our work and the rest of our lives and distorts how we experience the joys in life; talking with family becomes a “study break,” and eating dinner with friends is shortened by the feeling that we need to get back to work. College isn’t easy, and the outside world presents an incredible number of challenges. But we don’t need to make it harder by tying ourselves to the idea that we need to do the most. Sometimes doing nothing is an act of rebellion.
Carson Kindred (25C) is from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Carson Kindred (he/him) (23Ox, 25C) is studying political science and philosophy and serves on the Editorial Board. He is a consultant for the Emory Writing Center and a research assistant for The Center for Working Class Politics. He recently worked for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office as a researcher supporting a community-led violence prevention program. In his free time, Carson loves to read, make music, and root for Minnesota sports teams no matter how bad they’re losing.