Every time I see the words “quietly quit smoking” my heart is starting to race. The term, popularized by a Gen Z TikToker encouraging employees to do the bare minimum at work, floods me with the same panic I felt as a teenager when it seemed like even a minute of slack could sabotage my future.
In high school, I spent time in foster care and homelessness, praying that an Ivy League college and a top job could catapult me into stability. Even as a teenager, I realized that getting into a somewhat more exclusive college would make it easier for me to land a well-paying job right out of college – and that would make the difference between taking on the debt that afflicts so many of my millennial peers or immediate security. In the talk of the death of workaholism, few talk about the winner-takes-all circumstances that make the phone impossible for many of us.
As a teenager, I embodied the hustle culture, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I grew up in a chaotic working family. My parents’ mental health issues meant an unstable home life. In high school, I jumped from sofa to sofa, slept in my car and stayed in a shelter. College seemed like my only way out, but only a few elite universities offered full financial aid to low-income students. In a school, even at a lower level, I would have had to take out massive student loans that would have kept me attached to the life I was fighting to leave. The pressure weighed on me constantly. I couldn’t sleep, seized with terror from the test results and grades. I abused Adderall and cut myself to clear my mind so I could study harder.
I would never say it was healthy. But I didn’t make those choices in a vacuum. They were calculated based on available incentives. And when the admissions decisions rolled in, I felt vindicated: Harvard gave me a full ride, including a check each semester for travel and books. The other Ivies and liberal arts schools I attended asked me to pay around $13,000 a year. If I had chosen to go to a school that was a little less selective, I would have gotten over $200,000 in student loans.
While I was extremely lucky to land a full ride to Harvard, I saw disappointment and the cost of missed opportunities all around me. After losing her job during the Great Recession, my mother attempted to revive her career by applying for a government job. But after failing a typing test — and not getting the job — she ended up working three gigs to pay the bills, none with health insurance.
Once on campus, I met international students who were terrified of not getting jobs that sponsored visas and being forced to leave the country after graduation. The line between success and failure seemed razor thin. And everything was so unpredictable: it was almost impossible to know if you had succeeded until it was too late. The only solution I could think of was to work as hard as humanly possible at every possible moment. The Hustle culture was ingrained not only in my mind but also in my body, etched in my nervous system.
Sometimes I relaxed. I landed an internship in software engineering at Google for the summer before my senior year of college. Feeling safer, I spent my evenings after work at the gym and socializing instead of studying for interviews. In the fall, Google offered me a full-time position, but I received no other offers. It meant that I had no way to negotiate. Google was offering me $130,000 a year, an impressive sum and more than four times what my single mom made when I was a teenager, but my classmates were getting much higher offers. In an industry notoriously hostile to women, I was loath to earn less. Could it really be 12 weeks of dining with my roommates instead of studying Crack the coding interview would make a six figure difference?
I consoled myself by telling myself that I had been lucky to get the job at Google, that I couldn’t have hoped for better. Then, the day before Google’s decision deadline, I received a call from another company’s recruiter who told me he had lost my resume. I flew to California the next day and easily landed the most lucrative job. By the end of the week, Google had matched the offer to pay me $200,000 a year. With just one interview, I was going to make an extra $70,000 a year, and that amount grew to a gap of $100,000 by the time my shares were acquired.
I was stunned, less ecstatic than shocked. The huge difference confirmed my long-standing paranoia that one wrong move could materially alter my future. Like many people, my salary was not just for me: I wanted to be able to provide for my mother’s needs financially and, when the time came, to participate in the studies of my nephews and nieces. Because I graduated from Harvard without any student loans and immediately landed a six-figure job, I was able to save money right out of school, gain stability, and ultimately have the type of life I might consider retiring to.
But I can’t help but notice how the dialogue around the silent shutdown makes so many assumptions about race and class. Yeah, it’s great that a white lawyer can go down to four days a week without taking a pay cut or that an upper-middle-class creative can take a step back to just focus on the projects he love. But these hypotheticals ignore the realities of our unequal society, where cashiers, warehouse workers and home health aides work long hours for low pay and little job security. Most people don’t scramble for self-realization. They jostle each other because they need to survive.
It is crucial that, as a society, we recognize the toll that work takes on us. But treating the culture of hustle as an individual disease ignores the “culture” part of it: this behavior stems from a system where tiny gains lead to outsized prizes. While it’s healthy to step back and ask yourself if the benefits are worth the cost, quitting smoking silently isn’t the solution for everyone. This risks being one more individual solution to a social problem, one that does not benefit everyone and which may leave the most vulnerable workers to take over.
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