Transition woes: The worst midnight email from the boss
Have you ever gotten an email at midnight from the boss with an ominous subject line like “a fork in the road”? Granted, email etiquette today says we’re not supposed to get midnight emails from bosses at all. But Elon Musk is no ordinary boss, and it’s safe to assume he didn’t get the memo on empathetic leadership. So, true to form, as chief executive of Twitter, after laying off nearly half of his staff, bringing a sink to work and proclaiming he would be sleeping at the office “until the org is fixed,” Musk recently issued this late-night ultimatum to his remaining employees: From this point forward, Twitter was going to be “extremely hard core.” Were they ready to be hard core? They could select “yes” — or opt for three months of severance pay.
To Musk, “hard core” meant “long hours at high intensity,” a workplace where only the most “exceptional performance” would be accepted and a culture in which midnight emails would be just fine. I’d wager that more than a few workaholics, bosses or otherwise, weren’t entirely turned off by the philosophy behind that statement, and yet it immediately conjured images of sweaty Wall Street bankers collapsing at their desks, Silicon Valley wunderkinds sleeping under theirs and the high-intensity, bro-boss cultures of companies like Uber and WeWork, with their accompanying slogans about doing what you love and sleeping when you’re dead. It’s a pre-pandemic mind-set that, sure, some bosses may long for but many more employees are determined never to go back to.
But Musk, with his union-busting record and his ruthless firing of those who disagree with him, is like a boss on steroids about this stuff, and his embrace of “extremely hard core” isn’t just out of step with the national mood; it’s revealing about an old model of leadership we’re trying to move on from. Twitter employees seemed to say as much: Some 1,200 of them, or nearly half of the company’s remaining work force, opted not to sign his “hard core” pledge, raising questions about whether Twitter would survive at all. Musk already faces at least one lawsuit over “hard core” — filed by disabled employees who believed the policy would result in discrimination against them.
“Hard core” may be a term more often associated with pornography, mosh pits or, when used as a noun, people resistant to change, but it’s a linguistic favorite of Musk’s. He’s used it to refer to his SpaceX efforts and employees’ need to work harder to control costs at Tesla (another company he famously slept on the floor of) and as part of a recruitment effort for corporate litigators — er, “hardcore street fighters.” But most of these, of course, were in the hard-core days of our pre-Covid lives, back when “girlboss” was still a compliment and the idea that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week” — another Muskism — was (mostly) applauded.
How quickly the mood can change.
Even before the pandemic, many white-collar Americans were starting to rethink their relationships to work. Persistent income inequality, enduring racial and gender discrimination, disillusionment with the capitalist promise — “hustle culture” was a catchy slogan, but was any of this really worth it?
These days, the rise-and-grind mentality of just a couple of years ago has been replaced by sleeping in. (Rest is resistance — haven’t you heard?) There are regular headlines about our collective revolt against the cult of ambition, and “quiet quitting,” the catchy phrase to describe doing the bare minimum at work (or, you know, just treating it like a job), apparently describes half of the U.S. work force, according to a recent Gallup poll. Young people have meme-ified their own antiwork sentiments, proclaiming that they don’t dream of labor to catchy TikTok tunes or on Reddit, with the motto “Unemployment for all, not just the rich.”
And why wouldn’t they? Workplace burnout is a national crisis. According to a recent poll by the research firm Gartner, almost two-thirds of employees said the pandemic had made them question the role work should play in their lives, and the Society for Human Resource Management reports that more than half of American managers leave work feeling exhausted at the end of the day. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that unionisation efforts are underway across the country, aiming not only for higher wages but also for better working conditions overall.
Kim Kardashian was dragged when she said, “Nobody wants to work these days.” Maybe a better way to put it: Nobody wants to work like that. Certainly, many of us still have to work. Being able to resign, even with three months of wages, is not an option for most. Still, something is shifting. As one TikTok user said, in a quote I’ve been laughing about since reading it in an article in Vox last spring: “I don’t want to be a girlboss. I don’t want to hustle. I simply want to live my life slowly and lay down in a bed of moss with my lover and enjoy the rest of my existence reading books, creating art and loving myself and the people in my life.”
Honestly, yes. “Hard core” is a bygone era of management, not to mention a bygone way of living. As it happens, we’ve now got plenty of other, soft-core interests to replace it. How about a workplace modelled on cottagecore, in which we just flutter around in forests and forage for mushrooms instead of hovering over Slack? Or cabincore, in which we huddle in cozy flannel (comfycore) in front of a fireplace instead of being warmed by the glow of our screens? Or craftcore, if you still feel the need to create, which is something those now former Twitter employees will likely have a lot of time to engage in. Maybe what we are witnessing with Twitter’s mass exodus — and the general antiwork sentiment in general — is a labor revolt “in real time,” as one Twitter user put it. None of us want a job in which we are overworked or undervalued, responding to fear or ultimatums, but for many people, that’s what work still is. Can’t we do better?
I was up late the other night thinking about that midnight “hard core” email, which led me down a midnight rabbit hole into the word’s origins. (Musk would be proud!) I was surprised to learn that one of the oldest uses of “hard core,” as cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, is as a noun to refer to people who are persistently (or hard core) unemployed. Does that actually make Musk’s now unemployed former workers the most hard core?