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Apple TV's Severance is an indictment of our lack of work/life balance

Updated: Jan 6

In Apple TV’s newest television (can we even call our model of media consumption television anymore?), a group of employees who work in a seemingly banal subterranean office space have elected to undergo a mind-splitting procedure, wherein their work memories are separate from their personal ones. Effectively, creating two different versions of themselves. The office version, off puttingly known as an “innie” is completely severed from their personal selves, their “outie”. The four main employees aren’t really sure what they do at work either, as “microdata refiners', the computer-based task is so menial and mind numbing that they perform it out of conditioning, rather than drive. Not that there aren’t rewards, employees who meet their goals can achieve erasers, finger traps and the elusive and prized waffle party.

The show was released on February 25 2023 and its viewership was nearly 20x the average for a newly debuted television show. It has exceeded that of most premieres and most shows of the last few years in general because more than ever, people see it resonate with our everyday lives.

The modern worker has little to no work/life balance. There are repeated calls from all over the world to lessen our workdays, our work weeks and to increase not just work/life balance, which in some countries doesn’t even exist but to increase the meaning of work, to give workers purpose. While for years, robots have taken over work of highly-skilled professionals in industries like automotive manufacturing, and helped move “good” jobs across borders, the rise in art-generating AI and offerings like ChatGPT take meaningful work away from humans and put it in the hands of technology. And yet, millennials are more burnt out than ever, or as some people, entirely unempathetically like to say this upcoming generation “doesn’t want to work anymore”.

As the boomer generation decries Gen Z’s lack of work ethic, it clamps down repeated calls for more meaningful work and, well, better pay. In 2023, the wealth disparity is the same as right before the French Revolution. And, might I remind the historically unaware, is when heads of the aristocracy literally rolled. Our generations are acutely aware that even with their constant striving, their not ordering avocado toasts, they will never be able to build the wealth their parents have. Their parents, with two kids, one income and one home before they were 30. Their parents, who retired with nearly a million in the bank and two homes, holidays, and money squared away for elderly care.

Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading The People (1830), commemorating the French victory in the July Revolution and the toppling of Charles X

So naturally, the time that Gen Y & X spend at work, an average of 50 hours a week according to some studies and polls, they expect that work to be fruitful, to have purpose. While labeling them anarchists and socialists and the interchangeably but very wrong “communist”, critics fail to understand how Marx advocated for work, and meaningful work at that. And furthermore, he advocated for the end of the segregation of “brain workers” and “labor workers”, citing that all work could be meaningful, if the human behind it was valued socially and economically. And, even failing that, workers want to be able to see the sun, to have a life.

In Severance, the employees can neither see the sun nor their families, they don’t even remember having either of those things. Back in this world, employees work from sun up to down in pretty much the same position. The only difference from TV show to our modern predicament is that workers of the world must sever themselves, shut their brain off manually, rather than via a chip.

So, what if we cut down our work days? Our work hours? What if we finally see the sun?

Modern criticisms toward a lesser work day are archaic. As archaic as well, the labor movement itself. The Labour Movement of course, is a bastion of union organizing and social welfare the world over. The movement gave us an 8 hour work day and child labour laws…at least, in the western world. But the 8 hour workday was born out of the 12 and 16 hour work days, so it is not the ideal. It is a compromise. In today’s world with our modern technology and automated everything, why are we still working like it's 1920?

Another criticism and the only one with any validity, is pay. A shorter workday or work week would equal less pay for the average worker, and unfortunately, there are those that may fall through the cracks of a system that pays an hourly wage, but a strong argument remains for those in hourly jobs, service and city workers, to be made much, much more than they are currently getting. The question begs: why do we rely on an hourly wage at all? Why do we continually allow ourselves to perpetuate a “butts in seats” mentality when in the end, the majority of work is based on quality, not quantity. Deliverables aren’t measured in how many hours it took to create them, but how much they service the brief.

In an effort to break from the tyranny of a low-waged 8hour day, Generations Y & Z have taken to making their money on the stock market and on the internet, which seems to play into the interpretation that they don’t work. And yet, work can be defined through another quote from Marx:

“He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another''. Meaning, the commodification of one’s presence on the internet *is* work and unlike the everyman’s labors, those on the internet will not pass as easily.

The pandemic brought a lot of suffering and the deaths of many a loved one but the one thing it did not take away are the calls for flexible work. The demands are growing and employers are seeing why. Flexible workers are more engaged, deliver better and have higher morale. Parents can be home with their children or elderly family without the burdens of commuting. Families can have two to even three meals a day with one another. Meanwhile, a 40 hour work week is anything but: a worker barely sees their family, their children are cared for by a stranger at a daycare, their elderly family members live in a home, they eat their breakfasts and lunch at their desks, they spend more time than ever thinking of going home and seeing their loved ones.

In Severance, each of the characters are trying to run from something in their personal lives. They see being severed from it during their work day as an unshackling of the mind. In an effort to keep from thinking of their children, their families, they go to great lengths to be able to separate the two when what our culture needs now more than ever is a melding of the two and a greater balance…before we’re dead.

The blessed Labor Movement of the late 1800s called for 8hours of work, 8 of “play” and 8 of sleep, but a large chunk of play and sleep time is taking getting ready for work and commuting to and from work, leaving - if you’re lucky - fewer than 4 hours before sleep. All day, we are at jobs that can be thankless, jobs that will never love us back and the time at which we spend can never be regained. When, if ever, this generation is able to retire, will we regret the time we didn’t spend at work, working on projects that in the grand scheme of things, didn't really or will we rejoice in the amount of life we had with our families, our loved ones, our friends? Don't workers deserve more than With our limited time in life, we deserve more joy and accomplishment, measured not in workplace deadlines but in life lived.

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