Late stage capitalism. You’ve probably heard or seen the term thrown around.
But what does it even mean? According to a piece at The Atlantic, in its current usage, late stage capitalism “is a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class”. However, the term actually dates back to the early 1900s, created by Marxist thinkers like Ernest Mandel. They came up with the term to describe the newly industrialized economies that surrounded them, which ultimately led to the rise of multinational corporations, mass communication, and international finance industries.
But that was over a century ago, so what does it have to do with us now? Late stage capitalism means something different to us now. It’s transformed into a system that requires people to work to the point of exhaustion. To be devoted to a system that mostly benefits the people at the top, not those actually doing the daily grind.
We hear this all the time when it comes to companies like Amazon. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and president, is worth $130 billion! Yet, most of the people who work for Amazon, at least in their warehouses, are barely getting paid minimum wage and many have worked to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. Why is it that they are doing such hard work and seeing so little of the benefit? How much would it really cost Amazon to pay a living wage and provide benefits to all of their employees? Would it really take that much away from Bezos’ $130 billion fortune?
But we’ve been fed this idea that we must be productive in the economy to be deemed worthwhile. We’ve learned to be grateful for what we are given, rather than encouraged to ask for what we deserve. Employers are no longer expected or required to provide health and retirement benefits. A lot of that burden has been put upon the employees, even during a time of wage stagnation. So we’re being paid less, working more, and we have to save up for our own retirement.
All of this has real impacts on our lives and our health. You may even see it in your own life already.
When you feel blindly loyal to your employer, or when you feel like you have to prove your worth by being the most productive employee, you are going to end up overworking. Maybe you’ve noticed a culture at your office where it’s important to be the first and last person in the office during the day. I’ve met people who stay at work even after all of their work is done because they don’t want to leave before their boss or coworkers.
I’ve also noticed a trend of offices becoming more “fun”. There is beer on tap, there are plenty of snacks, even full meals, and games. These things can make us feel like we don’t even need to leave the office! But I’ve always wondered if there’s something a little more sinister beneath this effort. If we feel like we never have to leave the office to eat, drink, or have fun, then are we more likely to work late? Are we more likely to stick around and finish more work with a beer in our hand? This might seem fun on the surface, but it can encourage us to stay at work for longer hours, which takes away from our work life balance and the other things our life has to offer.
According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity”. You’ve probably heard the turn “burnout”. It’s not an official medical diagnosis, but it has real physical, emotional, and psychological effects. Here are just a few symptoms:
- Finding it hard to concentrate
- Being irritable or impatient with those around you
- Lacking satisfaction from your achievements
- Using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel
- Having unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical issues
- Feeling disillusioned with your job
Those symptoms alone are bad enough, but prolonged burnout can lead to more serious problems, like insomnia, heart disease, high blood pressure, fatigue, and more. So stress and burnout and quite literally kill us.
The Mayo Clinic warns that you’re more at risk of burnout if you identify so strongly with your work that you have little work life balance, if you have a high workload, you try to be everything to everyone, and even if your work is monotonous.
In the past, many people would work at their job from 9-5 and then go home and spend their time doing other things. It could be spending time with family or friends or it could be spending time on a hobby or other leisure activity. They didn’t necessarily feel defined by the work that they did and they didn’t think that they had to be 100% fulfilled by their job. These days, things have changed for many people. People feel like their job has to give them fulfillment and prove their value to society. And I’m one of those people! I quit my very secure, very undemanding day job to run my financial coaching business full-time. And I do think it was the right decision! It’s the right decision for a lot of people. But when you are looking towards your career to fulfill you completely, you will likely end up disappointed and burnt out.
The Gig Economy
The gig economy has exploded in recent years. The gig economy encompasses the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. This can include companies like Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Amazon Prime delivery, Postmates, etc. Basically, it’s anyone who is doing something for you but they aren’t making a salary and they don’t get benefits.
I’m not saying that the gig economy is inherently a bad thing. It can give people work opportunities that they wouldn’t have had before. It can also allow people to pick up extra cash outside of their other jobs. But when big companies are using a workforce made up of independent contractors, they can get greedy. There are many stories out there about companies underpaying their employees, refusing to give them benefits, and overworking them. These practices serve to make individuals less financially stable, overworked, and without healthcare coverage.
But what are the solutions?
I’m not really sure! Many of the demands of our economy have become ingrained in us. We don’t even always realize what’s happening to us or the pressure we’re putting on ourselves. But I do think that we’re starting to wake up to what the pressure of work and productivity is doing to us. I certainly feel more optimistic when I hear world leaders talk about implementing a four-day work week. But there are things you can do in your own life while we wait for the world to change.
- Set boundaries at work. Make it clear what your work-life boundaries are from the beginning. Don’t read or answer your email when you are outside of work hours. If you can, avoid giving your phone number to your boss so that they can’t call or text you when you aren’t at work.
- Take sick days. Technology has made it that we can work anywhere at anytime, even if we’re sick. If your employer offers sick days, take them! Let yourself rest and don’t work from home when you’re sick.
- Take vacation. Americans work many hours and take very little vacation. But resetting and resting is key to fighting stress. If your employer offers you paid vacation, take it! It’s part of your compensation package and you deserve to take it. And don’t answer emails while you’re gone.
- Take your lunch break. Did you know that if we eat food while focusing on something else, especially something stressful, that our body doesn’t actually digest it properly? This could be causing health problems like IBS or preventing you from losing weight. Allow yourself to step away from your desk and eat your lunch in peace. Your brain and digestive system will thank you.
- Advocate. There is plenty that we can do in our own lives, but that won’t necessarily affect change more broadly. So make sure that you’re advocating for the things that will make work better, both within your company and at the government level. Tell your executives and lawmakers that you support paid family leave, paid sick leave, and affordable childcare. You should also push for universal healthcare and fairer tax practices.
- Unionize. Unions used to be the norm in a lot of industries. Over the past few decades, they’ve started to fade away. And this wasn’t by accident. Unions are powerful and force entire industries and individual companies to do better. Unions allow the employees themselves to have power and to better advocate for themselves. So of course, getting rid of unions is better for corporations, but detrimental to individuals. So start talking to your colleagues and see if a union is right for your company or even your industry.
There’s no overnight solution to these problems. And we need to be putting pressure on companies and the government to change things across the board. But making positive changes in our own lives can help make improvements and inspire those around us to do the same.
Are you seeing and feeling the effects of late stage capitalism? How is it impacting your life? Leave your thoughts and stories below!
Maggie Germano is a feminist and financial coach for women. She helps women improve their relationship with money so they can take control of their financial future. She does this through one-on-one financial coaching, workshops, writing on her blog and Forbes column, and speaking engagements. She also founded Money Circle, which is a safe space for women to talk about money without feeling judged, and has recently become a podcast of the same name. Passionate about helping women earn more and closing the wage gap, Maggie was also trained as a salary negotiation facilitator by AAUW.
In 2018, Maggie received the Woman Empowerment Entrepreneur Award from the DC Women’s Business Center, and was a finalist for the Entrepreneurship for Good award from the Women’s Information Network. In 2019, Maggie received the Excellence in Finance award at the Perfect Entrepreneur Awards.