Home Illustration A 150-year-old novella is a perfect illustration of the ‘silent shutdown’

A 150-year-old novella is a perfect illustration of the ‘silent shutdown’


Historically, striving for additional responsibilities was seen as a way for ambitious employees to demonstrate their suitability for promotion.

But in recent months, “silent abandonment” has grown in importance. The term describes the growing trend of young professional workers choosing not to exercise beyond their formal responsibilities and working hours.

For one thing, not everyone is a workaholic, and over the past two decades more and more workers have failed to see the connection between their own rewards and giving weeks of 70 hours to their employers to achieve their goals.

How bad is your job? Whatever your answer, the question is modern. It is only in contemporary affluent societies that individuals have “careers” and the luxury of seriously opposing monotonous or overwhelming work. Until less than 100 years ago, most people struggled to adequately feed and clothe their families.

Nothing captures the angst that comes with unsatisfying work quite like “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a short story written by Herman Melville in 1853, 150 years before the Internet economy. Melville, of course, is best known as the author of “Moby Dick,” a tale about a starship captain’s deeply codependent relationship with a troubled white whale.

The story is told from the perspective of a New York lawyer in the pre-Civil War era, as the Industrial Revolution begins to explode. From our 21st From the perspective of the last century, the lawyer serves as a primitive “business process contractor” for clients’ financial and legal back-office tasks.

The lawyer employs several scriveners (copy clerks), who spend their days monotonously verifying the correctness of complex legal contracts. The contracts are handwritten; there are still several decades before the invention of the typewriter, and a century before the photocopier.

Although the lawyer does everything possible to avoid tension, he has managed to create a working environment in his law firm that is deeply stressful, albeit in a low-key way. Melville gleefully describes how the oppressive office space felt like it was sitting at the bottom of a dark well – a “cube farm” before its time.

The increase in the volume of work since his appointment to the government led the lawyer to hire a new discreet scribe, Bartleby: “In the beginning, Bartleby wrote an extraordinary quantity of writings. As if he had been longing for something to copy, he seemed to be gorging on my materials. “

However, Bartleby soon loses his obligation to proofread and begins refusing to work. “I’d rather not,” he responds to ever-increasing pleas, confusing the lawyer with his passive resistance. Bartleby refuses to work and refuses to leave, even making the office his residence.

The lawyer isn’t a bad man, but he ultimately projects his own insecurities onto Bartleby. When he begs Bartleby to reciprocate and be a little reasonable, the scribe wonderfully replies, “Right now, I’d rather not be a little reasonable.”

In this respect, Bartleby resembles the central character of 1999’s “Office Space,” who traverses the film in a reckless hypnotic trance, captivating the usually heartless efficiency experts and pushing them to repeatedly promote him, with the aim of take care.

What does Bartleby mean to modern office workers? For some, this might speak to the potential for emotional exhaustion inherent in a corporate culture obsessed with continuous improvement and relentless growth.

As the nature of work continues to change dramatically, employers and employees will renegotiate formal and informal expectations of each other.

Isaac Cheifetz, a Twin Cities executive recruiter, can be reached through catalytic1.com.