It seems to me that my work ethic / tendency to akrasia / etc. has changed a lot since 2020, and many people around me seem to agree that it’s also become harder for them to keep working on things they don’t really enjoy doing.

But I find myself very confused about this topic, so I’d like to get a little more data from other people’s experience: is it true for many people? if so, why exactly would Covid (or, more likely, lockdowns) change our work ethic? what did change — are people ‘lazier’ or ‘more discriminating about which tasks they enjoy or not’ or ‘now often working with less rigid structures and rules’? is the change good or bad — to me, it feels like being much less able to deeply feel like I have a duty to do things really well (bad, probably), but maybe most everyone else feel like they’re more concerned about doing things which actually seem important to them (good)?

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[ speculative; I see some indications of this in my personal experiences and those I talk with, but I have no idea how prevalent it is. ]

I've long struggled with motivation and akrasia - since before the Internet was a thing.  It's gotten slightly better and slightly worse a few times, more based on my age and situation than (I think) on external factors.  I AM more open about it in the last decade or so than previously, mostly because others have started talking about it, and I'm (slightly) less afraid that I'll be held accountable for my failings more forcefully when I admit it than when I hide it.  It may be that it's harder for me to overcome it when I'm not trying to show the world it doesn't affect me.

I think this social acceptability and visibility plays a MUCH larger part in people's behavior than is often admitted.  The tension between "accept and love people uncondionally" and "encourage cooperative/conformist behavior, even if that's not someone's natural default" may have no great equilibrium point.  It's definitely shifted AWAY from "conforming enables cooperation", which seemed to be the common viewpoint in my youth and young adulthood, TOWARD "be yourself, even if it inconveniences others.  Anyone who sees a downside is a bigot (even if they are only pointing out direct risks and suggesting mitigations that don't seem to them to deny someone's identity)."   

It's massively exacerbated by the changes in media and scalable individual visibility - what we see as "normal" is the tail of the distribution that is shown to us over and over, and there are way fewer role models for conformist success in the mix. 

This applies to a whole lot of topics, but "work ethic" is probably one that seems most impactful.  I really do look forward to seeing if anything remains of a world where a large majority is not willing to be drones supporting the general equilibrium (including vast wealth for the oligarchs).  

In my own mind, there's a very large tension between "nobody should have to do that" and "boy, it's going to suck if nobody actually does that".  This applies to picking berries, office work, doing laundry, raising children (the MASSIVELY time-consuming and unpleasant parts, especially), and almost everything else.  I don't have a good answer, and I don't have much expectation that "AI will save us" will happen at all, let alone happening before societal meltdown.

Similar here: Changes in motivation seem more related to age (and having kids) than whatever happens out there. When I was younger, I saw my career as an opportunity to learn and achieve something awesome. Now I see it as an endless and pointless necessary evil that devours most of my time and energy. Meaningful things happen in my free time, unless I am too tired for that.

My profession (software development) keeps getting worse. Twenty years ago, I had my own office where I could close the door a focus on my work in silence. Now I work in an open space, i... (read more)

I can’t say I’m surprised you’d see things that way, certainly (though I am mildly surprised how much I see them similarly: I’m still too young for kids!). But that must feel… not great.
Thanks for empathy. I suppose the proper stoic approach is to remind myself that people during most of human history, and most people today, probably have it worse. I still get free weekends, and when the kids become more independent, I will get free afternoons again. But I wish I had a better option (one that would be realistically achievable given my skills and character traits). Sometimes it seems that in theory it shouldn't be so hard, but in practice, it is. I work to get better, but the environment seems to actively work to make it worse, so that compensates for my efforts. (Also, sexism sucks. For women, many employers provide an opportunity to work part-time. For men, that's almost impossible to get, at least where I live. It is definitely bad signaling to say at the job interview "hey, I would like to work for your company, but... preferably, as little as possible", heh. Women can go like "you know, I have small kids, you know how it is". Perhaps I should divorce and say that I am the primary caretaker.)
Big feels on the "This sucks, it's gotten worse, but objectively I'm so much better off than the VAST majority of past and present humans that it feels petty and unjustified to complain" front. Your framing of "in theory it shouldn't be so hard, but in practice, it is" is an excellent summary. I suspect it comes down to the fact that all perception (of the physical and of the social world) is comparative - you notice things and evaluate them only and exactly in comparison to expectations.  And since those expectations are mutable and imaginary, we are noticing how shitty things are compared to what our rosy memories and what media shows us.  Comparing to a 12th century peasant farmer would make us happier, but that's far less available. (the sexism comment doesn't match my experience in software dev in England and in the US - there are almost no good part-time jobs for women, only adjunct or career-limited positions, which could go to men if they wanted, but they generally don't.  Very flexible schedules for childcare or anything else are pretty available to both men and women, regardless of who's primary caretaker.  This likely varies widely, but I'd be shocked if you had to provide proof of divorce to get accommodation).
My wife does not work in software development, so perhaps if one wants a work-life balance, one needs to start there. Then again, she makes less money than me. And she loves her job. And she is allowed to work part-time with almost unlimited home office. I guess this is all connected somehow. 😂 So basically we are in a situation where if she wanted, she could stay at home, and we could easily handle it economically, but she doesn't want to. Meanwhile, I would love to stay at home, but we cannot afford to lose my income. Luckily I don't compare myself to her, I just wish I had more time and energy for my projects. Home office during covid was so wonderful. No commute. Healthier meals. No open space. Silence (or music of my choice, without having to wear the headphones). During short breaks, I could exercise or do the dishes. During the lunch break, I could take a nap, or go to a supermarket. I could take a break to take my kids home from school and kindergarten, and then continue working while they were playing or watching TV. My everyday life felt much better. Afterwards, the company started slowly pushing back against the home office; every few months, the limit was tightened: 3 days a week, then 10 days a month, then 2 days a week. And I suspect this will continue, perhaps until it finally gets back to zero. I was joking about the divorce. The point is that wanting a part-time job without having a really good excuse is a bad signal of one's work ethic. What else could be a good excuse?
One part of the declining societal work ethic is it's quite a bit more common to decide to work less, without needing much of an excuse.  I know a LOT of people under normal retirement age, who describe themselves as "semi-retired" or "working enough to keep my head in the game", rather than optimizing for career and future earnings potential.   Note that this is mostly long-term software devs who've amassed quite a lot of savings, and I ALSO know many who are near or past normal retirement age and need to keep working for the money.  A lot of motivation isn't about work ethic, it's about transactional optimization. The tradeoff of "pretty good compensation" for "more time/energy than I'd like to spend" is pretty rampant.  That part isn't about sexism or having a good excuse, it's just the bundling that seems to work for most employers.
I guess, from certain perspective, my question is "how can I send costly signals of work ethics if I don't have one?" and the obvious answer is "you can't (or it is really difficult), because that's exactly what makes it a costly signal, dummy!" :D The annoying part about the time-energy/compensation tradeoff is that it isn't linear. There is no simple lever I could push to spend 50% of time-energy for 50% compensation and find out how that works for me. (I have explored some options, but if seemed that the drop in compensation was dramatic, something like 50% compensation for 80% of time-energy, which isn't really the thing I want. It would make much more sense to stay unemployed between jobs.) There seems to be no convenient way to even explore the landscape of possibilities, because companies do not transparently advertise how e.g. stressful or meaningless the work is. It is supposed to be your responsibility to ask the right kind of questions during the interview, but in my experience that doesn't work either, because sometimes different departments work differently, and they hire you for one department and after you sign the contract or maybe a few months later they move you to a different department that functions differently. Or a new manager comes and changes the rules. Even the concept of "work ethics" sounds a bit misleading. It's not like there is a uniform thing called "work" and you either like it or don't. You may find some aspects of work okay and other aspects unbearable. For example, as a software developer somewhat on the autistic spectrum, I find "developing software, with clear requirements, without interruptions, in a quiet room" a pleasant experience, but "developing software, with unclear requirements that contradict each other and change all the time, with constant interruptions and task switching, in open space" deeply unpleasant. So it's not like I fundamentally lack "work ethics", but rather that I am more compatible with some work cond
Fully on-board with the annoyance at this equilibrium.  I don't see a better way, unfortunately, with the information and motivation asymmetry between software employers and employees, both of which have large variances in quality. I've focused on the technical and social/team aspects of software development as a (very) senior IC, rather than as a manager in title.  Even so, I've been deeply involved in hiring, organizing, motivating, and aligning teams for a number of large projects.  I've found a very strong correlation between the signaling of "work ethic" in terms of energy and hours and the actual performance and impact of an employee.  Like all heuristics, it's nowhere near 100%, and it's sad that there's no easy way to identify the exceptions.  Sad as it is, it's true - as an employer of software engineers, I would prefer not to hire part-time.   Which means the expected-productivity curve for employers is nonlinear, so there's no reasonable way to make the pay/effort ratio constant. 100% (or more - this justifies hyperbole) on applying "work ethic" to other aspects of life.  This difficult tradeoff of motivated effort on behalf of others applies to housekeeping, care for partner/children, some parts of hobbies, and a lot of other things.  It's not work-for-money, it's work-for-others-preferences.  

Really interesting! I agree on the importance of some things becoming more or less socially acceptable and how it influences behaviours, for good or for evil (why on Earth did being very anxious become so okay?). In my case, maybe part of my concern was more specific to me: as a good, routine-abiding autistic person, I used to be extremely scrupulous, in addition to having akrasia issues, so on balance it worked fine. But now it feels as though akrasia and anxiety are more okay, while I get more signals telling me that I shouldn’t be so scrupulous, and that may be why I notice that I’m less able to control my akrasia than before. (All of this is of course pretty speculative).

Gesild Muka


This applies to me, my work ethic went down after 2020 partly because of timing. I turned 30 in 2020 and before then mostly just did what was expected of me without putting too much thought into what I wanted. I'm still hardworking but much more choosy about what I'll put time into and I try not to let social pressure affect my decisions.