5 min read

Warm Take: have you been memed?

Repetition can transform a belief into something that feels like truth
A NYC subway train streaks by, blurry, metal; the exposure elongates the US flag emblem on the side of the train
NYC Subway, by Jez Arnold, CC BY-SA 2.0

Repetition can transform a belief into something that feels like truth. Media and social media, a flywheel, produce truthy objects at an ever increasing velocity.  

Like memes, which Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfus and Brian Friedberg believe mobilized the crowd that descended on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

"Memes are easy ways for people to signal their cultural affinity. The ones that resonate most are those that tap into some already established norm or belief and introduce a new twist or idea that expresses complex aspects of that belief in an extremely simplified way. This makes sharing memes on social media the perfect mechanism for moving politically fringe ideas toward the mainstream over time. We describe this as 'going from the wires to the weeds,' where interactions online (in the wires) affect behavior in the real world (the weeds)."

How Memes Led to an Insurrection, by Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfus and Brian Friedberg, in Atlantic Magazine, September 2022

There are plenty of memes about our workplaces. The suite of memes that follow onto the so-called “Great Resignation” (GR) have been resonant, imo, in our attempt to make sense of a confusing, constantly changing, landscape.

I have pushed back on the GR, hard. Partly, I've worried that it would move from "the wires to the weeds" – that the meme would precipitate real-life career moves that might not work out as planned.

Also, I haven't seen the GR backed up with believable-to-me numbers. Over and over the same story is repeated – interviews with X people, with quotes about their journeys. “In America, a pioneering group of workers are quitting their jobs; these are their stories.” Dun dun.

For a change of pace, check out Who are America’s Missing Workers? by Lydia De Pillis at New York Times. De Pillis' analysis cites trustworthy and authoritative resources, and the GR doesn't come up once. She hits points that actually matter: early retirements; dampened legal immigration; lower labor participation rates for working-age men; long Covid. And she refers to the murkiness of all of these numbers and how they fit together: nobody has made sense of all of this.

No wonder we're meming?

So, I mean, dear well-funded mainstream media: more of this. Please. Don’t write about the meme: unpack it.

I fell into a giant Internet thicket looking for a simple explainer about the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and how it establishes, and then revises, its numbers.

Many widely-cited BLS employment numbers count "non-farm workers." People who receive 1099s, like me, might show up in the US Census Bureau's monthly household survey, which is used for some BLS statistics. But I don't believe you'll find us in the BLS job separation numbers.

So, imagine a worker who wants to spend less time in contact with the general public, because Covid. What if they trade their retail food service job for a gig-economy delivery job, where they'd arguably spend more time alone in their vehicle? Would they look like a quitter? And how would their move into 1099 work affect employment numbers? (Unclear to me at the moment. I'll dig more on this one.)

260,000 working age people in the US have died from Covid, according to DePillis. I've wondered about this! However, the BLS counts deaths in "other separations." And, there's not a visible post-Covid bump in "other separations." Weird.

Graph, US job separations from 2011 through late 2021; click image to go to the Bureau of Labor statistics for the numbers and analysis.
Graph, US job separations from 2011 through late 2021.

I also wonder about caregivers of people who have Covid, or long Covid.

A sampling of what I've had to say about (and with) memes

Thank you for reading my newsletter, and to the good people who support On Management.  Many memes are borderless, but my view of the numbers is US-centric. So extra thanks to Canadian and international readers, for following my plot.

I always love to hear from you, and welcome your thoughts on the memes of the workplace, or any questions or topic ideas. I have a backlog of your reading recommendations to share, stay tuned and send more!

I've been thinking about this topic for a while, but like other Warm Takes, I wrote it on Sunday while drinking my coffee. So there may be typos, broken links, and shaggy turns of phrase. I'll probably fix some of them later, you know, on the Internet.

May you, your loved ones, co-workers, and communities be safe, healthy, and free.

Anne Libby

Showing my work

Heather Cox Richardson's newsletters always have a list of links. Good idea. She shares raw links – a flex I'm not ready for yet (but understand, lol.) Here are some of my resources for this edition.

Many thanks to librarians, particularly the good people at Sherrod Library at East Tennesee State University, and University of Pennsylvania's Lippincott Library, who pointed to me good resources on employment statistics and the BLS.

Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil wears Prada, whipping off her glasses and giving a knowing look
Miranda Priestly – archetype or meme? Discuss.