Work and Leisure: The Role of Social Media in Upholding Neoliberal Capitalism

  1. Abstract 

This thesis will help us understand the link between attitudes towards work and how we spend our leisure time i.e., on social media. It also seeks to analyse how social media negatively impacts its users and how social media acts as a space to reinforce Neoliberal Capitalism through distraction and competition. The research identified how social media promotes unrealistic ideals and creates a skewed sense of reality. However, we will also consider the benefits of social media. As well as some solutions to resisting work through social media. For example, promoting rest as a form of resistance to capitalism and political formation. 

  1. Introduction 

2.1. Background  

Since the late 1970s, neoliberal ideas have increasingly guided the policies and practices of governments and other social institutions, and as a result, we have come to live in competition with ourselves, others, and our social world (Wilson, 2018), which can explain the inherently neoliberalist function of social media through distracting the masses against social inequalities, so they do not question their subordination, as well as encouraging consumers to compete with one another through models of tracking and surveillance and strive to be more productive members of society. 

Social media is a place that promotes ‘Hustle Culture’, which is a relatively new phenomena, but it is built around ideas of meritocracy and how working hard equates to moral value and good character. Fundamentally, “hustle culture is about work dominating your time in such an unnatural way that we have no time to live our lives” (Ryle in Gibson, 2021). So, this obsession with work has reflected in other areas of our life, for example, hobbies and self-care.
2.2. Research Aims: 

Apart from my interest, I chose to investigate the topic ‘hustle culture’ because it is a relatively recent phenomenon that lacks a wide range of literature. Even though, concepts and critiques of capitalism, work, and leisure date back to ancient and feudal societies. The consideration of how social media plays a role in reinforcing Neoliberal Capitalism is more recent, due to Neoliberal thought only being implemented in the UK government in the 1980s and the introduction of social media platforms occurring in the early to mid-2000s. The works of Wilson (2018) and Harfoush (2019) have been useful in helping us understand the connection between neoliberalism, work, leisure, and social media throughout this thesis. This thesis aims to contribute to this knowledge and build on the work of traditional and contemporary Marxists such as Adorno, Weber, Marx, Bauman, Foucault, and Lyon, whilst looking into concepts such as Surveillance, Scientific Management, the Protestant Work Ethic, Meritocracy, as well as psychoanalytical considerations such as desire, cognitive dissonance, and other factors why individuals use social media, that are not driven by capitalism. 

This Thesis aims to investigate:  

  • How have we become to hold the meritocratic beliefs that we do?
  • Does social media intentionally or unintentionally reinforces Neoliberal Capitalism? 
  • Is social media the most formidable opponent in promoting hustle culture?

2.3. Methodology 

I will be using qualitative secondary research methods (desk-based), which means using pre-existing data and literature to ground my arguments, instead of collecting my own research (primary). In secondary research, you can explore a broad range of data sources such as legal systems, forms of educational practice, personal narratives found within social media, paintings, artefacts, news media and so on because the list is endless (Largan et al., 2019). In my case, I plan to focus on my case study of social media (narrowed down to selected Instagram accounts and images), while taking on a theory-based analysis of these examples (Marxist approach). I chose this method over primary research, as I thought it would be interesting to re-read the works of traditional and neo-Marxists in the contemporary context of the digital age and Neoliberalism. And develop my critical thinking skills, research skills and communication skills (Largan et al., 2019). Even though it could have been helpful to gather my own qualitative research, for example, through online surveys or in-depth interviews, I felt my topic would be better suited to a desk-based thesis and it was more feasible to do so. I am interested in seeing how social media plays a role in reinforcing neoliberalism, which would be hard to do by methods such as surveys, as participants may be unaware of this complex and nuanced function of social media, and therefore it would result in unreliable results. 

In desk-based research, you must first decide and define your research topic then find and collect existing data on your topic, combine data and analyse the results further. I gathered external secondary research such as government statistics, media stories, social media images, online journal articles and company reports, at a broad range before narrowing down my focus (Largan et al., 2019). For example, psychological studies on attitudes towards work and education, the gendered division of work within the workplace and case studies from the Japanese workforce. The sources I gathered were credible and trustworthy, for example, from well-renowned academics, sociologists, and psychologists. Some advantages to using secondary research include easily and readily available data that saves you time and low to no financial costs (Largan et al., 2019). Personally, I paid for a subscription to Perlego, which is an online library, and office supplies for notetaking and organising research. But this was not a substantial barrier. However, to carry out desk-based research, you need to do a lot of reading and planning. So, I could have organised my time better and accounted for technical issues with my computer. Finally, some secondary research sources can provide statistics that are representative to the society we are studying, which makes it more convenient (Largan et al., 2019), especially for university students who have other responsibilities. Some limitations to my method include personal influence on my data selection. When choosing my secondary sources, such as case studies, images, and literature, I was choosing sources that backed up the arguments that I wanted to make. However, this was mainly due to my research aims and topic and not due to personal belief and bias influencing my actions. As throughout my analysis, I attempt to counter the Marxist critiques with psychoanalytic considerations and show the positive side of social media. 

  1. Ethical Considerations 

In terms of ethics, there were not many ethical considerations I had to consider during all stages of the research process. However, there is still a need to engage in ethical behaviour because we all have ‘ethical and moral responsibilities as researchers’ (Mauthner, 2012 Largan et al., 2019). Due to the nature of my project, my research proposal was considered low risk, since I did not plan to use live participants during my research. But, throughout my research and writing process, I took into consideration the three main ethical considerations, which are informed consent, anonymity, and confidentiality (Largan et al., 2019). Since I was using secondary sources, that I gained access to via my institution or were public access, for example, newspaper articles and public social media accounts. I did not need to acquire informed consent from a particular person. But I ensured to properly reference the sources and images I used to avoid copyright and plagiarism, and to give credit to the creators. Since I was accessing online spaces in my analysis, I took into consideration the anonymity, and confidentiality of the account users. Fortunately, both users’ accounts were already anonymous with no details linking them to other accounts, which shows that they will not be impacted by the arguments made in this thesis as their identity is hidden. 

  1. Chapter 1: History and Context 

In this chapter, I will be touching upon cultural, economic, political, and societal factors that have contributed to a society (American and Western European) that is obsessed with work and productivity. To understand this, firstly, it is essential to look back on the emergence of capitalism, meritocratic values and the concepts of work and leisure time, as it provides the history and context to create a base for our arguments. However, we will only touch upon the emergence of modern capitalism, as a recollection of the whole history is unnecessary and unfeasible. Furthermore, we will discuss how social media acts as a tool to reproduce meritocratic values and has contributed to the emergence of the new phenomenon of ‘hustle culture’. 

3.1. The Emergence of Capitalism

Early forms of capitalism date back to Feudal societies in the eleventh century, as well as in other civilizations from all corners of the globe, which was shown through the organisation of production, forced labour and the extortion of surplus labour to serve an exalted landlord (Beaud, 1983, p. 17). Whereas modern capitalism consists of a relatively free exchange of goods in markets, the separation of business activity from household activity, and the systematic organisation of work where workers are legally free rather than enslaved and profit is pursued in a regular and continuous fashion (Weber, 2013, p. xvii). This journey to modern capitalism consists of a complex and interlocking process that involved the formation of the merchant and banking bourgeoisies, the establishment of modern states, the expansion of trade and domination on a world scale and new modes of production (Beaud, 1983, p. 43). During the nineteenth century, it was through the establishment of mechanised industries that the capitalist mode of production was extended. For example, in Britain from 1750 to 1880, the cotton, iron and railroad industries were growing at a propelling rate, which allowed mechanisation to reach its full potential for productive output and employment of a plentiful, cheap, and disarmed labour force, so production levels increased dramatically (Beaud, 1983, p. 84). These societal shifts such as industrialisation, urbanisation and secularisation paved the way for modern capitalism as we know it and reinforced social stratification and hierarchy on the grounds of ascribed status and class, as the proletariat were the ones who worked in manual labour, whereas the bourgeoisie owned and controlled the means of production. Marx believed that work is degrading, monotonous, and suitable for machines rather than free creative people. In the end, he believed the system has turned people into robot-like mechanisms that have lost touch with human nature and that make decisions based on cold profit-and-loss considerations and concluded that capitalism blocks our capacity to create our own humane society (Prychitko, 2018). 

3.2. The Protestant Work Ethic 

According to Weber, religious belief influenced work habits and approaches to business, which inspired him to investigate the difference between Protestants and Catholics. Weber found that Protestants, specifically Calvinists (16th-17th century), believed that a precise number of people could assume a space in Heaven if they could master their selfish deeds and lead dignified lives shaped by God’s commandments (Weber, 2013, p. 70). One clear indication was that individuals were actively contributing to their community through work because God “willed” and desired them to do so (Weber, 2013, p. 34). Therefore, if you engaged in work, you were respected throughout the community and believed to be of good character (Weber, 2013, p. 13-14), which shows how work played a central role in the formulation of self-worth and identity. Calvinists fulfilled this through building businesses that generated wealth and reinvesting surplus back into the economy, which shows that religion played a significant role in the growth of modern capitalism across Northern Europe (Weber, 2013, p. 47). Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic fuelled and helped generate individualised forms of capital, with a goal of celebrity, virtue, and wealth (Littler, 2018, p. 29), which links closely to meritocratic values, as meritocracy is the idea that whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility to ‘rise to the top’ based on your effort and talent alone (Littler, 2018, p. 1). However, social mobility is not always possible, as some people face inequality in opportunity or inequality of outcome. For example, an intersectional experience of oppressive systems such as capitalism, imperialism, and racism, causes people to ‘start’ at different levels in society due to their inequalities or privilege. 

3.3. Scientific Management 

Taylorism was introduced in the early 1900s, as the president of Bethlehem Steel hired Frederick W. Taylor to improve operations and increase profits at his Pennsylvania mills. At the time, Taylor thought that if machines could be optimised for better performance, then so could the workers (Harfoush, 2019). To achieve this, Taylor timed workers as they completed individual tasks and broke down these tasks into micro-actions. Then, workers were assigned to certain tasks based on their skills and expected to perform them in a highly specific and standardised way (Harfoush, 2019). Taylor believed that workers were primarily motivated by money, so he introduced the concept of a ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ in which workers’ wage was directly related to their output (Harfoush, 2019). Workers who were eager to implement his system and increase their output were described by him as ‘first-class men’, (Harfoush, 2019), which created a sense of superiority and higher moral value for those who were more efficient and productive in the workplace. One problem with this method was that it gave the working class no option but to conform to mundane and unfulfilling forms of work to get paid enough to buy essentials to survive. It also treated workers like cogs in a machine with the sole purpose of generating a profit and may have led to workers feeling a lack of individuality or power. Taylor’s legacy lives on in management science today, especially around such concepts as efficiency, standardisation of best practices, knowledge transfer between management and labour and a focus on metric-based operational decision-making (Harfoush, 2019). His work would lead to the development of the Gantt chart, which was a way to visualise workflow and task components (Harfoush, 2019). This method for measuring productivity, and morality as a secondary thought, is problematic because it may not be feasible for some to work every day, or at all, for example, those with disabilities such as chronic fatigue or autism. It also ignores the gendered division of labour because women are more likely to shoulder the responsibility of unpaid work such as childcare and household chores. This is shown in a 2015 study when women aged 26 to 35 in the UK did on average 34.6 hours per week of unpaid work compared to 17.4 hours for men, which included housework, childcare, laundry, and volunteering (Women’s Budget Group, 2015, pp. 1-2). Furthermore, women are more likely to work part-time or have flexible working patterns, as well as earn less than men. For example, the median weekly pay for female full-time employees was £558 in April 2021, compared to £652 for male full-time employees (Irvine, 2022, p. 4). Therefore, deriving a moral value based on what we are giving back to the economy and how productive we are is not accurate or fair, as it makes certain groups appear ‘less than’ those who partake in standard working patterns with longer hours and more pay. 

3.4. The American Dream Ideal 

Taylorism piggybacked on ideals of The American Dream Ideal (Harfoush, 2019), as this was developed in the 1930s by James Truslow and is the idea that every citizen of the US should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative (Churchwell, 2021). So, essentially, Americans understood the American Dream as the fulfilment of the promise of meritocracy (McNamee and Miller, 2009 in Littler, 2018, p. 26). Weber would see these pivotal features of American society as secularised legacies of ascetic Protestantism, as Americans began to reject the social order of aristocracy through heredity privilege and strived to work hard through the Protestant Work Ethic (Littler, 2018, pp. 26-27). As well as these underlying ideals, the economic and political climate in the early to mid-1900s meant that working hard was often a necessity and not just because ‘hard workers’ were praised and assumed to be people of good character (Harfoush, 2019). The aftermath of multiple World Wars and The Great Depression on the American economy meant that workers from the relatively large boomer generation had to compete for limited jobs and invest more time and energy to secure their jobs (Harfoush, 2019). So, these attitudes to working hard because you ‘had’ to and working hard because it directly links to your moral value were passed down through the generations and reinforced through family socialisation, which shows a family is an important apparatus in reproducing and reinforcing values that benefit capitalism. According to a 2017 study, young adults today still hold high meritocratic values for themselves and others, despite it being more difficult for young adults to enter the labour market, pursue their chosen careers and become financially independent (Shane, et al., 2017). For example, believing their work ethic will determine how far up the social ladder they climb, as well as believing other people are at the top of the ladder due to their hard work, skills, and ability to achieve (Shane, et al., 2017, pp. 42-43). Participants in this study are American university students from a range of backgrounds and age groups, so it is helpful to see whether one’s gender, race and ethnicity influenced their meritocratic beliefs, which did not seem to have an effect. However, this study is not representative of American society as the sample consisted of mostly Asian students (45.6%), but Asian Americans take up 7% of the US population (Budiman, 2021). Furthermore, assessed participants did not encounter the most severe consequences of the Great Recession and the results did not show if economic recessions have an impact on young people’s meritocratic beliefs (Shane, et al., 2017, p. 47), which could be because Millennials and Gen Z were raised in a world where they were told repeatedly that they could become anything they wanted and were deserving of success. We were also raised within a cultural narrative that assumed unlimited growth and consumption and that everyone could have access to upward socioeconomic mobility (Harfoush, 2019). However, this narrative places the responsibility solely on the individual and disregards any socio-economic constraints that may impact one’s upwards mobility. Over time, the American Dream Ideal became synonymous with material success and invoked symbols of the nuclear family, a car, house, and white picket fence (Churchwell, 2021), which was perpetuated heavily through media advertising at the time to reinforce gender norms and encourage consumers to spend in their leisure time. This shows how the centrality of work in our daily language and lives is pervasive: as we arrange ‘working lunches’, we ‘work out’ daily, we ‘work’ on love, our relationships, and our personalities (Weber, 2013, p. 13). Overall, we see the importance of culture and family in reinforcing the importance of working hard and how ingrained ‘work’ is in Western society. 

3.5. Neoliberalism 

In simple terms, neoliberalism is a set of social, cultural, and political-economic forces that puts competition at the centre of social life i.e., competition with one another, us, and the social world. In the neoliberal imagination, social infrastructures, such as social security, unemployment benefits, and public education, are believed to suppress entrepreneurialism and individualism and breed dependency and bureaucracy (Wilson, 2018). Whereas competition is believed to ensure efficiency, incite creativity, and make sure the best people make it to the top. Put a little differently, neoliberalism aims to create a market-based society, where there are individual liberties, property rights and free markets (Wilson, 2018). These ideologies were reinforced by UK and US governments in the late 1970s and 1980s. During this period, Thatcher promoted ideals of competition, individualism, and meritocracy through policies such as The 1988 Education Reform Act which introduced SATs tests, league tables and the national curriculum (Education Reform Act 1988). Generation X, who came of age during Thatcher’s reign, was deeply impacted by her governance style and industrial policy, especially those from a working-class background (Weatherburn, 2018). Even though, Millennials were the first generation to prioritise a work-life balance compared to previous generations (Kowske et al., 2010) and did not experience the introduction of her policy. The neoliberal agenda of competition and meritocracy lives on in all facets of our society such as the conservative policies, media advertising, the welfare system, education, and public opinion. For example, Millennials and Gen Z have been brought up in a system that rewards those who work the hardest, monitors progress and encourages us to compete with one another. This has led young people to believe their worth comes from academic attainment and work. So, they will question their value if they are unproductive or ‘lazy’ and blame themselves for failure instead of socio-political issues, which have only been exacerbated by the introduction of social media as it acts as a space to judge others and compare yourself to them. Neoliberal ideology perpetuated through the government has been beneficial in upholding capitalism because it is used to justify how we are exploited through work, such as with long work hours and a minimum wage, which is not sufficient for rent prices. For example, conditions in the Global South ensure we accept our relatively well-off, overworked, and miserable life because “it could be worse” (Fleming, 2014, p. 128). This narrative is a significant part of hustle culture, as it encourages individuals to change their life if they are not happy with it, as ultimately the responsibility is on them to climb the social ladder. 

  1.  Work, Leisure, and Social Media

Before the arrival of capitalism, the average time spent working was about three days a week (Fleming, 2014, p. 128), as leisure time was seen as important for human flourishing whereas work was viewed as oppressive. The conditions of capitalism have reduced the classical understanding of leisure and now leisure is defined primarily in relation to production and consumption (Shippen, 2014, pp. 21-22). So, in modern society, we take time off work solely to restore our energy and prepare to return the next day. Therefore, time alone or time away from paid work does not necessarily equate to leisure (Shippen, 2014, p. 22). In the classical ideal of leisure, leisure was qualified as a free being who shapes their own life rather than being passively shaped around by a herd-like mentality (Shippen, 2014, p. 25). Such as the pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist or volunteer activity where individuals acquire new skills, knowledge, and experience (Stebbins, 1998 in Haworth et al., 2005, p. 10). When discussing work, we are bound to mention leisure as the way we spend our free time away from work, for example, using social media platforms such as Instagram, can shape our attitudes towards work and productivity and acts as a form of distraction to the oppressive system of neoliberal capitalism. Adorno’s work from 1941 is quite relevant here. He believed that people use their leisure time as an escape from the boredom of mundane work and anxieties at the time such as low income, unemployment, and war (Adorno, 1941, pp. 205-209) so they were more likely to indulge in ‘non-productive’ activities such as watching TV and listening to popular music, as little effort and attention is required to follow along due to standardisation (Adorno, 1941, pp. 200-201). Adorno argued that the entertainment industry maintains its hold on the masses through distraction and inattention – “listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either” (Adorno, 1941, p. 202). His argument around leisure time is relevant to contemporary society because the technological advancements and modern-day strains such as austerity, flexible work contracts, in-work poverty, and more recently, COVID, have led most people to turn to their gadgets as an escape from the demands of capitalism. We see how social media has a neoliberal capitalist function regarding distraction, as it ensures that consumers remain passive and continue to get up for work every day without question. 

  1. Chapter 2: Marxist Critique of Social Media 

Thus far, we have gone over how religion, cultural ideals, the family, and neoliberalism have all played a role in reinforcing the importance of working hard. However, during my analysis, I am more concerned with how social media, particularly Instagram, acts as a platform to promote the neoliberalist agenda intentionally or unintentionally through the glamorisation of overwork and ‘hustle culture’. For example, we are prompted by images and videos of hyper productive daily routines, ‘from rags to riches’ narratives and quotes, which puts the responsibility on the individual to be a more productive member of society. To ground my analysis, I will focus on a selected few accounts, such as @themillionairefinancee and @work_hard_ethic. Furthermore, I will focus on the physicality of social media, i.e., Instagram’s algorithm and features, which create a space for surveillance, tracking, distraction, and comparison. 

4.1. The Power of Social Media   

4.1.1 Surveillance and Tracking 

Instagram is a free photo and video sharing application where people can upload photos or videos and share them with their followers or with a select group of friends. They can also view, comment and like posts shared by their friends (Instagram Help Centre, 2022). Some other features include like and reaction buttons, showing the number of followers you have, live streams, and the ability to comment. And for business accounts, seeing if anyone has shared or saved your post or skipped/replayed your story shows how we are constantly being watched or watching others on social media. So, social media is designed to judge others, compare ourselves to them and upload content to receive necessary critiques or validation and alter our behaviour. This links to the Panopticon prison plan concept formed by Bentham (semi-circle layout of cell blocks, with an inspector in the middle, who could see into any cell but remain invisible to inmates behind a blind) as prisoners had to always conform to the rules because they did not know when they were being observed and when they were not (Bauman and Lyon, 2013, p. 11). But, this principle has been applied to a broader context, such as modern power and maintenance of class distinctions and hierarchies in homes, schools, and workplaces (Bauman and Lyon, 2013, p. 13). Regarding social media, users freely participate in this ‘show and tell’ culture by updating their accounts daily with filtered photos and videos of what they are doing, what they are eating and places they have been, painting an image of an ideal and productive lifestyle, that all need some type of economic capital, i.e., money from working hard, to achieve. Users carefully select and upload images based on how they are expected to appear rather than who they are, which shows how social media acts as a space for performance, competition, and validation from others instead of its intended purpose of social interaction in the digital age. Most social media users may have 500, 1,000 or even 5,000 ‘friends’ or followers, but most of these are mere voyeurs looking into your daily life (Bauman and Lyon, 2013, p. 42). The introduction of social media has been beneficial for social interaction, but it has resulted in a society with little privacy and anonymity (Bauman and Lyon, 2013, pp. 12-14). We are constantly being watched and perceived. Therefore, we need to alter our behaviour to conform to what is acceptable or ‘trendy’. 

Productive_app (2021) ‘About App’ [Instagram]. Graphical user interface, application

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Productive_app (2021) ‘Track Your Productivity and Get Tips on How to Improve it’ [Instagram]. 

Concerning productivity and work, some pages and posts provide ‘advice’ on how to be more productive and be more efficient with your time while promoting an application or product that claims to solve the consumers’ problems or feeds into their insecurities. For example, the account @productive_app on Instagram uploads ‘motivating’ content and promotes their app called Productive, which claims to be a personal assistant for building daily habits and achieving one’s goals. Even though, at first glance, this seems harmless and beneficial for users. It reinforces the idea that productivity and working hard to achieve ‘our’ goals are what we should be striving for. This shows how Taylor’s Scientific Management has lived on in the contemporary cultural psyche. We are relentlessly encouraged to track bodily processes, moods, steps, sleep, caloric intake, etc., to calibrate the body for optimal outcomes (Wilson, 2018). In turn, this makes participants obsessed with outperforming themselves and others, which shows how social media unintentionally reinforces neoliberalism, “as one’s performance and wellness can be simultaneously gauged and guided by the data gathered about oneself through constant self-surveillance of one body” (Wilson, 2018). We believe that by streamlining our tasks and obligations, we will be rewarded more time we can use for other, more meaningful pursuits (Harfoush, 2019). Our obsession with tracking could be a subconscious desire to regain control under a system that grants us little and controls all aspects of our everyday lives. We believe if we make our daily habits more efficient and streamlined, we can achieve what we set our minds to. 

On the other hand, if we are choosing to follow these accounts then it is most likely because we already hold preconceived neoliberal beliefs, i.e., that being a productive member of society is a goal worth aspiring towards. According to Rose, the internet does not steal our humanity; it reflects it. So, social media only provides users with a platform to portray and confirm their existing ideologies. However, it is essential to consider that social media platforms have ulterior motives. For example, Instagram algorithms distribute their feed with the most popular or ‘boosted’ (paid) posts at the top instead of in chronological order (Instagram Help Centre, 2022), which shows what content we see and when we see it, is being manipulated. It is beneficial for Instagram to push the smaller accounts that are encouraging people to limit their social media usage and partake in more productive leisure time activities such as reading, writing and meditation, to the bottom. As it means they can prioritise pushing advertised content or content that encourages us to continue scrolling at the top, which leads us to the next topic of social media’s function of distraction and consumption. 

4.1.2. Distraction and Consumption 

If we take into account the lifestyle of an average American over the age of 16: 

  • 8 hours 27 minutes of sleep 
  • 4 hours 44 minutes of leisure and sports 
  • 4 hours 29 minutes hours of work
  • 1 hour 38 minutes on household activities
  • 1 hour 11 minutes of eating and drinking
  • 47 minutes of grooming and dressing
  • 41 minutes of purchasing goods and services
  • 36 minutes on educational activities
  • 36 minutes caring for children
  • 15 minutes on organisational or religious activities 

(Blackstone and Lubin, 2012)

We see that mundane tasks, sleep and work take up almost 22 hours of our day, leaving us little time to relax or partake in meaningful leisure time. These statistics are quite outdated, so we can assume that with changes in society, such as the introduction of new technologies and social media platforms, Americans are likely to use their free time partaking in activities such as watching TV and using social media. Recent statistics showed that 16 to 24-year-olds spend a median of 3 hours a day on social media, and adults between the ages of 25 and 34 use social media for 2 hours and 37 minutes each day (Georgiev, 2022), which could be because “behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting” (Wansbrough, 2020). As mentioned in Chapter 1, social media can distract the masses from the demands of reality through entertainment, which does not demand attention either (Adorno, 1941, p. 202). Furthermore, Adorno and Horkheimer believed that mass media is used to manipulate the masses. It is an invading force that pervades our everyday lives, leading to factory-styled standardisation and subordination (Wansbrough, 2020). In relation to social media, if we spend a considerable amount of time scrolling through Instagram, less time is spent thinking critically about the system we live in. For example, the majority of people do not ask questions such as ‘why do we work long hours for minimum wage?’ and ‘why are we expected to work every day until the age of 65?’, which links to the ‘Drip-Drip Effect’, because the more time people spend using their free-time consuming media, the more likely they are to internalise character portrayals and perceive the world by this internalisation (Preiss et al., 2011). For example, if we are fed the narrative that work is a natural part of society, that we must work hard in order to achieve our goal of upwards mobility and working hard has a direct correlation with moral value. If we disregard the economic necessity to work (survival), one explanation for this narrative is that work today is a rather extreme ritual linked to a dying capitalist project (Fleming, 2014, p. 128). A lot of people are living in a state of passivity, which links to the traditional Marxist theory of False Class Consciousness, as the proletariat accepts their exploitation under capitalism as normal and unavoidable (Eyerman, 1981).  However, traditional Marxists give the masses little credit by viewing them as passive bystanders. In contemporary society, the majority are aware of the system we live in. But they choose to accept it because they cannot imagine an alternative or the alternative is viewed as worse i.e., fascism or socialism. So instead, they distract themselves with numbing activities in their leisure time to protect their mental wellbeing. This links to cognitive dissonance theory, as this is the idea that people feel discomfort if there are inconsistencies between their knowledge, beliefs, and opinions with their actions. According to Festinger, some ways to relieve this discomfort are through moving an opinion to fit your behaviours, adopting opinions that fit your behaviours or reducing the importance of the involved elements (1962), which transpires through contributing to upholding neoliberal capitalism through competing with peers, using social media, consumption, and work, despite disagreeing with the system. This awareness somehow grants individuals a sense of superiority and distance from the oppressive nature of capitalism. One of the supposed advantages of the free market is that it delivers what we want and crave (Wansbrough, 2020), which is reinforced through targeted advertisements based on search history and cookies, as they lure us to consume in our leisure time and deposit funds back into the economy. This shows how social media is beneficial for neoliberal capitalism. However, although social media acts as a space to distract us, ensuring we continue going to work. Our time and attention have been commodified by TV channels, search engines and social media platforms (Barrett, 2017), which shows that social media may be damaging to individual efficiency and productivity because they are designed to be addictive. 

4.2. Hustle Culture 

In this section, we will explore examples from the Instagram accounts: @themillionairefinancee and @work_hard_ethic to show how social media glamorises overworking, entrepreneurial ventures and celebrities who have ‘risen to the top’, and consequently reinforces neoliberal capitalism. Also, I calculated the number of posts that came up in Instagram’s search bar in relation to work, productivity and hustle, which are shown down below and we see how this ideology takes up a lot of space in the digital world. And therefore, space within our lives due to the average time we spend on social media. 

Instagram Search Bar ~ 8 April 2022:

  • 4,573,664 posts that mentioned #productivity, not forgetting thousands more with similar words such as ‘productive’. 
  • 48,831,347 posts that mentioned #hustle, not forgetting thousands more with similar words such as ‘hustling’, ‘grind’ and ‘grinding’. 
  • 40,297,903 posts that mentioned #hardwork, not forgetting thousands more with syntax and lexical differences such as #workhard. 
  • 36,894,256 posts that mentioned #nevergiveup, excluding those that were not in relation to working hard to achieve your dreams and goals. 

(Instagram, 2022) 


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  themillionairefinancee (2022) Graphical user interface, application

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Work_ethic_mindset (2021)A person sitting on a couch

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These images/accounts are reinforcing ideals of meritocracy. For example, they give the impression that success is solely based on your merit, skills, and hard work alone. In these ‘rags to riches’ narratives, they use extreme and rare cases of billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg, who has the most powerful social network in the world and Elon Musk (Harfoush, 2019). These stories hit all the right notes: Work Devotion, sacrifice, struggle, unrelenting focus, and the rewards of unimaginable material wealth. But, most importantly, they make us believe in meritocracy and whisper about our own potential (Harfoush, 2019), which may result in working long hours to achieve a distorted version of what success and happiness look like. For example, striving toward superficial and material success such as a nice car, nice clothes, and a nice house. Throughout these accounts, they mostly used examples of white male celebrities as a symbol of success and hard work. But it is not realistic for everyone to achieve their goals without facing barriers along the way or other responsibilities. For example, if you are disabled or experiencing poverty. Outdated gender norms play a role in our views towards work and productivity, as working patterns during the 1900s were created around the assumption that someone was at home doing the chores and housework. However, in contemporary society, it is unrealistic to ‘do it all’, as most people work full time and have other responsibilities such as childcare, so you would not have the time or energy to take on much more responsibility, let alone a ‘billionaires’ daily routine’ or side hustles. These images create an unrealistic standard to live up to, which may result in viewers questioning their self-worth. If we take a closer look at the link between gender and work, there could be a reason why overworking is more common amongst men. According to Sallee, the ‘ideal worker’, is a male worker, as the notion of the ideal worker was built around the idea that the worker has unlimited time to give to work with no distractions at home. This could explain the gendered division of labour, as women reported spending 33.5 hours per week with their children, compared to men’s 20.3 hours (Sallee, 2011, pp. 785-786). And even though organisational policy allows men to take paternity leave, there is still stigma and judgement around men using them (p. 788). So, most of the time, men will continue working even after their child is born and they experience signs of burnout, which shows the neoliberal hate towards ‘laziness’ and gender norms are deeply ingrained into our society and perpetuated through social media. Overall, the modern interpretation of the American Dream —specifically, getting rich quick— has distorted our expectations of reality and collectively disappointed a generation who expected success as a given (Harfoush, 2019). 

  1. Chapter 3: Discussion (Plan/Unfinished)
    So far, we have addressed the power social media holds over its users i.e., through surveillance, tracking, distraction, and consumption, as well as the ways in which it promotes a hustle culture that inherently benefits neoliberal capitalism. But it is important to consider the benefits of social media, such as freedom of self-expression, social solidarity, and political organising, as well as some psychoanalytic considerations that counter our Marxist critique of social media. For example, our desires are constructed through the human psyche and not solely under the conditions of capitalism. Furthermore, we will consider cultural differences, to see whether this obsession with work is solely under the consideration of neoliberal capitalism in the West, or if it is a worldwide phenomenon. 

5.1.  The Bright Side of Social Media 

Despite the obvious downfalls to social media that we have mentioned. It isn’t all bad. Social media can be a space for self-expression and interaction, where consumers can be active agents of choice, they can choose how to express themselves, which they may not be able to do in real life. 

  • We choose to use social media: agency and self-expression. Social media companies are responding to the needs of consumers and not the other way around. 
  • Social media can be used to spread awareness of how toxic hyper-productivity and hustle culture is and how this links to capitalism e.g. The Nap Ministry on Instagram talks about ‘Rest as Resistance’ (The Nap Ministry, 2021) Social media is a space for activism and for political organising. 
  • Social interaction, solidarity and building a digital ‘community’ in a globalised society (Durkheim). 
  1. Psychoanalytical Considerations
  • Case study: Workaholics Anonymous founded in 1983 by Dan, a recovering workaholic (Singer, 1991). There are other reasons why people use social media often / work too much: family socialisation, as a coping mechanism for mental health issues or some people have more addictive personalities compared to others.
  • Desire: “Our desires, wants and interests are not merely created by and catered to under neoliberal capitalism” (Wansbrough, 2020, p. 40). Innate human desires – Human beings are social creatures. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, human needs can be depicted by five hierarchical levels within a pyramid – halfway up the pyramid there is ‘belongingness and love needs’ which is one of our psychological human needs. Examples of this include friendship, intimacy, affection, and acceptance, which are essential to motivate our behaviour (Edgley, 2020, p. 215-216) and (McLeod, 2020). This shows that our motivation behind social media usage and working is because we desire to feel connected to one another and they both play an important part in self-actualisation and feeling a sense of purpose and identity. Consider ‘The Lost Object of Desire’ (Lacan) and Zizek. 
  1. Cultural Differences 
    • Japan Case Study of Japanese Workers (Singer, 1991). It is common in Japanese culture to work 15-hour days. Widows of men who die on the job get a cash bonus known as ‘karoshi’, which means ‘worked to death and died like an ox’. This shows that the obsession with work and productivity may be a worldwide phenomenon, and not just related to neoliberal influence in Western societies. 
    • Nordic Countries – Importance of family, minimal work, and rest e.g. Swedish corporations have become more encouraging of men taking paternity leave (Sallee, 2011, p. 786). Statistically happiest countries in the world with the lowest crime rates (Norway), which shows that living in a capitalist system and the conditions of work are detrimental to our wellbeing. Mentioned increased suicide rates in the UK and link to Durkheim’s concept of Anomie (living to work with no social bonds can lead to suicide). 
  1. Conclusion 

In conclusion, we have discussed the history and context of the emergence of meritocratic values, which was through cultural ideals, family socialisation, government, and scientific management. These beliefs lived on in the cultural psyche and were reinforced through social media. This was shown through Adorno’s (1941) work on how mass media has a function of distracting the masses from reality through content that does not require much attention. Bauman, and Lyon’s (2013) work to show how social media acts as a place for surveillance, as we are constantly being watched and watching others, which leads to creating an idealised version of ourselves online and acting in ways that conform to cultural and societal norms. Also, we see how social media glamorises hyper productivity and overwork through the idealisation of celebrities and their ‘rags to riches’ narratives. 

Despite the hold that social media has on us. Consumers can be creators as well and use the platform to their advantage. For example, The Nap Ministry on Instagram, promotes the idea that rest is our divine right and how ‘proclaiming you are a workaholic is not a flex’ (The Nap Ministry, 2021). And this rest alone, acts as a resistance to capitalism, which shows the power social media has in activism, education, and political formation. Most social media users are aware of its addictive features, which is why a lot of them take the responsibility into their hands in setting limits and uploading genuine content. 

Social media was a formidable force in reinforcing Neoliberal agenda and hustle culture. But it is important to remember that social media is often a reflection of our beliefs, ideologies, and desires. And the accounts I focused on in my analysis were from ordinary users, which shows that these beliefs are ingrained in other structures in our society such as the family, government policy and the education system. However, this collection of work will be useful for future considerations around the link between attitudes towards word, how we spend our leisure time and Neoliberalism, as the digital world is still transforming.  


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