If you ask Justin Khoe, a former youth minister with an endlessly enthusiastic attitude, there’s something slightly disturbing about the experience of running a YouTube channel. “It’s a very weird phenomenon,” he told me recently. “When you’re starting a channel and you get 100 subscribers, you’re really stoked. But it’s amazing how you can be less happy with twice as many followers than you were with that first 100.”
Khoe runs “That Christian Vlogger,” creating videos with titles like “Waiting for God SUCKS!!!” and “The SURPRISING truth about why Jesus came to Earth.” Getting enough views can be stressful in two different ways. Because it’s Khoe’s full-time job, it needs to bring in enough money to pay his half of the expenses for the home he shares with his wife. At the same time, he said, there’s a danger that his earnest hope of reaching more people with his faith can turn into a bottomless hunger for clicks.
“The higher you climb, the more likely you are to identify with those metrics,” Khoe said. “If you’re not careful, it can be something that kind of robs the joy from you for why you started the thing in the first place.” That’s not just a problem for earnest religious YouTubers. Across the vast array of YouTube channels, from goofy pranksters to style gurus, creators face the same tension between creative fulfillment and objective measures of success.
In a very different corner of the platform from Khoe, a fellow YouTuber named RaffyTaphy creates ASMR videos—whispering, tapping, and making precise, soothing sounds that trigger pleasant tingling sensations in some listeners. RaffyTaphy was a fan of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos for years before he began making them himself. “I just kind of wanted to toss my grain of sand into the community,” he said.
Like Khoe, RaffyTaphy recognizes the way YouTubers get caught up in pressure to achieve an objective kind of success. “When somebody finds out I make videos, almost the first question you’re asked is how much money you make,” he said. “I don’t know—it’s all about money.”
In our current moment, Americans tend to expect our jobs to provide us with not just money but fulfillment, to offer a chance for creativity, purpose, and contribution to our communities. That’s the promise that YouTube represents to many people, a way to do the thing that means the most to them and turn it into a career. If that doesn’t work out—and, for most people, it doesn’t—that feels like failure. But maybe it’s really a sign that we’re living in a culture that expects far too much from work.
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The idea of judging a person’s success and status by the economic value of their labor seems commonsensical in the twenty-first century U.S. But, to many people in other times and places, it would have sounded absurd. Status—the respect and admiration of other people and the social power that comes with it—has been based on hereditary class, racial and ethnic membership, piousness, generosity, prowess in battle, being a good storyteller. But rarely has it depended on economic success as a worker.
Aristotle argued that hard work—while necessary for society to function—was fundamentally degrading. He wrote that laborers, merchants, and enslaved workers should be excluded from citizenship because their long hours of work left them without the leisure time necessary to cultivate virtue. Knights, members of the upper crust in Medieval Europe, were often forbidden to cultivate land or produce goods so that they could focus on the prestigious job of fighting and making pilgrimages. For people in the lower classes, meanwhile, survival often demanded grueling work, but that work rarely led to higher social standing.
It’s hard to know how non-elites in various preindustrial settings judged social standing. They didn’t leave a lot of written records. But we do know that the first factory workers were generally not motivated to work hard in the hopes of making a bunch of money. Max Weber, the most famous chronicler of the rise of the work ethic, described how a typical early industrial worker would actually work less when their payment rates rose. “The extra money appealed to him less than the reduction in work,” Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber wrote that convincing workers, and society more broadly, of the inherent value of wage work required a “long slow ‘process of education.’”
That education took a variety of forms. Sidney Pollard, a British economist and labor historian, wrote that, as factory-based industrial labor grew in the U.S. and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, employers put a great deal of energy into spreading the ideal of hard work and asserting that savings represent virtue. “Almost everywhere, churches, chapels and Sunday Schools were supported by employers, both to encourage moral education in its more usual sense, and to inculcate obedience,” Pollard claimed.
Capitalists set about dismantling existing village culture, with its patterns of work and relaxation organized around harvests and church holidays. They banned the frequent feast days that preindustrial craftsmen had taken off of work and cast drinking—a pastime that increased absenteeism and hurt industrial discipline—as sinful. In the Victorian Era, self-help books joined the chorus of voices promoting the idea that hard work was the key to status, usefulness, and spiritual salvation. As Samuel Smiles, a pioneer of the genre, wrote in 1875, “Labor is at once a burden, a chastisement, an honour, and a pleasure.”
As this new work ethic spread across and within societies over the past two centuries, hard work, virtue, and success became fused into a singular new measure of status, while other sources lost their power. For example, when middle- and upper-class American women increasingly entered paid work in the mid-twentieth century, employment displaced other activities—like keeping an orderly home and volunteering in civic, religious, or charitable activities—as central sources of social esteem for these women.
This shift has had certain undeniable benefits. The meritocratic ideal has driven many elites to support widespread public education and—at least in theory—a level playing field for all children. And blatant contempt for people based on old-fashioned status marker—like social class, race, or gender—has become unfashionable in many circles (though of course our supposedly meritocratic systems still erect barriers to “success” for racial minorities, working-class people of all races, and even privileged white women).
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The equation of paid work and status has also helped turn many workers into neurotic wrecks. Particularly over the past 50 years, the automation of industrial jobs and the decline of unions has left huge numbers of people with low-paid service-sector jobs to contend with shifting hours and no security at all. To place all our social standing on that shaky ground is terrifying.
For working-class men in particular, failing to earn enough money doesn’t just mean material hardship. It’s also a near-impenetrable barrier to marriage, since both men and women tend to see good male employment as a prerequisite for tying the knot.
Meanwhile, even for those who manage to get well-paid, white-collar positions, there’s a very good chance the work itself falls into the broad category the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, he defines a B.S.J. as employment “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” In Graeber’s view, automation has eliminated most of the really necessary work people did 200 years ago. But, instead of simply reducing working hours, the postindustrial economy has produced enormous swaths of worthless jobs.
“Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers—as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do,” Graeber writes. “Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing… to earn the consumer toys with which they fill their lives; they feel it’s all based on a lie—as, indeed, it is.”
To make matters worse, the absurd but widely held belief that we can achieve success and meaning at work if we just try hard enough leaves us feeling that the precariousness of our jobs is our own fault. If we could just work harder, or build a better personal brand, we ought to be able to achieve a kind of success that combines financial security with the knowledge that we’re doing real work that really matters in the world.
Workers tend to react to this tension in one of two ways. Either we can try to transform our existing careers into sources of security and fulfillment—perhaps by spending eighty hours a week on the job—or we can seek success elsewhere, convincing ourselves that we’re not underemployed baristas, but YouTube stars in the making.
If YouTubers represent the epitome of the uphill battle to create stable employment and meaningful connection all in one place, they may also offer clues to an alternative approach to work. Khoe said he makes a conscious effort to separate his need to make money from the meaning he finds creating That Christian Vlogger.
“I would much rather be earning a median income and be very happy with life and feel fulfilled doing something meaningful versus making five times the amount and kind of playing the game doing the rat race thing,” he said. For Khoe, a crucial part of that is his faith, which offers a way of thinking about human worth that’s separate from either fame or fortune. “In my worldview every human being is inherently valuable, regardless of how much money they make or their social standing,” he said.
RaffyTaphy separates the working and creative sides of his life in a different way. Even though he makes more on YouTube than he does in his job as a mechanical engineer, he’s careful not to become dependent on the money he makes from it. Instead, he thinks of the channel purely as a hobby that lets him give something to a community he loves.
“It’s awesome for you to create something that you enjoy doing and then you put it up to an audience,” he said. “There’s an audience that loves RaffyTaphy, and they can’t wait for the next RaffyTaphy video, and when I upload it they get really happy.” He said the channel provides a kind of meaning that he doesn’t find in—and doesn’t expect from—his job. “I wouldn’t say I ever expected to gain the satisfaction of helping to make the world a better place from my job,” he said. “I certainly get that from my hobby.”
Khoe and RaffyTaphy don’t offer models that all of us can emulate. They both have more financial stability in their lives than many people in the precarious world of twenty-first century work. To allow more of us to achieve the balance of security and meaning that they have would take structural economic reforms. But what they might offer is a different way of looking at work and status.
If we could disentangle our need for economic stability from our need to create, help others, and be part of something larger than ourselves, we might find we don’t need to aspire to ever more money and ever more clicks. Instead, we might try to build a world where we can work just enough to provide the material things we need while looking to our own communities—online or off, from ASMR fans to our own families—for our sense of purpose.