Master’s Student Blues: The Future of Work and Hyperproduction

Michael Villanova


I, like many other people my age, attend college and work in some part-time minimum wage job. After all, I need to pay CUNY’s rising tuition rates and I need to finance my dream of pursuing my research even at expense of economic security and my mental health. While I am trying to obtain a degree in a field where there is no promise of an assured job, I work in retail informing people of what USB wire will charge their phone or what the best deal on a router is. The value of retail work is always precarious. Of course, a lot of the information I give out could be found online, and for the most part, the industry I work in is always being threatened by larger companies offering cheaper products like Amazon. The way retailers have responded to this is not by creating a working environment that might attract talent or keep workers around long enough to care about their labor and work environment (in fact, this is intentional as a high turn-over of employees assures that they can never collectively demand better conditions). Instead, the business class has created a system of “hyperproduction”; an abstract system of production that has worsened the lives of retail employees everywhere. By working with a low-wage and experiencing its heavy demands, once again like many other people my age, I’ve come to experience its effects first hand and come to see how it is changing the ways labor is performed and how the possibilities of our everyday culture have become limited.

I borrow the prefix hyper- from the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who used it to denote an idea or object that has been simulated or reproduced to a point to where the original essence of an idea or object gets lost. For example, social media produces hypersociability because its main goal is to signify at ‘being sociable’ rather than create genuine communication. Social media’s function is to produce and reproduce signs of sociability in order for it to be deemed worthwhile. Likewise, hyperproduction can be thought of producing signs to signify that work and labor is being done without actual, substantive work being done. Baudrillard used this prefix when critiquing culture and consumer society as he thought that it was consumption and culture, not production, that is now the driving force of society. Neoliberalism’s main goal certainly is the rewiring of our consumer culture, but this has also transferred over to the material experiences employees and workers face at their jobs. The shift in exploitation and hegemony has cunningly shifted from direct alienation to creating a work experience where creating culture and a mindset conducive to late capitalism is the main goal. The end result for workers, and especially those in precarious, low-wage jobs, is awful.

The main gist of working in a hyperproductive environment is to always be giving off the sign that you are over-preforming in your labor. In manuals and training sessions, associates are told to provide a pleasant customer experience along with other platitudes about serving their customer base. While that would be normal for a retail job, one quickly finds out that the real goal of labor in retail is to up one’s “stats” by which a manager can gauge if you actually care about the job. While at Sears my main goal was to get people to signup for high-interest credit cards, with the promise of a $15 dollar discount for customers, and punch in their telephone number into a database for the rewards program offered at Sears. This seems simple enough except that failure to have even one person not sign up for the rewards program or forget what phone number they had listed under Sears’ rewards program would drop my stats for the day and lead to me anxiously trying to goad people into giving me their telephone number. My job was less and less about providing an experience or being prompt – actions that I could have controlled while at my job – but trying to juggle performing my roll as a cashier while also hoping that a customer would be compliant enough to do my job of producing signs, stats, and figures that would make me seem as if I was doing well. In terms of the credit cards, even if customers were denied, the goal was to get an application filled out and processed, hoping to have at least two customers per hour. Cashiers would often leave out certain facts about the card (the card’s APR and high interest rates) or merely promote it as a store rewards card. Spanish speaking cashiers had a leg up to meet this goal mainly because as many of the customers only spoke Spanish they could perform the same grift (leaving out information about what the actual application was) with a bit of more ease, mainly using their common language connection as a way of gaining a customer’s trust to fill out the application. It’s not as if my co-workers and I didn’t understand the ethical dilemma behind doing this. Realizing that shifts and more favorable treatment were given to cashiers that sold more cards, one eschews the ethical conundrum for signing anyone up even if one has to fudge what they’re really selling (management knew we were selling cards this way, anyway). After all, we needed these hours to pay for school, transportation, and in many cases, rent and basic necessities.

My job was not just about moving a line along speedily and in an amicable way, my job was to create a quantifiable set of figures that would made Sears seem more viable than it actually was.  One ridiculous way we were told to do this was by printing a customer’s receipt and making them fill out the survey on our cell phones, making sure they rated their experience 10/10. This was not done to actually show that they had a pleasant time at the store, but to make it appear as if Sears was a great store. Obviously, this was stupid. Filling out this survey would hold up lines (making my job harder) and make customers annoyed they had to do work to finish their transaction. Customers would get angry at me and on busy days I couldn’t fill out the surveys as it would make already frustrated customers more frustrated that the line is being held up by cashiers filling out seemingly pointless surveys. But, I had to do it in order to signify that I was improving the company. It was really the only way to make sure that I could secure this minimum wage job.

All of this wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that these stats dictate how many hours one is given by their managers or if they will be fired. While hyperproduction abstractly exists, it has real, material consequences. Lower numbers mean fewer hours. Doing the job of a cashier or salesperson seems simple enough but with the added pressure of producing feedback for companies, part-time employees are practically doing two jobs for minimum wage. (Additionally, even part-time minimum wage jobs require employees to check company emails, group chats, and company updates periodically even when they’re not at work. Essentially meaning you may never be truly off the clock.) While the job can be thought of as physically demanding (one is required to stand all day, often having to walk for miles throughout the day), the main exhaustion from the job comes from this mental component of always calculating how to improve one’s numbers in order to appear as a competent employee. If your stats aren’t good then the store’s stats aren’t good, and if the store’s stats aren’t good you have the threat of your store closing and a manager pressuring you to get your stats up. It was many of my co-worker’s inability to keep up with this system of hyperproduction or their being fed up with it that caused them to quit or be fired. They left either because the job wasn’t worth the then $8.75 an hour or because, like what is often done in retail positions, they were silently scheduled for fewer and fewer shifts until it was made apparent that they were not needed anymore.

In my current retail position, I am a “salesman” at a technology store, but this title would be pushing it. Most of my job consists of walking around and putting stickers on products that people want to buy, offering them service plans, and credit cards. The stickers I put on their products are scanned at the register and track how many people I “helped.” This system is maddening because a customer that takes two minutes to help is counted the same as one that takes 20 minutes to help. Initially, I was hired to service 3 customers per hour but soon after it became 5 customers per hour. Sometimes, meeting this goal is easy. For a retail store at 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon with 10-15 other associates working, it’s downright impossible to meet this goal. Here is where contradictions of hyperproduction arise. You (an employee) might want more co-workers to service more customers, but by having more co-workers on the sales floor it spreads the possible stats you could get to a thinner margin and will adversely affect your “productivity.” You might want more hours, but if you’re on an opening or closing shift, the hours spent setting up the store before selling hours are still counted against you on your customer quota. This means you’ll have to catch up on your stats when the store opens and work harder to get those stats up. You might want there to be a lull in the activity in the store. After all, you’ve been stocking, cleaning, walking around the entire sales floor about 20 times an hour. Nevertheless, the lower activity actually hurts you because your customer count is down and you won’t have an opportunity to put your sticker on something, sell a service plan, or a credit card. Having conditions that may make the job easier may also mean that it actually hurts you and your stats.

The logic of hyperproduction makes little to no practical sense. If a store is busy it has to do with a person’s want to shop there or a genuine need for an item, not if a part-time employee puts their sticker on an item or gets their personal information. Yet, the main goal of hyperproduction is to produce these quantifiable numbers that can be bragged about internally to the company’s own directors or try and compare customer service success with that of other companies. Yet, since the numbers produced are not really indicative of any “great” or “improved” service its mind-boggling to think that these stats can serve as any truthful barometer of success. But of course, accuracy in these numbers isn’t the point – hyperproduction and creating a carefully crafted culture of anxiety, constant focus, and competition with fellow employees is the point. As retail seems to have declined in the actual monetary economy, corporations and businesses find themselves investing more and more effort in the sign and cultural economy. While working at Sears it always felt like my main goal was not to ruthlessly make money but to ruthlessly try to make it appear as if the company was merely viable. With Sears stores shutting down across the nation, and Sears soon to be completely insolvent, it does not appear to be that this promotion of hyperproduction and working its associates to both be marketers and floor associates actually helped the company’s bottom line. To the question “who does this system of hyperproduction help?” one can only assume the richest in the company who can remain unscathed by the company’s decline.

Case in point is Sears CEO Eddie Lampert, who is noted for his love of Ayn Rand and libertarian capitalist beliefs. Read any article about him and one finds references to his ideas about making brands, store departments, and employees compete against each other for the store’s attention and resources. If this sounds like bad business policy, that’s because it is. Pitting your own brands against each other for more favorable ad space or floor placement is one thing if you really need to enact your free market loving, individualistic beliefs on your own company. Forcing employees to construct stats through the thankless work of hyperproduction to maintain their paltry wage in order to make the company look good while employees try to maintain their jobs is another thing. Even after Sears crashes, the brands and corporate leaders associated with the company can still survive (Lampert’s net worth is 1.1 billion as of 2019), but the employees of Sears will have a harder time doing so.

I write this piece for three reasons. The first reason was to dignify the work that retail employees do across the country. Often thought of as young, uneducated slackers who need to take a crappy job to get work experience, the people I have met in retail positions have often been intelligent, well-spoken, charismatic, and hard-working people who have chosen this line of work as a full-time job in order to provide for their families. For the most part they over perform and find cunning ways to maintain their job and to keep a failing industry viable. The hyperproduction they do is mentally exhausting and physically demanding and would make any baby-boomer conservative feel drained after his third shift. Retail employees are workers like any other and their labor must be respected.

The second reason is to give a small glimpse of the kind of culture that has infected, and will certainly spread, to other forms of labor. Hyperproduction, and its use to control poor workers, will soon become the way most menial to middle-class jobs will be performed in the near future. With every second of the job becoming quantifiable to some metric of performance, most low-paid work will become about meeting impossible goals and being reprimanded for not doing so. My experiences in the never-ending maze of improvement and economic growth are merely another case study in the drudgery that is life in neoliberalism.

The final reason I wrote this is because of the intense feeling of being drained while on the sales floor. Call it the blues, anxiety, or melancholia. I get a horrific sense of realization that I have made little to no progress in my academic career, when, compared to people my age have and I have simply remained inert. While I could be reading or researching, I’m still on the sales floor endlessly hustling in order to just stay afloat economically, academically, and keeping up on my stats. I realize that even with a Master’s Degree and two more years of education on top of my Bachelor’s that my job prospects are very limited and I begin to feel trapped within the four walls of the tech store I spend a lot of my time at. I know many other students at CUNY and across America vividly know this experience of working too many highly demanding, underpaid jobs while balancing a heavy course load.  Finally, I feel defeated as I realize that entering academia means to be consigned to a life of hyperproduction. As pointed out by Mitchell Aboulafia in his Jacobin article “Down with the Philosophy Factory,” the whole point of academia now is to constantly be adding to one’s CV, to constantly be researching in order to obtain the few tenured positions that exist, and thinking that gaining prestige and a quantity of published articles is the only measure of success in academic excellence. Choosing academia as a career choice is to choose hyperproduction as a way of life. Perhaps I shouldn’t think of my “blues” as something temporary or as a symptom of being a lower-class Master’s student, but as a condition of what my life will be like in academia for years to come, and, most likely, for every other worker in the rest of the (post-)industrialized world: hopelessly producing signs with no real end in sight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 OpenCUNY » login | join | terms | activity 

 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.