A Short Piece Inspired by Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
Do you want work you can be finished with or work that always gives you something to do?
There are some things we can do forever and other things we can only do up to a point. I can always write or answer emails, but I can only move a piece of furniture upstairs until the furniture is upstairs. Not all tasks are equal in this way, and tasks that can be completed are ones that are easy to stop thinking about once they are finished. But I can always feel like I should be working on “Continual Work”: my physical environment can never provide me with existential relief by forcing the task to have a finite and necessary endpoint. Sure, work I can’t finish is work that will always give me something to do, but work I can’t finish is also work that’s never finished with me.
To speak generally, to financially survive, Millennials today mostly find themselves stuck with “Continual Work,” while Generation X had a lot more “Completable Work,” and this contributes to the cultures talking past one another constantly. Most vividly, “working hard” is a value that has been complexified, for whereas Millennials must decide when to “pause” Continual Work, previous generations just had to “finish” their Completable Work. Completable Work “decides for us” when we should stop working, whereas Continual Work forces us to decide when we will “pause” (for the sake of a “work/life balance,” perhaps). But if we choose to “pause” working, we can be accused of and feel like “we’re not working as hard as we could.” After all, we didn’t have to “pause”…¹
Continual Work can only be “paused,” which can make us feel bad and existential for pausing it, and also we don’t get the feeling of satisfaction that comes with “finishing a task.” It’s even hard to ever feel like “we had a good day at work,” because work that isn’t finished exists in this “between space” where it’s questionable if it was even work. Completable Work can be finished, which far from existential can feel good, for it can feel like we accomplished something.
There is no “necessary endpoint” of managing communication, optimizing a program, coding, managing teams, attending meetings, trying to increase sales, and so on. Thus, there is no “necessary point” that absolves me the responsibility to “keep working” (which I seemingly “should” keep doing if I meant it when I said, “I’m willing to work hard”). And since it’s always possible for me to keep working, if I’m not, why aren’t I? It must say something about me…
(Please note that I understand a given job can entail overlap between Continual and Completable Work, that a hard split can’t always be made. I’m speaking generally in this paper to help trace out the complexities and differences of our modern situation).
There is a necessary point at which I can no longer fill a cooler at a wholesale with boxes — finitude itself forces me to stop. If I am “willing to work hard to any degree,” I still will be forced to stop when the cooler is full. At this point, I can go sit down at my desk, and I will not be accused of “not working as hard as I could”: the very finitude of the cooler absolves me the possibility/responsibility to keep working. Thus, I can plausibly also believe that I “would keep working” if only finitude wasn’t in my way…
Physical reality provides workers points at which they must stop working without making them responsible for ceasing to work. In this way, once the cooler is filled, someone who unloads boxes from a truck cannot be accused (by others or themselves) of “not working as hard as they could” (the task is done, after all). But for the person in sales, cording, or job that is more “metaphysical” versus “physical,” per se, physical reality doesn’t readily absolve the person of the possibility of working more, and so the person can always be accused (by others or themselves) of “not working as hard as they could” (the task isn’t done, after all).²
In my view, Millennials need to appreciate how hard it is to come home from work every day aching and tired. Physical labor is demanding, and whereas I can want to take a run after a day of working on the computer, I often hardly want to move after a day of racing across concrete and carrying around boxes for irritated customers. On the other hand, Boomers need to appreciate how hard it is to feel like you can never come home from work. Mental labor never feels finished, and whereas after a day on the job site I can feel like I “objectively” finished tasks, built something, etc., I hardly ever get a feeling of completion after a day on my computer.³
More specifically, Boomers need to appreciate how the mantra of “just work harder” doesn’t work for “Continual Work.” If I’m willing to work harder than anyone else at a job that can never force me to stop, work will be all I do at the expense of my marriage, my mental health, and my life. Worse yet, “Continual Work” cannot force a boss to limit how much he or she demands of workers (or coworkers of one another): since there is always more workers could do, a boss can always ask more of them. In “Completable Work,” a boss cannot pressure, guilt, request, etc. workers to “fill the cooler beyond what the cooler can hold,” per se: the physical and finite reality of the job itself naturally limits and “contains” the boss. But in “Continual Work,” workers can find themselves having to be that “limit,” which means Millennials regularly must talk and negotiate with bosses who overstep, something which Boomers rarely if ever had to do. This can make it seem to Boomers like Millennials are always complaining and “expecting more” from their bosses, but Boomers may not appreciate how much their work “naturally contained” their bosses, a benefit Millennials don’t always have, adding to the existential burden of Millennials.
Both Boomers and Millennials work hard, but whereas Completable Work naturally balances “the willingness to work hard,” Continual Work does not, which means Millennials must navigate a new “work culture” that Boomers cannot readily help Millennials navigate. That said, perhaps Millennials have the advantage of feeling like their work has “meaning,” whereas Boomers can more easily feel like a cog in a repetitive machine. It’s general knowledge that Millennials want “meaningful work,” and arguably (though it’s a more extensive conversation) a prerequisite for work to feel “meaningful” is that it cannot be easily completable. It’s perhaps precisely because tasks are easily completable that they can feel like they don’t matter (after all, they’re finished), and yet paradoxically we can feel more grounded when we feel like we can finish tasks. In this way, it’s possible that our desire for meaning and our desire to feel like we accomplished something exist in a paradoxical tension, but that’s a topic that will have to be expanded on elsewhere.
To close, a list that summarizes the differences between Completable Work and Continual Work could prove helpful:
1. Natural end point.
2. Objective metrics which are grounded in physical reality that others can easily acknowledge.
3. Can be finished.
4. Naturally contains demands of the boss and coworkers without negotiation, which likely eases personal and general work tensions.
5. More physically exhausting.
6. More repetitive, unchanging, and meaningless.
1. No natural end point.
2. Subjective metrics that are more existential and that others can’t easily acknowledge.
3. Can only be paused.
4. No natural containment of the boss and coworkers.
5. More mentally exhausting.
6. More creative, dynamic, and meaningful.
There are likely more differences that I failed to outline in this work, and I also don’t want to suggest that a given Millennial or given Boomer always falls under one category versus the other, or to suggest that a person easily fits in a category. Life is more complex than that, but though no map equals the territory, I believe maps are useful.
We measure Completable Work by when we finish it, where we can only measure Continual Work in terms of “progress” that often doesn’t even feel like progress, because what does it mean to “progress” at work that never ends? On the other hand, how much can work matter if it can be “done with” and finished? In this way, both Boomers and Millennials wrestle with their own existential challenges — mutual respect would go a long way to helping both.
¹But didn’t previous generations tend to pick a job and stick with it for their entire lives, whereas Millennials tend to move between multiple jobs? Doesn’t that make it sound like Boomers had “Continual Work,” for they were stuck doing “the same thing?” It’s a strong point, but “Lifelong Completable Work” is still work that feels completable. Yes, the Boomer who is always a mechanic may spend her life doing the same task day in and day, but the task still feels “completable” day in and day out. Perhaps Boomers lived more “repetitive lives,” but Millennials live more “continual lives,” per se: whereas Boomers worked and finished the same task day in and day out for years,
Boomers often see Millennials trading reliability for continual excitement, whereas Millennials see Boomers as comfortable and stagnant. Both see the other as entitled, and this has led to trouble. Millennials work and never finish different tasks day in and day out for years. No doubt, “repetitiveness” brings its own challenges, but so also does “continuousness”: Boomers and Millennials need to appreciate the unique challenges of the other. Perhaps the existential weight of Continual Work contributes to Millennials moving between jobs so often: perhaps we can only take Continual Work that feels like it will never end for so long before we need a change, whereas Completable Work provides enough existential relief to keep people going. In this way, Millennials might be more willing to leave a job if the boss doesn’t treat them well, whereas a Boomer, so unaccustomed to having to pivot and change careers, ends up being exploited. Of course, Millennials can be exploited too — my point is only to showcase possible benefits and disadvantages of both Continual Work and Completable Work.
²Yes, at a wholesale, I can finish filling the cooler and then go sweep the floors, then fix the truck, etc., and so there’s a sense in which my work is “continual,” but please note that each of these tasks can be complete, lessening the existential weight. Also, eventually, the tasks I could do become arbitrary and unnecessary, and the imperative to do them lessens (with their existential pressure) (and, ultimately, there is still a necessary endpoint to all these possible tasks).
³Furthermore, whereas Boomers can easily show others what they accomplished today by walking over and pointing inside a cooler full of boxes, Millennials can struggle to point to an “objective reality” that confirms the Millennial did work today. In this way, it can be harder for the Millennial to stop wondering if everyone thinks they’re lazy.