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Jennifer O’Connell: Tech workers whinging about free snacks is hard to take

Elsewhere nurses, teachers and childcare workers are not quietly quitting, but desperately quitting their jobs

Just when you think the news can’t possibly get any bleaker, another blow. The legendary Google Christmas party may be scaled back.

Employees of the tech colossus have been invited to refrain from going “over the top” with holiday parties. They are reportedly less than universally thrilled by this development. At a recent all-hands with chief executive Sundar Pichai, “one particular area of employee angst” was “aggressive cost-saving” surrounding travel expenses and swag.

Pichai’s response was almost as enraging as the whinging of spoilt tech workers whose median salaries, incidentally, were between €264,000 and €280,000 in 2019. You don’t need to have money to have fun, he helpfully explained. He raised the importance of practising being frugal when times are tough. Folks, he knows what he’s talking about: his 2021 compensation of €6.4 million was down from €287.3 million in 2019. And you don’t hear him complaining.

The notion that entitled tech workers are cribbing about free snacks sticks in the craw a bit

Everyone has their cross to bear, but at a time when older people are sitting in the cold afraid to turn on their heating, when the young are reckoning with the prospect they’ll never be able to afford a home, when we’ve swapped global Covid trackers for inflation trackers, when Russian president Vladimir Putin is threatening nuclear war and possibly puncturing gas pipelines and all the while the world is furiously, relentlessly becoming less habitable, the notion that entitled tech workers are cribbing about free snacks sticks in the craw a bit.

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But the story was another reminder that we are not all in this crisis together, just as we weren’t all in the last crisis together. Some are rationing their heating; others are worried about their supply lines of free organic granola and dried bing cherries.

If they’re truly disgruntled, the tech workers can always indulge in the peak 2022 phenomenon of “quiet quitting”. Depending on your perspective, this is either a mass movement by workers to strike back against wage theft and the relentless demands of the neo-capitalist system, or it’s another symptom of the millennial habit of pathologising their every waking impulse and rebranding the pedestrian challenges of adult life as a TikTok hashtag An alternative view is that it’s an invention of controlling middle-managers trying to shame people for setting some boundaries. Whichever view you take — I tend to think it’s mostly a symptom of columnists running out of things to write about — it has garnered so much press attention that it has almost entirely eclipsed another, far more troubling phenomenon.

Dubbed the “pink-collar burnout” by the Atlantic, this refers to the wave of nurses, teachers and childcare workers in many countries who are not quietly quitting, but desperately quitting their jobs, because they are burned out, underpaid and exhausted. “An untold number of nurses, teachers and childcare workers are asking themselves, ‘is this worth it?’ And deciding that it is not,” Annie Lowrey wrote in the Atlantic.

There is a global shortage in nursing staff too and it is particularly acute in Ireland thanks to the dismal state of our health service

You may not have heard the term, but if you have any interaction with these professions you will almost certainly have encountered the phenomenon here.

One month into the school year, stories abound of primary classes piled in together because there are no substitute teachers. At second level, the subjects affected by what the joint managerial bodies characterised as a “severe supply crisis” include Irish, home economics, guidance counselling, modern languages, physics and maths — so pretty much everything except Latin. There are many reasons, but the main one seems to be that young teachers are weighing up their prospects — the two-tier pay scales, lack of housing, dizzying cost of childcare — and wisely concluding they’d be better off in Dubai.

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There is a global shortage in nursing staff too and it is particularly acute in Ireland thanks to the dismal state of our health service. I spent a couple of days reporting from hospitals during the height of the Covid crisis and heard over and over how nurses love their jobs, but are tired of feeling undervalued and exploited. Or they are simply bone-tired. Four out of every five nurses surveyed by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation in July 2020 said that working through the pandemic had an impact on their mental health. Last January, the Psychiatric Nurses Association warned that we were about to see an “imminent exodus of trained and experienced nurses from our mental health services to take up posts [in] Canada and Australia”. Earlier this year, nearly 5,000 people were without a carer due to shortages.

There’s a similar worldwide crisis in childcare workers. As a result, some creches here are no longer taking babies because they don’t have enough staff to meet the required ratios. The direct effect of this is driving more people — inevitably, more women — out of the workforce as they extend their unpaid leave or quit altogether. Others are making heartbreaking decisions not to have more children.

The people who do the essential work of caring and teaching are worn out demanding better conditions

The crunch in these so-called “pink collar” professions is partly the result of what happens when a pandemic careers into a cost-of-living crisis. But it is mostly the inevitable byproduct of a society that has for decades systematically and deliberately undervalued the work of caring and teaching — work still predominantly done by women — while grossly overvaluing the contribution of pampered people who sit behind a screen figuring out more profitable ways to harvest your attention.

We live in what feels like a two-tier society, but that’s an illusion. There is just one society. If we don’t have a functioning health system, if we don’t have teachers, if we don’t have people prepared to look after our children while we work, it doesn’t much matter how good the free snacks in your workplace taste. The people who do the essential work of caring and teaching are worn out demanding better conditions, fairer pay and an equal opportunity to make a life here.

It’s time the rest of the workforce started demanding it for them too.